Metaphors From the Ground Up

In my last post, Synaesthesia, Non-linguistic Thought, and Minerality?, I spoke often of metaphors without explaining as much as I probably should have (I’m supposed to keep these posts brief because they are my least popular). I mused on grounded cross modal metaphors (think warm & cool colors) and then of once removed metaphors (minerality) and I hope to elaborate on those concepts. This is tricky territory, so just like Marshall McLuhan, I don’t explain—I explore.

I learned of grounded metaphors from George Lakoff’s Metaphors We Live By, which I kept encountering in bibliographies. Lakoff launched a thousand ships and argues very successfully that all language is metaphorical and proceeds to give a pretty spectacular tour. We often get constrained by our metaphors and I’ve since tried to champion the idea in culinary that we need to drop good and bad for the more useful ordinary and extraordinary.

Leon Adams, the director of the Wine Institute, was particularly into semantics after realizing how constrained we were by metaphors and names with congealed symbolism. A lot of the legal work Adams did was to change subtle terms within the law like the promotion of the term table wine and the removal of the term fortified wine. Adams’ vision was paramount to changing the image of wine from a salvage product and skid row beverage of ill repute to something positive associated with culture, wholesomeness and food. Adams’ oral history, Revitalizing the California Wine Industry, is full of amazing semantic anecdotes.

Grounded metaphors are grounded in bodily experience and Lakoff shows how happiness is up. I often refer to grounded cross modal metaphors and this is where one sense is described in terms of another like warm & cool colors or having sweet aromas or bass notes in perfume. Cross modal metaphor constructs get mistaken for synaesthesia, but I argue in the last post that they are merely a case of well elaborated non-linguistic thought.

Happy is up: Sad is down
I’m feeling up. That boosted my spirits. My spirits rose. You’re in high spirits. Thinking about her always gives me a lift. I’m feeling down. I’m depressed. He’s really low these days. I fell into a depression. My spirits sank.
Physical basis: Drooping posture typically goes along with sadness and depression, erect posture with a positive emotional sate.
-George Lakoff & Mark Johnson, 1980, Conceptual Metaphor in Everyday Language

I’m suspecting that the scaler adjective problem is what forces grounded metaphors to get once removed like minerality. If a shape is more complex than round or angular, it is too hard to describe so we gravitate towards something less grounded like an object comparison hence the move towards cobble stones, crushed stones, and the like.

George Lakoff also wrote a wild book called Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things which I read a lot of before it got mind meltingly technical, though I was able to take a lot of useful ideas away from it. Flavor descriptors can get strange and we don’t always know what category someone is intending to put them in. Many people refer to acidic wines, beyond their acquired tastes, as bitter, not because the wine is bitter because they don’t enjoy the dryness and they also don’t enjoy bitter things. Bitterness is a sensation, true, but in this context bitterness just symbolizes negativity. When you do not know category options well enough, these scenarios come up. We may at times see a similar scenario with “lemony”. Lemony is an object comparison, and plenty of things can resemble the aroma of lemons and share chemical compounds, but they can also simply be refreshing which is from the category of affect and not the category of sensation.

I’ve often looked at the smallest increments of things I could dream up. Something discussed on this blog a lot is the idea that art is a form of problem solving and the smallest problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories (If Chuck Close or John Baldessari said that they’d get a standing ovation while in culinary I just generate confused looks). This framework has been invaluable to understanding the decorative in art and understanding culinary’s place in the art world.

Something else small I’ve been pondering is what the smallest increment of symbolism is (and thus the first increment in a life form?). Symbolism is the counterpart to sensation, just like semiology is the counterpart to aesthetics (and phenomenology is the unification of the two). I suspect that the first increment of symbolism is attaching nutritional value to a sensation. This means simple, possibly single celled organisms may have symbolism. This grew into larger chunks and billions of years later we have Roland Barthes Mythologies (which I did not enjoy because he could not explain acquired tastes).

A memory may be when symbolism binds to sensation, be it as simple as nutritional value or danger. The presence of nutritional value may be why flavor perception is so synaesthetic seeming and the co-experiences are so memorably bound. In my theories on wine pairing (contrast enhancement in space and time for food and wine interaction), I also looked at nutritional preference comparisons where contrast can be enhanced by your mind to reveal preference for a sensation. As elemental and insignificant as these tiny symbols seem, they weigh and exert pressure on metaphors we think only refer to sensations.

The mind’s complexity has definitely grown to the point where we have trouble separating symbol from sensation, and the ability of the two to manipulate us created rhetoric. We just don’t have the objective anymore because we have memory. Aromas, specifically, are so completely entwined with symbols (recollections) that they absolutely do not stand alone, but that is probably also the largest contributor to the pleasure of drinking wine so no complaints from me.

As metaphors for aromas get more removed from the round and the angular, like the hotly debated minerality, higher degrees of symbolism creep in. You cannot really describe an olfactory sensation or maybe you can if you state pyrazine, for example, as the chemical compound that provoked it, but that is probably overly simplified. Instead, you can only describe sensations that occurred along side it. Hence somehow you intuitively arrive at roundness. There is a movement by some sommeliers to champion the use of chemical descriptors, but I feel like they are over confident in its usefulness and not fully aware of its limitations. I should probably read more of their writing and think about it more.

Object comparisons are more symbolic than we think and they can become primed vividly in many cases while holding curiously few chemical compounds in common with what is compared. I’ve been drilling red plastic, which has pthalates that smell eerily sweet, and I’ve vividly smelt cherry so real it was almost hyper real. The experience has some mysterious characteristic like enhanced attentional contrast which may some how be the mark of a hallucination. We have a sense of how attention is distributed among the senses and perhaps you can feel an interruption of the normal distribution. That cherry, often even in wine, stands so vividly in place of so much that just isn’t there chemically. It must be noted that it doesn’t happen for everybody because you must have the correct library of recollections to generate it, but in so many cases we do.

Acrid is a funny term and was singled out by Constance Classen’s Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell. I’ve noted before on the blog that it refers to angular aromas and has unique phonetic convergence. Acrid may be rooted in a comparison to the haptic sense. Acrid is often used to describe the sharpest most angular aromas such as acetic acid, ammonia, or bleach. The word saw more common usage in the 18th and 19th centuries and was used to describe sharp but less extreme aromas like ginger, galangal, and cumin. The sensation of the word said aloud has a striking correspondence to the shape of aromas described as acrid.

The phonetics of our word choices are not always arbitrary and even infants have been found to match nonsense sounds to shapes consistently with adults. Euphonic convergence may have been more significant to the dawn of language, but then we quickly developed irony and started naming six foot four nightclub bouncers Tiny. Acrid may be some sort of ancient original word and I wonder if the Chinese have it as well.

Co-experience gets accumulated so mysteriously that I’ve had trouble even pondering the sources. How do we get bass notes to ground olfaction in terms of sound? Maybe there is no co-experience but there is rather just the pursuit of scale. We understand auditory scale fairly easily and possibly use it as a metaphor to explain olfaction in terms of volatility. G. Septimus Piesse was first to try and elaborate olfactory scales in terms of musical notes and his results are startlingly intuitive. 

Olfaction gets dragged in multiple directions because of co-experience and recollection so the scales never become straight forward and often get represented as a constellation or a spider graph.

shackleton spider

Descriptors are now being arranged via new ideas in data science into semantic odor space and the best work is being done in perfume. I bet soon we are going to have tons of new insights in to the dimensionality of odor/flavor space and it will power long thought impossible ideas like a wine recommendation engine that can accurately catalog sensory experiences and make truly useful recommendations. Oh shit, that is my Vino Endoxa project and I’m starting to assemble a team and make significant progress.

Vino Endoxa
Vino Endoxa: The Categories of Affect versus Sensation
Vino Endoxa: Three new categories and Pamela Vandyke Price
Vino Endoxa: Freedom and Confinement
Vino Endoxa: Vino Endoxa is Delectable and then Some
Vino Endoxa: Fine Versus Commodity Distinctions

Synaesthesia, Non-linguistic Thought, and Minerality?

Two great articles just came across my desk that at first don’t seem related, but I suspect very much are. The first comes from the team of Charles Spence (whose work I deeply admire) and is titled Where are all the synaesthetic chefs? The next chronicles the work of Dr. Wendy Parr and is titled Minerality mysteries remain.

These two articles overlap because they are both in the domain of complex issues of perception, but that isn’t the end. My theory is that perceptions of minerality are also in the domain of what many thinkers like Spence are referring to as synaesthesia, but not quite. I diverge, I think that they are wrong in attributing many sensory issues like describing aromas as sweet or acidic to forms of synaesthesia. I think rather that cross modal grounded metaphors (and once removed metaphors like minerality) are pretty standard non-linguistic thought, but I’ll elaborate and tie it all in to the minerality metaphor concept.

In Where are all the synaesthetic chefs?, the authors were trying to link synaesthesia to creativity, specifically in culinary, but not exactly finding it. It didn’t make their bibliography, but I remember reading Van Campen’s The Hidden Sense: Synaesthesia in the Arts and Sciences which looked specifically at the relationship between synaesthesia and creativity. Van Campen’s conclusion was that there is no significant link between synaesthesia and heightened creativity. What I’ve noticed is that there is a significant relationship between memory and synaesthesia. Those that can remember π to thousands of digits are mostly synaesthetes which see colored numbers. Bob Milne, the rag time piano player profiled on Radio Lab, put to use multiple forms of synaesthesia and the building of a mind palace to track four symphonies played in his head at the same time. Milne’s feat is well beyond what scientists have long thought possible with the brain. Milne turns out to be no Mozart and does not even pursue modernity in music. Synaesthesia may just help memory and contrast detection, but that is definitely not all there is to creativity.

Synaesthesia becomes a seductive nth degree situation and it draws attention away from what I think is more important which is examining non-linguistic thought. Chefs, and artists of near every discipline, are not likely to have synaesthesia but highly likely to practice extensive forms of non-linguistic thought which they have slowly elaborated and built up like a muscle.

Non-linguistic thought is best explained by Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Elevated levels of non-linguistic thought are characterized by heightened contrast detection in sensory modalities and increased abilities to wield one’s attentional spotlight. Enhanced abilities typically develop through practice and immersion. When these abilities go beyond what is common to a culture, we often find an artist or artisan.

Co-experience is at the center of non-linguistic thought. First, it might be helpful to hold in mind the warm and cool color metaphors (color in terms of thermoception). We typically only learn this at an intuitive level, but never dive into its theoretical underpinnings of categories, modalities, and co-experience. The binding of sensory modalities is what makes non-linguistic thought resemble synaesthesia. Where they differ is that senses bound by synaesthesia are often arbitrary though the groupings are fully elaborated. Non-linguistic thought on the other hand is bound through co-experience and therefore less likely to be fully elaborated without intense pursuit of it.

In regards to culinary and non-linguistic thought, aromas are likely to be sweet, acidic, and bitter but less likely to be fully elaborated so that they also could be salty or umami (thought some people have definitely gone there!). Synaesthesia on the other hand would be fully elaborated, and other aromas that under non-linguistic thought would have never been experienced alongside gustation would also be arbitrarily assigned gustatory categories.

Understanding and elaborating non-linguistic thought is at the center of my Vino Endoxa project to create a new data mineable descriptive system for wine (that can tackle the scaler adjective problem!). Some aromas can be described in terms of gustation and we can have the olfactory-sweet, olfactory bitter, olfactory-umami, etc. Great thinkers in sensory science have hypothesized that olfactory-gustatory linkage is a form of synaesthesia common to everybody, but I think it is more likely to be a form of non-linguistic thought well elaborated by everybody. So many aromas escape categorization in terms of gustation and it happens quite frequently in wine. Being outside of our typical relied upon categories makes these aromas more attentional, surprising, and an acquired taste, but typically pleasurable.

We find tar, cedar, dust, acridness, and minerality among other common metaphors attached to wine that escape simple gustatory classification. These are metaphors of all sorts of types and the original sources of the object comparisons among them are received alongside all sorts of modalities during co-experience because we are complex multi sensory beings. Covering it all systematically would comprise a large text, but an interesting facet of co-experience to explore is the tasting of shapes which I feel very strongly relates to minerality as a metaphor.

According to the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus, “Sweet” things are “round and large in their atoms,” while “the astringently sour is that which is large in its atoms but rough, angular and not spherical.” Saltiness is caused by “isosceles atoms” while bitterness is “spherical, smooth, scalene and small.” For a long time, I thought what was missing here was the umami and that it had unique irregular shapes whose best metaphors, because they are challenged by the scaler adjective problem (simply round and angular won’t do) is comparison to the complex, often eroded, wabi-sabi, surfaces of stones.

Long ago I had been exploring growing rock candy in bottles of green Chartreuse. Using Chartreuse’ own sugars was just a symbolic thing and also a failed attempt to have the candy absorb flavors from the liqueur. The rock candy, grown on sticks, was a garnish for a Chartreuse heavy cocktail and the drinker was supposed to find the texture and irregular angular surface of the rock candy an apt metaphor for the aroma of green Chartreuse. I never got to present it to a large group, but within my small group, however baited and biased, found sympathies between the comparison.

In the beginning of my theories on tasting shapes, because umami is the fatty acid taste, irregular, eroded, shapes rendered in the mind’s eye, were simply due to volatile fatty acids and their even more volatile esters. This can explain a large percentage of the workings of distillates like the heavier rums, but definitely not everything. Fatty acids and esters simply provide shapes, but so does everything. Wine is pretty much composed of everything and minerality is likely a collage that cannot be pinned down to an easy chemical pattern.

Something else composed of everything is the aromatized wine, vermouth. The best dry examples can conjur a sensation very much within the broad category of minerality which simply means they are complex and beyond language. Vermouths are composed of ingredients that should be able to be categorized within gustation and the culinary relevant chemical senses, but their collage like nature results in confusion. They best exemplify the scaler adjective problem therefore grounded metaphors (one sense in terms of another) just won’t do and we intuitively invent next layer once removed metaphors hence we start to get crushed stones, dusty earth, and wet cobble stones. A lot of people hate these metaphors, but they are completely within the mechanisms of non-linguistic thought.

We even often move to categories of affect like “refreshing” where higher levels of symbolic value are added. Affect can often be really confusing. When we see lemon as a tasting note, it is not always as the sensatio best compared to lemon but rather often the affect of lemon which is refreshing. We fling these context confused tasting notes so effortlessly, but when we receive them there is frustration.

Wine differs from vermouth because the source of its facets and complexity are more head scratching. Vermouth comes from sources that are relatively easy to relate to while wine comes from soil and countless subtle abstract oenological decisions.

In Minerality mysteries remain, Parr makes one very interesting hypothesis. “Only one of our specific hyphotheses was supported by the current data, namely a positive association between perceived minerality and lack of perceived flavour,” says Dr Parr. “In the absence of other flavours, it appears that wine is more likely to be referred to as mineral.” So the denser the wine, according to the study, the less likely to be described as mineral. Making a wine dense is often the choice of the wine maker and whatever accumulates later in the season as grapes ripen may overshadow and dominate minerality for attention.

Perhaps to narrow the search, we should not be looking at what contributes to minerality chemically, but rather at what overshadows it. Randall Grahm, the very progressive wine maker (and a hero of mine), is noted for observing that wines containing minerality (figuratively) live longer and resist oxidation better and hence he strongly associates minerality with life force in wine. What constitutes minerality may not help a wine live so much as what constitutes density may be a liability and decay creating further overshadowing character of increasingly ordinary and negative symbolic value.

Among thinkers like Randall Grahm, density is ordinary and not site specific, while leanness, which reveals minerality (and is often an acquired taste), produces singular site specific expressions that are extraordinary and this is a way of restating the terroir concept. It also sounds very much like ideas I just proposed for gin production.

In a look at contrast enhancement through terpene removal, I used agar clarified limes to show how removing ordinary terpenes can enhance contrast, extract features, and promote the extraordinary. It is not well articulated in the literature, but perfumers extensively use terpene removal and doing it with extreme precision is the secret of the big gin brands. Distillers make cuts in gin to remove highly attentional ordinary terpenes, common across many botanicals, and in turn to also promote singular defining aspects of a specific botanical. The ordinary often cast sensory shadows and simple experiments like exploring lime juice shows how significant they are and how little we know about it all.

Consensus may work to validate the idea that minerality in wine is a metaphorical product of tasting shapes related to non-linguistic thought (and not synaesthesia), but it will never diminish the mystery or life force in wine. We may be able to model it crudely on a perceptual level, which will help with my Vino Endoxa project, but we will never be able to find significant patterns on a chemical level. If we ever do fully explain it, I suspect all that will happen is that we find that there are no short cuts to generating it, only hard work and that will only reinforce its value within wine culture.

Creativity in the arts is the same way. Non-linguistic thought is hard won and some can push it far enough to resemble synaesthesia, confusing some researchers. The deep processes, exercises, and hard work that generate sensory linkages through learning to wield attention and empathize with co-experience also produce “creativity”. There rarely are any short cuts like some are looking for with synaesthesia. The metaphors we generate as crude translations of non-linguistic thought are merely byproducts of pursuing creativity.

Vino Endoxa is delectable and then some

I haven’t written a Vino Endoxa post in a while though I’ve been privately working on one of its related projects which might really excite some people (still a secret). Last week I read an article in the New York Times and was motivated to spend more Endoxa time. The article that caught my eye was on the increasing popularity of the wine app Delectable. I haven’t followed the wine app space too closely and instead choose to have it filtered through my restaurant regulars. So I only check them out if they tell me about them, though no one has mentioned Delectable. I guess its not exactly mainstream yet.

Delectable has been attracting serious attention. They were able to raise three million in series A financing according to Tech Crunch. The money, according to the founder, is to tackle the large challenges I’ve described before. “Building the data set of every wine and ensuring highly accurate label recognition are just the beginning of enormous challenges we are addressing. This round of funding enables us to continue building the most talented team of engineers to ever work in this space.”

They are headed in the direction I want to be, but do they have any real vision? Do they know what is possible? It is hard to say from their various PRs. The app as it stands is very limited and I see its functionality being casually duplicated by google unless they can carve out more of a niche. One thing PRs mention is curated content from sommeliers. This can be great, but one problem is that sommeliers don’t always recognize quality for purpose or the polarized tastes of drinkers. Somms just don’t seem to understand commodity wines which are the bulk of market and are of staggering economic significance. An app just can’t focus on the top 1% of all wine. I also suspect some of the best content will arise organically from amateur super fans who want to support their beloved wines. A trick to engaging the super fan, I still feel, is gamification. Are you the mayor of Borolo? Trading content for the bragging rights of mayorship is key.

Something unique that supports my original premise is how valuable something as simple as location data can be. Are Orange wines that we keep reading about really a thing? Oh wow, they are, and they are truly drinking them in every major city. Oh they’re not and it doesn’t look they like they’re getting out of Williamsburg Brooklyn. This data alone can be worth the price of a modest subscription for a producer, and there are countless producers. Previous consumption data hasn’t been that reliable and wine writers have likely started trends rather than reporting on trends that were emerging organically. The entire nature of wine trends could possibly shift if an app hit critical mass.

Back to getting the data. One of the most powerful methods of getting the data is creating a tool that is useful to importers, distributors, and sales teams themselves. They see the wines first and many of these players are juggling over 20,000 skus (And often drowning in 20,000 skus). Simple input by one member of that group can benefit hundreds of super user employees within a single firm.

Many of my sales reps are specialists and only intimately know certain chunks of all their offerings (life is short and the art is long). They often don’t know what something in the catalog is like. When this happens they typically just offer to pull a sample and taste you on it. If more was known about the wines through reliable new description systems I’ve been positing, sampling costs could decrease significantly. The amount of savings could allow money for subscription costs and every incentive to input wines complete with descriptions by multiple professionals.

Business Insider noted how Delectable is built on a technology used to fight terrorism. In my previous Vino Endoxa posts, I claimed my technologies would be built on boundary pushing research used to data mine the phenomenology of perfumes. Perfume firms are large enough to conduct types of research wine firms cannot, but luckily they focus on similar types of problems. The latest and greatest ideas in perfumology are the secret to advancing wine.

The app space is getting interesting and I can’t wait to follow the progress. Who knows maybe I’ll give up distilling and join a wine startup?

Vino Endoxa
Vino Endoxa: The Categories of Affect versus Sensation
Vino Endoxa: Three new categories and Pamela Vandyke Price
Vino Endoxa: Freedom and Confinement

Vino Endoxa: Freedom & Confinement

[This post is tied to my earlier works where I’m developing next generation tasting notation ideas and a wine recommendation engine. You need to write this kind of junk to organize your thoughts so you can push forwards.]
Vino Endoxa
Vino Endoxa: The Categories of Affect versus Sensation
Vino Endoxa: Three New Categories and Pamela VanDyke Price

For my next generation wine tasting description system (and recommendation engine) I thought I should take the time to explore both the freedom the system affords and the possible confinement people might use to condemn it. I sort of see the system easily being adopted by amateurs eager to learn but likely receiving an uphill battle swaying professionals because of any totality they assume it comes with. The system is comprehensive and does push boundaries, especially in recognizing non language and aroma illusions, but there certainly is no totality.

The teaching aid that is the Wine Aroma Wheel has achieved wide acclaim and its success points to a warm reception from any attempted system that can teach someone to better detect contrast and keep track of experiences. Vino Endoxa is in effect an extension of the wheel. It investigates the deeper theories of why the Aroma Wheel is so successful and tries to build on them. The aroma wheel is definitely confining because its so finite, but it is also only a starting point. Vino Endoxa is also a starting point but one that can be taken further from amateur all the way to professional use where it can be used in the wine industry to better keep track of the world of wine (so many merchants juggle 20,000 skus).

To be liberating, relative to the confines of other ideas out there, Vino Endoxa intends to articulate and expand upon the way people already think, especially when using non language, which often ends up being private, so that others can learn and benefit from these powerful contrast detection mechanisms that do not make it into most tasting notes or courses on wine.

Olfactory illusions have become an increasingly popular search term (according to my blog analytics) and they will always put a limit on describing an experience. When we taste a wine and try to describe it, we are not only describing the wine but also in large part describing our own very personal recollections. This doesn’t mean we should throw our hands in the air and say everyone tastes differently then give up. We all do have unique realities, but patterns exist within the bounds of our subjectivity that can make tasting descriptions valuable, data mineable, and capable of providing recommendations.

From my vantage point in the industry, wine professionals are likely to resist massive amounts of change that might alter their role in the industry. Could Vino Endoxa change the role and productivity of the wine professional? Maybe, but hopefully for every professional that resists or dismisses the project there is another that sees an exciting new tool that can increase their productivity and ability to represent more wines. At the heart of Vino Endoxa is the same core goals of so many wine professionals and thus can be a large asset to them.

Through providing recommendations and recognizing acquired tastes in wine, Vino Endoxa can promote and preserve diversity in the wine world. Diversity has been considered at risk for years as evidence by discussions of the Parker Effect, the loss of many indigenous varietal plantings, and the proliferation of low risk manipulated wine styles. Wine marketing has not been able to handle the long tale economics of a diverse wine world or the polarized tastes of wine drinkers. Uniting the right wine with the right person has so far been elusive but that could change with new tools.

One very liberating thing data can do is provide a memory that can help capture the journey, growth, and development of a drinker’s palette. This journey is too easily forgotten and taken for granted but shepherding it to cultivate taste and create a market for diverse, authentic wine styles is at the heart of most all wine professional’s mission.

Applying heavy amounts of data where there wasn’t much reeks of attempts at totality, the inevitability engine, or stripping the romance out of wine but that isn’t the case here. We only reach endoxa by degrees. The recommendations never get guaranteed, they only get better by degrees and eventually improve to a point where there is enough satisfaction to continue seeking them out.

The mystery of wine never unravels. Rather, we only corral and encircle the mystery, rounding up more and more of it to be enchanted by. Not everyone recognizes the therapeutic mystery of wine. Too many people simply drink wine for inebriation or low level relaxation. Exposure to new styles by recommendation or exposure to recognizable styles, but from never before experienced locals, may seduce more and more people with the mystery & romance of wine.

A recommendation engine does not want to create predictability in wine. There is a subset of potential user that will say: “I like these wines and they are all similar, please recommend for me a wine from this country I will also like.” That type of query is looking for predictability but its not a bad type because we did get them to explore a new region and they found they can enjoy wines from all over the world. Or another subset will say: “I like outliers and I can handle a lot, please recommend a new adventure for me.” All that we are predicting is that the wine will be an outlier with uniqueness and singularity. But again, no forces acted to homogenize the world of wine. It could be said that the wines were liberated to be themselves and just matched to the right people at the right time in the cultivation of their tastes.

One big limiter of the world of wine as we know it is the language problem. Countries like Greece and Slovenia make comfortable wines and exciting singular wines, the entire spectrum, but they lose out in the American market because of the language on their labels. If wine makers pander, tradition and integrity is sacrificed, but systems like Vino Endoxa can help us conquer exploring wines across the language barrier. When exploring new territory, no one needs a high degree of predictability but enough to avoid a sweet wine when you want an dry wine or an unoaked wine when oak isn’t your thing.

Vino Endoxa needs a collection of minds to advance itself from masters of wine to cognitive linguists to data scientists. Hopefully I paint a picture of a comprehensive but liberating project attractive and useful to great thinkers that love wine. The financial rewards for such a project are also very great and I should probably leave it at that.

Vino Endoxa®: Three new categories and Pamela Vandyke Price

In Adrienne Lehrer’s Wine and Conversation I discovered the incredible writings of Pamela Vandyke Price and was inspired to pick up her book The Taste of Wine (1975). Not many people give older wine books a thought, but I’ve had a lot of fun reading the editions of Anthony Hogg’s Wine Mine of the same era so I gave it a chance.

Vandyke Price was one of the first women to break into the wine world and in quite a major way. The torch was pretty much passed to her from legendary wine merchants Allan Sichel and André Simon. In busting the chauvinistic barriers of the industry she imbued her ideas with an egalitarian anti-pretentious slant that opens up the world of wine to new drinkers. It is not too easy to recognize this from the great place we currently stand but when you look at other literature, both before and after, it becomes recognizable. Another big achievement of Vandyke Price that was picked up by Lehrer was the language that she used. PVP collected, created, and popularized a lot of the modern tasting language in place today. This might all have been due to her not fitting into the good ol’ boys club and needing to carve out her own niche, but it has endured.

As a person that has read a lot of wine books, I whole heartedly recommend The Taste of Wine and think it could be a valuable part of any education, especially within a restaurant program, and especially because used copies are virtually free on Amazon. If anyone really wants to tests the skills and articulation of PVP, flip immediately to her sublime writings on vermouth and the other fortified wine and you’ll immediately have complete confidence. Her writing is pretty much timeless.

Vandyke Price is a having a large influence on the Vino Endoxa project. Three major categories for wine language she proposes are language that explains what the wine is (dry, medium dry, sparkling, red, wine, etc.), language that details its attributes, and language that will tell you what the wine is like.

The first category is pretty straight forward and can resemble many things we read off a restaurant wine list or a label such as 2011 Sangiovese, Fattoria Colsanto “Ruris” (Umbria) $40 [restaurant list price]. The vintage and the region can possibly tell us many things to expect. Was it a hot or cool year in that region or not? Off hand most people don’t remember that information but it can be looked up and a centralized hub of wine information like Vino Endoxa can remember those details easily. Many other things are implied like the wine in question is dry and un-carbonated unlike other curve balls such as the Lambruscos of the world. Encountering that rare sparkling red can be implied at the last minute by the shape of the bottle or the enclosure.

Before I continue with the other categories, I should note the relationship of price to the categories which unfortunately is far from straight forward, but it an ideal world should work as follows. As you pay more, a wine should have more definition (a PVP word). This parallels the terroir concept and also relates to risk. Ideally the more expensive the wine, the more it says where it comes from and reflects the year and the site and the ownership. Risk taking and involvement reveals this. Definition and terroir also relate to the concept of the extraordinary and the ordinary. Also to flaws which are regrets and missed opportunities. Deep involvement in the wine making process systematically explores the options so that a wine can be its most extraordinary for its budget class. Flaws are systematically eradicated so that there are no missed opportunities and this has a strong partnership with science.

Where price does not become straight forward, is when stuff like new oak gets involved. The use of new oak is very expensive and has a propensity to overshadow singularity and extraordinary character in a wine, making it taste like it came from relatively anywhere. The wines become more ordinary (frequency of occurrence of sensory attributes) despite the rise in price due to both expense and a willingness of certain market segments to pay. I surmised in the past, after hearing the lecture of Maynard Amerine, that the chicken that came before the egg was that new barrels were so much easier to take care of as opposed to the skill and attention necessary for re-used barrels that this shortcut led to the new barrel fad which really grew wings when it aligned with consumer tastes. Multiple similar phenomenons obfuscate the relationship between price and definition in the wine world.

The sensory attributes category is the one that Vino Endoxa has be striving to advance the most. This is the realm of metaphor. The acidity is sharp, it has a particular acuteness. There is a roundness overall. The fruit expression exists in a space between rhubarb and raspberry. If aromas can be sweet (olfactory-sweetness due to sensory convergence and non-linguistic contrast detection), they can also be olfactory-bitter and olfactory-umami. Rare aromas in wine, without clear convergence, often described as barnyard, earthy or sensual, might best be described by effect rather than sensation which was touched upon in the last post. Sensual leads into the erogenous which is a common category in perfumology.

“A plane is a fragment of the architecture of space” (Hans Hoffman) and the language of sensory attributes is the nitty grittiest and probably has the most to gain from going post language by using hypertext controls. To differentiate experiences (and data mine that), we need a scale. Linguists recognize scaler adjectives, but for most sensory experiences common linguistic scales are not graduated well enough and have little consensus or endoxa. Will any of my hyper text endoxa ideas work and create a higher degree of useful consensus? Who knows at this point!

The last category of language used by PVP conveyed what a wine was like. It might be fair to say this is the realm of simile and possibly the realm of useful, artful, oversimplification. That Sangiovese from Umbria, described above, is a like a Bordeaux as opposed to like a Burgundy or like a Chianti. A lot of complex hard to articulate facets are summed up with single words. When you speak the same language this works really well and helps people explore beyond the beaten path. When you don’t, things get tricky.

In hip restaurants these days we don’t serve Sauvignon Blanc by the glass and simile helps make this somewhat possible. When I compare a Vermentino to a Sauvignon Blanc I have a generation of older drinkers that understand the simile and an emerging generation of servers who do not because life is short and the art is long and they’ve never had enough S. Blanc to develop a gestalt to exploit. In numerous texts for new wine drinkers, there is often advice to experience these definitive types.

Just like new oak messing with prices, the rise of a meaningful simile like Claret, Burgundy, or Chablis comes with its corruption. Jug wine producers are quick to swoop in and market a wine with a simile, such as the Peter Velha Chablis (not from Chablis) which undermines the comparison. This happens all over the wine map such as with Muscadet, or Lambrusco. There was a time where too many Americans though Riesling implied sweetness and the wine world spent considerable effort educating this public that it was also often dry and well worth knowing about.

These similes can also be strung to together to create something like a scale or rather just a set of options. The Chablis, Mersaults and Montrachets have definition and identity, but when we come across a Chardonnay being made in Italy or California where do we put it? Lageder, in Italy, can make numerous Chardonnays and one might be closest to Chablis because of the freshness while another could aspire to be more like a Mersault. California Chardonnays could develop enough consensus of style that they warrant their own use as a simile (often synonymous with butter and new oak) but then one could buck the trend and we’d be quickest to compare it to a French appellation.

For a wine recommendation engine, it is useful to consider similes, but how should they be handled?. For the type of drinker I am, I want to know if a California Chardonnay is like its prototypical type. If it is I want to avoid it, but if it isn’t I want to give it a go and be a patron of the region. Or the recommendation could just be straight forward. Maybe someone just likes prototypical California Chardonnays but they want to be a patron of another region and see if there are any wines of the same prototype out there in their price range that maybe they should try.

If there is a consensus of similes I can get a recommendation easily, but how do I test consensus? Does a user pass a test where they associate types with salient sensory values? Do they prove they’ve experienced these types? Are they a super user or one that has participated enough with the system? I suspect a game might be the best way to explore these language categories.

Should the Chablis type simile be handled carefully? I suspect yes. The world of wine faces homogenization and the loss of styles. The power of conveying meaning with the simile may prevent a vineyard from ripping up Vermentino and planting S. Blanc because its more marketable to Americans but on the other hand it risks suppressing the pursuit of individuality or the exploration of new techniques. Hopefully there use in Vino Endoxa will help drinkers get off the beaten path both via there use and there avoidance. If a wine fits no known type, you know I’d be itching to try it.