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 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 in 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 thought 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 use of of simile within Vino Endoxa will help drinkers get off the beaten path both via pursuit and avoidance. If a wine fits no known type, you know I’d be itching to try it.bb