I’m just preparing for this morning’s session at the International Pinot Noir Conference here in McMinnvilla, Oregon. I have to moderate the grand seminar, which will be repeated again tomorrow, with 400 delegates in each session. Our topic, on the perception of wine and the way we use language to describe it, is potentially quite academic. So the first rule is we shall not bore the audience. With eight speakers and 90 minutes, it’s going to be a tight event, which should help us all focus.
So by way of preparation, I thought I’d compose a blog post. It gathers the mind.
As we taste a wine together, is it a common experience for all of us? The unspoken assumption on the part of the wine trade, sommeliers and wine education bodies is that we do indeed share the same experience. We operate as if the taste of the wine is in the glass; that it is a property of the wine. Is this just a pragmatic assumption, in that it would be difficult for us to operate in any other way (personalized menus in restaurants?), or does it stem from a truly shared experience?
Language is the primary window into the private world of another person’s perception. Of course, we can discern something of another’s inner state by non-verbal cues, but it is language that is the window of perception. This is why the way we speak about wine is so interesting and important.
So we will be looking at the way that we use language to describe wine, and how this use has changed over time, and differs among wine cultures. We will look in different practical contexts: how does a wine critic’s use of language to describe wine differ from that of the sommelier, for example?
Which are the best ways to use language to capture the perception of wine? Should be be using reductionist approaches, breaking wine down into its component parts, or should we aim for more holistic, global language that captures the wine as a whole? Is figurative language better than literal?
To what extent is our common language of wine a learned code? Does wine education give us a vocabulary that we then apply to wine, with a poor correspondence to reality? Should we be looking for new ways to describe wine – fresh approaches with greater correspondence to what is in the glass?
What are the cognitive approaches that we use when we try to describe our experience of wine? And do experts and novices do it in a different way?
Finally, how can we do it better?
On a related subject, see this article on whether wine flavour is an objective property.