The Difficulty of Writing Smells

Serena Sutcliffe, on Penfolds Grange (a famous Australian wine):

The 1960 showed the great drive of peppery Shiraz, with orange, coffee and peppermint, all of which are Grange signatures. We had the usual discussion as to whether the 1962 or 1963 was ‘better’, but it is a pointless exercise as they are both show-stoppers. I found the melting aniseed of the 1965 seductive, the liquorice-filled 1966 a mite drier, the plumy 1967 redolent of candied tomatoes, the stellar 1971 all black truffles, the 1975 reminiscent of peaty tobacco, the 1976 full of mint and bitter chocolate and the 1978 evocative of Cuban tobacco and log fire.

Ordinarily I don’t pay much attention to wine writing, but I think what Sutcliffe writes here is kind of wonderful (even though, to readers who don’t encounter much “wine writing,” it may appear stuffy in quite the ordinary way).

Rather than simply describing what a wine tastes like—a practice I think is kind of inherently ridiculous—she talks about what the wine evokes. And she manages to avoid some of the most hackneyed terms and phrases. Wine writing at its worst is really something that deserves to be place in quotations, as I did above. Most of what you find when you search for a wine looks like this. The descriptions hardly vary, like a checklist of regulated qualities: “cigar,” “earth,” “leather,” etc. Slightly more literate, but not an ounce more alluring or useful, are examples like this: again, “spices,” “earth,” “stones.”

These descriptions utterly fail to say anything about the wine; there is nothing about what makes one wine different from another, save for vague flavor profiles. If wine A, at $20, contains “cigar-y earthiness,” and wine B, at $400, also contains those qualities, why would anyone buy the second? Really, why would it cost more at all? But wine isn’t just about what the stuff tastes like—not only, that is. Good wine possesses a remarkable power to create emotion. Same as a good book, or movie. There’s no specific quality, or set of qualities, that makes it good, just as there are no specific qualities that make a film good. The only measure of quality is that capacity to elicit feeling. And if you think wine can be expensive, think about art.

Ms. Sutcliffe’s paragraph creates a more richly varied texture to the language of wine, and I am impressed by that. She acknowledges that the wines are “redolent of,” or “reminiscent of.” This is a far cry from claiming to actually detect those flavors, and the difference is very important. Rather than haphazardly grouping wines together based on their supposedly shared qualities of “earth,” she describes the experience that she herself is having. That interaction between the drinker’s mind and the wine is what creates meaning. The same with literature, the same with film.

Some take it much further, and to a more enlightening extent. Alder Yarrow, of Vinography.com, practices a style of journalism that sometimes allows me to take away the quotation marks around ‘wine writing.’ In his article “Wine Will Never Smell the Same Again: Luca Turin and the Science of Scent,” he explores the human physiology of smell. While that aspect of wine writing interests me quite a lot less (since those with a physiological bent often just seem to be seeking empirical support for their personal experiences), I understand what he’s doing. In directing attention away from simply describing tastes and smells, he presents a new perspective on wine, and the brain, and experience, without forcing us to come to any firm conclusions about any of it. We think about wine more, and that new, enriched context makes each sip mean more.

I remember tasting a sweet wine from 1959 and thinking, JFK was alive when these grapes were on the vine. Obama hadn’t been born yet. We’d never been to space. And in all that time, between those days and today, this bottle was sitting, uncorrupted, aging. And all of that, for this moment, for this taste in my mouth as I stand in a hazy, sweaty kitchen late at night in New York City, in 2009. Holy fuck! 2009?! [looking around frantically] Where am I?! In wine, like poetry and art, what ultimately matters is the power of the subjective experience. To deny that would be to erase what is special about it, what makes it sought after.

It’s unfortunate that in ‘The Science of Scent’ he ends up heaping praise on Luca Turin, a guy who clearly embodies everything I don’t like about wine writing. If you read his passages in Yarrow’s article, you’ll see a perfect example of how smug and precious it can be: ” ‘The ’59, in a bottle for forty years, comes out the way James Bond emerges from a wet suit in a perfect tuxedo. It looks at you and murmurs, ‘What kept you?’ ” A perfect example of something I never want to hear or read again.

From Yarrow’s articles on trying to understand why exactly this particular type of rotten grape juice holds so much magic for him, to his review of Patz & Hall Winery (which pretty much only presents the story of the winery, and saves tasting notes for the very end), he largely embodies a new style of wine writing, in which the magic and mystery of experience are paramount; in which curiosity is valuable and open-ended; in which the strict ontological traits of a glass of wine are less important than, for lack of better words, what actually makes it important.

More on this later, and hopefully some great and illuminating stories about the history of wine that will make you thirsty.

3 responses to “The Difficulty of Writing Smells

  1. This has elicited a distinct thirst in my mouth and in my mind, which, in turn, will compel me to imbibe more meaningfully and pleasurably this weekend than ever before. Thank you, Mr. Feinstein.

  2. Mr. Feinstein, thank you for your fantastic essay on a topic that I’ve found myself mulling over and over for the past few years. You’ve very eloquently grasped your fingers around the problem I’ve been struggling to identify.

    Astrophysicists are prone to using an aloof prose style similar to that of the wine critics you discuss. As professional journal articles are the general public’s only contact with either astrophysicists or wine critics, it is not surprising that the mere mention of either profession connotes onto the palette an arrogant aroma of ennui and leaves a subtly seething aftertaste of smug superiority. In other words, they seem like dispassionate jerk-offs who can’t possibly be bothered to explain to YOU, the reader, why the hell what they are droning on about has any relevance at all. Even if astrophysicists and wine critics are neither the first nor the only literary masturbators (music critics, I’m looking at you!), they are, however, some of the most unforgivable. We reply on wine critics to help us make informed decisions about fairly expensive (and you could argue, potentially overly indulgent) investments. As you correctly pointed out, wine, as much as art, is culturally (objectively) important but only because it is personally (subjectively) meaningful. Similarly, we reply on the specialized expertise of scientists (whose salaries and educations we pay for with our tax dollars) to help us understand the importance of recent developments in their research. Which scientific development we, as a culture, find important relies highly upon the literary skill of the scientist to relay the meaningfulness of their discoveries to individuals.

    I agree with you that the most effective way for wine critics to elucidate that meaning to the reader (so the reader can then decide for themselves if one bottle of Merlot is worth the money they might spend on it) is to be humble enough to reveal the meaning it has for the writer personally. This is why you will never catch me bashing Roger Ebert. Thumbs up or thumbs down: I get it, thanks for the information and the humanely restrained (but not condescendingly omitted) use of words like “chiaroscuro”. Why is it that so many scientists and wine critics alike avoid this sort of honesty? To me, that style of writing has the distinct reek of avoidance at best: “Why should I tell THEM how I feel about it?”, and flagrant arrogance at worst: “They would never understand; I am nothing like them.”

    On that note, I leave you with this: http://www.ehow.com/how_2074882_become-wine-critic.html

  3. Would love for you to check out my blog and comment on the style!

    Best,
    Iron Chevsky.

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