The Poetry of the Wine Review

wineandpoetryWhat’s wrong with a little poetry with your wine review; a little metaphor in your wine rating?

Hopefully, nothing.

Is there any form of product review or critique of art that comes closer to poetry than the traditional wine review. I don’t think so. And I was struck by this revelation (one that should have occurred to me long ago) yesterday while listening to an interview with and TED Talk by former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins in which “the creative process” was the primary topic.

Collins doesn’t speak directly to it, but poetry, as well as prose, hinges on the very difficult to pin down idea of “inspiration”, a commodity that can come and go, be found in nearly any situation and is linked directly to an artist or writer’s frame of mind.

The wine review as it is traditionally written today tends to be around 75 to 100 words. The wine review is inspired by the reviewer’s frame of mind and, importantly, by the wine upon which they are focusing their attention. But more importantly, consider the kind of prose that result from this process:

Awesome aromatics
Quintessential elegance married
Unbridled density of fruit,
Flawless and seamless concoction
Full-bodied power
Elegance and purity.

This is a Robert Parker review of the 2010 Chateau La Violette. I’ve removed a few words and re-organized the review into what would be a familiar poetic construction. Why is this not poetry? Why do the metaphors and the lavish and pointed description not qualify as poetry?

Interestingly, this review of the 2010 La Violette was also a point of criticism of Mr. Parker by Geordie Clarke at 12× in which it is noted that “Parker has a habit of writing in confusing language full of metaphors and platitudes.”

Now, I’d argue that anyone who is confused by this description of the 2010 La Violette probably ought to back away for a moment and ask just how literal a subjective description of wine needs to be in order for it to appropriately reflect the impression it left on a drinker. But this is beside the point.

The criticisms of wine reviews, with their metaphors, platitudes and confusing language has never struck me as altogether legitimate or meaningful. A review of wine is merely one person’s impression and impression can be expressed in so many ways. Why not poetic?

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4 Responses

  1. Todd - VT Wine Media - March 13, 2013

    I could not agree more…
    The tasting notes I take are more like free verse, and have to be reinterpreted after I’ve finished. Two years ago just after the big earthquake in Japan, we participated in a Wine Blogging Wednesday #72 dedicated to Saké and to support of the ancient industry that suffered severe damage in places. Reviewing the saké seemed inappropriate, so I did a haiku for each instead. Recently, I added a small bit at the end of a personal post I did for the NY Cork Report.
    I’d certainly like to try doing more, and would welcome the chance to read more by other folks.

  2. Bob Henry (Los Angeles wine industry professional) - March 18, 2013

    From The Wall Street Journal “Personal Journal” Section
    (March 14, 2013, Page D4):

    “Lost in Translation: The Lingo for Tasting Wine”


    By Jason Chow
    Staff Reporter

    Alan Zhang, a 23-year-old chemistry student in Beijing, has never tasted a blackberry or raspberry in his life. So when he attends wine class, he’s often at a loss when the teacher explains how a particular wine tastes.

    “I’ve never even seen many of these fruits that wine people use to describe flavors,” said the native of Shandong province, adding that most wine descriptions are often translated directly from English. “I don’t know what a passion fruit is.”

    China has now ballooned to the world’s fifth-largest consumer — and sixth-largest producer — of wine, according to a recent study by International Wine and Spirits Research, which quantifies the global alcohol market. But the wine industry in China is still confused over how best to describe the product it’s trying to sell.

    Translating wine attributes from English to Chinese is a painstaking task, says John Abbott, editor of Decanter magazine’s website, which launched a Chinese-language version in September. Mr. Abbott says he and his Chinese translators got into a two-hour argument over the word “savory,” a term often used to describe wines like those from the Rhone Valley or well-aged Bordeaux, since the former has hints of olive and herbs, while the latter is often written about with words like “leathery” and “meaty.”

    “They kept saying, ‘If it’s not sweet, it’s automatically salty,'” he recalled. “But we said, ‘No.’ We dug out translations from other people and saw nobody really got over this barrier. What is not-sweet and not-salty? There isn’t a term for that in Chinese.”

    Simon Tam, head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house, says his team has stopped translating the tasting notes written by the firm’s London and New York experts, which are filled with references to European fruits and flowers not commonly available in Asia, like black currant, raspberry and cranberry. “If I were to say to a Chinese person that this Pinot Noir has gooseberry notes, it doesn’t make any sense to him,” he says.

    Instead of the typical English vocabulary of flavors, Mr. Tam uses words like “dang gui,” a traditional Chinese medicinal herb, to describe the earthy aromas of a well-aged Bordeaux, or “dried red dates,” another common ingredient in soups, for a slightly younger one. Fermented cabbage and lychees are other words commonly used in tasting notes.

    Flavors aren’t the only points of confusion. Chinese wine experts can’t even agree on the names of grape varietals, or individual grape types.

    Beijing-based wine educator Fongyee Walker recently attended a conference in New Zealand with six Chinese oenological experts, but instead of discussing the local wines, the group quickly split into factions arguing over the correct way to translate “Merlot” into Mandarin.

    There are at least four different ways: In one, the character for the first syllable is pronounced “mei” and means “beautiful.” In another, it is also pronounced “mei,” but means “plum.”

    “It was a 20-minute argument over which was the right translation,” said the British-born Ms. Walker, who holds a doctoral degree in Chinese literature from Cambridge University and is currently working on a Mandarin translation of a textbook for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, one of the world’s largest wine-education organizations. The Chinese Society of Viticulturists has created its own list of terms, though they’re still not yet widely adopted across the country.

    The fragmented Chinese wine industry complicates matters. There are thousands of small importers across the country, often importing the same wines. One may trademark the translation of one wine, forcing others to use an entirely different translation.

    Decanter’s Mr. Abbott said translations can become “political issues” within China’s wine community. “There is no such thing as an official wine dictionary in China,” he said. “We’re trying to move it toward a consensus.”

    The disagreements can get public when they involve the names of distinguished wine producers. Christie’s attempted to standardize the Chinese names of grand cru Bordeaux wineries, the 62 most prestigious (and expensive) vineyards of the storied region, unveiling a poster that matched each one with a given Chinese name.

    The châteaux themselves rejected it, calling for a boycott of the poster, saying that the individual vineyards didn’t approve of the translated names.

    Back in Beijing, consumers like Mr. Zhang are still stuck on what wine experts mean when they say there is a hint of dark plums. For people like him, Ms. Walker says the common supermarket can sometimes be the best place to teach Chinese taste buds.

    “I thank God when there is a new juice or yogurt flavor that just comes out,” she said. “That means there is a new reference for people.”


    Many Western wine flavors make no sense to the Chinese, says Christie’s Simon Tam.

    “You Say Cherries, I Say Chiuchow Master Stock”

    How do you describe flavors that are geographically and culturally foreign? Below, two separate sets of tasting notes for a bottle of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Grands-Echezeaux 2002 by Simon Tam, right, head of wine in China at Christie’s auction house. One write-up is for a Western audience, the other, for a Chinese one.

    Tasting Notes in English

    There are sweet, pure and classic pinot fruit aromas enhanced by subtle nuances of floral flower notes, damp earth, crushed cherries and fleshy raspberry, even a hint of aged game meat. The palate is muscular and reserved but somewhat backward. It is a very concentrated wine, but will need time to bring out its best.

    Tasting Notes, Chinese translation

    There are fragrant aromas of dates, Chinese herbal medicine and Chiuchow master stock [an aromatic, heavily flavored soy-based liquid used to poach meats], enhanced by sweet, fruity and lasting tastes, with even a hint of the sweetness of dang gui [a traditional Chinese herbal medicine]. This can be drunk now for its fruity flavor, or aged for another 20-30 years. Best to pair with crispy barbecue pork.

  3. The Poetry of the Wine Review | VineCentral - March 25, 2013

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