I recently was asked to review a book about wine. It’s actually a good one, and I’ll be blogging about it soon. But something on the back cover — which I read after I’d already read through the book and liked it — really stuck in my craw.
There, in big letters, is the challenge:
“THIS BOOK IS FOR YOU IF YOU…”
followed by a list of a list of attributes indicating that you, the discerning reader, are someone who treats wine like any other beverage. Fair enough. “Drink wine but don’t think wine” is cutesy, but makes the point that you don’t have to know everything about wine to enjoy it.
Then I read the third one, which set me off, that you should read this book if you “can’t be bothered with pretentious ‘winespeak.’ ”
There is a lot of purple prose written about wine to be sure, and there’s a lot of specialized vocabulary that goes with it. But the fact is that nearly any activity or hobby has its own specialized vocabulary. Especially sports — yet you don’t get called “pretentious” if you’re an expert on the detailed points of baseball, no matter how arcane. Like the infield fly rule or hitting for the cycle, or expounding on the importance of the ratio of plate appearances to strikeouts.** Why is that?
Or, to put it another way, if you really enjoy something, is it pretentious to learn and use some of the vocabulary that goes with it?
Let’s take one wine word that might seem pretentious if you heard it out of context: bouquet. While you could say “smell” instead, bouquet implies more. The wine probably smells differently on the second sniff than the first, and differently again in a few minutes. How does it feel in your nose? And for many people, smell creates a visual image to go along with the aroma. All of this is part of the bouquet. With one word you conjure up things beyond a smell.
So why is this pretentious? I guess maybe because some people perceive it as a little threatening, like a challenge to find something more than just a pleasant-tasting beverage in a glass of wine.
I’ve thought about it for a few days and here’s what I’ve come up with as to why they might feel that way.
First, we’re talking about something that’s almost totally subjective. Two people might agree that a wine is red, but that might be the only thing they agree on. At the end of a baseball game there’s an objective outcome — the score and the game statistics. And most observers generally agree on the things that might be considered a little subjective, like who played well and who didn’t. But with wine you have not only likes and dislikes, but differences in perception and the intensity of those perceptions. This isn’t to say that there’s not sports writing that emphasizes the more artistic aspects even apart from the sports that are judged that way, but by and large it’s just the facts.
Another issue is that wine is somewhat esoteric for most people, and adding particular words to it may only make it seem more so. Let’s face it, most of us aren’t exposed to wine until we’re well into adulthood. But sports awareness starts right away. Also beer. Even if we don’t drink it as children we see commercials on television and grow up watching others drink it. It’s more ubiquitous, more common, and presents itself that way. While I remember some beer commercials discussing ingredients and craftsmanship, they’re mostly about camaraderie and comfort. That familiarity and comfort means that people who graduate from Bud Light to craft beers later in adulthood don’t seem to mind discussing the arcane points of beer brewing when they wouldn’t necessarily do the same for winemaking.
My last two points are a little touchier.
While there are definitely masculine words used to describe wine (intense, strong, powerful, full-bodied, robust) there are also a lot more words like bouquet, delicate, floral, subtle, pale, elegant, etc. On balance I think wine words lean to the feminine side. Add to this the fact that women drink more wine than men do: According to Gallup’s annual survey of alcohol consumption, women prefer to drink wine over beer and spirits, while men prefer beer over wine and spirits. I think perhaps the feminine association makes some people uncomfortable with wine and wine jargon, whether they realize it or not.
Finally, in addition to wine being perceived as esoteric, it’s also associated — rightly or wrongly — with what might be thought of as elite things, like classical music and travel to exotic places. Maybe it’s because a lot of the words associated with winemaking are foreign (cuvée, batonnage, barrique, domaine, château, and my favorite, terroir) even for U.S. wines. Or that some wine producers go a little too far in describing their wines and the process of making them as a mystical journey. Also, these days upscale restaurants tout their wine lists and sommeliers as enthusiastically as they do their chefs and exotic ingredients, which makes wine seem out of reach or only for special occasions. Or something you definitely need help selecting. My guess is that it all serves to make wine seem out of the ordinary, not for everyday, and not for regular people. Why is it that one of the measures of assessing political candidates’ electability is which one you’d rather have a beer with, not a glass of wine?
I don’t mean to say that the presentation of some wine jargon isn’t pretentious or off-putting. The delivery is as important as what they say. Especially when the deck is stacked against wine jargon from the get-go for all the reasons I’ve listed above and maybe more. Luckily, I find that most of today’s wine writers strive to educate without intimidation. When they use those words they’re not “winespeak,” but meant to convey something specific, and they’re usually well-explained. Whether or not you find it interesting is up to you, but you can’t hold it against them if they use the vernacular.
** Thanks to my sports-loving sister Sue for these examples.
I don’t know how it is where you are, but we’re feeling a little bipolar about the weather here in DC. Two weeks ago we had a huge snowstorm. Then this weekend was warm and prompted the first sightings of shorts and tank tops (as reliable as crocuses). Then we’ve had snow the past two mornings. And now the sun is out.
It all makes me want comfort food, but something with a little zip, and maybe changed a bit with a nod toward eventually wearing those skimpy clothes myself.
A few summers ago I posted a recipe for Salmon a la Veracruzana, which is grilled salmon in a spicy sauce made from tomatoes, pickled jalapeños, green olives, and garlic. The dish can also be made with chicken, which makes it easier, and you can do the whole thing on the stovetop. While it’s traditionally served with rice, I thought lentils would make it more wintery, with their earthy taste. (It also makes the wine pairing easier with our Rhône wines, which have their own earthiness to them.)
The problem with lentils and other legumes is that if you cook them with acidic foods like tomatoes they never soften up. So I figured I’d have to pre-cook the lentils until they were nearly done. The good thing is that gave me time to make the Veracruzana sauce. Then I combined the cooked lentils with the sauce and the chicken — bone-on chicken breasts with the skin removed and let it all bubble away gently for a half hour until the chicken was done.
The wine of choice is Château de Clapier Calligrappe ($12), a wine made from 75% Grenache and 25% Syrah. Medium-bodied, it has some really lush blackberry and black currant flavors, some pepper, and then a nice subtle hit of earthy tobacco at the end. Perfect with the spice of the jalapeño and the lentils.
There, that wasn’t too pretentious, was it? A few well-chosen wine words can give you a lot of information. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch the hockey game — I’m looking to see my first Gordie Howe hat trick.
1 cup French lentils (Lentiles de Puy, the small green ones — they stay intact better, or use brown lentils)
2 large carrots, cut into small dice
1 large onion, cut into small dice
2 tablespoons olive oil
2-1/2 cups water or low-sodium vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon salt
Freshly-ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a Dutch oven. Add the onion, carrot, salt, and pepper and saute for 5 minutes or so, until they soften slightly. Add the lentils and the water or stock and bring to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cover the pot. Cook the lentils for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking to see that the liquid hasn’t all been absorbed (add a little water if you need some).
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and thinly sliced
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 canned pickled jalapeño peppers, stemmed, seeded, and cut into thin slices
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup stuffed green olives, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
4 stems fresh thyme
A pinch each of ground cloves and cinnamon
1 28-ounce can fire roasted diced tomatoes
Put the garlic slices, salt, and the olive oil in a large skillet over low heat. Heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic just starts to turn a light golden color. Raise the heat to medium and add the pickled jalapeños (make sure you don’t have your face right over the pan), stir for 30 seconds, then add the wine. Let the wine cook until it’s virtually gone, then add the rest of the ingredients. Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes until it thickens slightly. Turn off the heat until the lentils are finished.
4 bone-in chicken breast halves, skin removed, and each half cut into two pieces
Add the sauce to the lentils, then tuck the chicken pieces in, making sure they’re completely submerged. Bring the mixture just to the boil, then turn the heat to low, cover the pot, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice. The mixture should have a little liquid but not be soupy. If the chicken’s cooked and it all seems too liquidy, remove the chicken and put it on a plate covered with foil to keep warm, then raise the heat and boil the liquid until it’s reduced a little. Add the chicken back in and serve.