Monday, September 28, 2009

The Fruit Game

Several years ago, I asked a client to submit characteristics I could translate into tasting notes for his wine’s product information sheet. He wrote: “Our judicious infusion of new oak allows our fruit forward style to shine while softening the wine and not masking the taste”.

His description was very solid by anyone’s standards, but I requested greater detail about the nose and flavor components because that is what I believed the trade needed and wanted at the time. He laughed and said: “Oh, you want to play The Fruit Game.” He graciously obliged, so the final version contained his words verbatim with the addition of “strawberry, mint and an ultra-clean finish of berry and spice”.

The client was Winemaker Bruce Snyder of Camellia Cellars, and I think of his witty response every time I read farfetched tasting notes or hear impromptu, purported wine reviews at events. I do not challenge rational documentation, but I question the wisdom of trying to impress others with an inordinate amount of detail about how many different scents and flavors one can perceive.

Who has time to read this stuff, do the respective publics even care, and why are some wine professionals so hell-bent on speaking in code? Whether it is PR hacks generating marketing collateral or critics writing for the public, many insiders are overly analytical in their quest to describe wine with originality, and the wine industry is ill served by such faux sophistication.

I also believe some enophiles play The Fruit Game to project their superiority over inexperienced tasters with hints of contempt on the lingering finish: “My palate is so damned refined I can perceive complexity beyond the realm of impotent taste buds.” If one has to wear a “good wine palate” on their sleeve to establish a sense of self, then they need help beyond the scope of this forum.

The wine industry is suffering from an identity crisis because its most prominent voices are trying to keep the masses in check with a hegemony of hocus-pocus wine speak. That is certainly not the best plan for making friends and influencing people. This may come as a surprise to the wine elite, but customers alienated by pomp are going to seek a niche where they feel welcome. If unpretentious social networking is the modern wine marketers' answer to reaching new customers, then it seems counterproductive to have some insiders still positioning wine as being highbrow.

I know there are wine critics out there saying, “Don’t read it if you don’t like it”. Touché. That would be fine if we had an endless supply of humanoids becoming instantaneous wine consumers on their 21st birthday, but we don’t, and that is why I question the practice of dissecting wine down to the finer elements of a CSI report. Neither the king of beers or the Rocky Mountain legend do this, so why are we? It’s no small coincidence that enophiles are the butt of television commercials where beer is sarcastically paired with foods a la The Fruit Game as if to say, “Up yours, wine snobs”.

Bruce Snyder may have been on to something — perhaps twenty-five words is more than enough to describe a wine. By chance, it’s about the correct length for Twitter, but more importantly, maybe our penchant for cranking out cryptic wine notes is turning off potential wine drinkers by the millions. It’s something to think about when we’re not playing The Fruit Game.