Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Ten Days of Christmas for Wine Writers: Ten Things They Should Know

Read any wine publication or blog these days, and you’re bound to see writing mistakes. While this may seem difficult to believe, many people writing about wine are using incorrect terminology and capitalization, thereby passing the error of their ways to other writers who blindly follow by example.

The mistakes are more common than one would expect given the reputation of the journalists, editors, authors, bloggers, radio and television hosts, publicists, copywriters, and even winemakers. During my more na├»ve lapses, I have actually contemplated bringing this to the attention of the transgressors (i.e. “a Boo Boo Alert”), but reality sets in, and I realize my suggestions would not be welcomed. (See my earlier story about “Wine Industry Arrogance”.)

Here is my top-ten list of the most common mistakes; I’m sure there are others.

(1) A “variety” is a grape; (2) a “varietal” is a wine. They are not synonyms.

This is pretty simple stuff, but many writers apparently don’t know the difference. Note: one can follow this rule and stay out of trouble most of the time. However, when both terms are used in the same sentence or paragraph, the writer should be aware the reader might be confused or perceive the distinction as a typo. Rewriting may help.

(3) The terms “terroir” and (4) “growing conditions” are not synonyms.

Terroir is widely considered to be the expression of climate, soil and topography in the aroma, flavor, structure and tactile components of wine. Some experts broaden the horizon to include the human influences of cultural practices, winemaking, and the selection of grape variety, clone and rootstock, but that makes zero sense since the theory is based on the “land” rather than the “hand”.

More briefly, one could say that terroir is the expression of a vineyard’s or region’s growing conditions in the aroma, flavor, structure and sensorial components of wine. The operative word here is “expression”. It’s amazing how many winemakers say they have “great terroir” while describing their “growing conditions”.

(5) The terms “aroma” and (6) “bouquet” are not synonyms.

Most experts (at least the ones in the know) consider aroma to be the fragrances resulting from pre-fermentation sources (mostly grape characteristics) while bouquet relates to post-fermentation effects (yeast, barrels, bottle aging, etc).

Wine regions that are (7) TTB-approved label designations (i.e. political demarcations) are not always synonymous with (8) American Viticultural Areas. For example, “Sonoma County” is an approved label designation, but it is not an AVA.

(9) Grape varieties are set in lowercase unless the name is linked to a person. (e.g. The North Fork of Long Island provides excellent growing conditions for cultivating merlot. Or: Virginia is a great place to plant Norton.) Note: this application of caps is controversial. Most practitioners get comfortable with an approach, then find ways to justify it. I follow botanical nomenclature and the Chicago Manual of Style.

10: Capitalization of generic wine vs. branded wine. The correct rule is lowercase for generic references, and uppercase for proper names (i.e. “merlot” vs. “Oregon Pinot Noir” or “Chateau St. Rude Chardonnay”).

Notes for (9) and (10): Like the caveat from 1 and 2, sometimes the best approach is to rewrite or simply use a full “up style” if a paragraph has a mixture of grape varieties, generic varietals, and branded varietals.


Have yourself a merry little Christmas!