Why Words Matter

(I really should be labeling this post, Why I’m Obsessed, Part 3 – here’s Part 1 and Part 2 – but it’s a good column that deserves its own posting.)

This is an interesting column. You think it’s about language (and yes, eventually it is), but as you begin reading, you’re hit with a wonderful lesson about Montrachet wines. It immediately resonated with one of the reasons I’m obsessed with this industry. Wine is risky: Or as Chateau Montelena’s Bo Barrett quips in the documentary Somm, buying a bottle of wine is always a wager. Now, in a recent Wine Spectator column (also linked from the top of this page), Matt Kramer provides a fabulous example of this:  

Montrachet at its best can indeed be an awe-inspiring experience. But it’s rare. You have to win a trifecta of the right producer, in the right vintage, with the right amount of bottle age (10-plus years) in a cold cellar. If my experience is anything to go by, those are long odds.

So what happens when you’re among the majority who don’t have a breathtaking experience with this $500 bottle of wine? Kramer argues your approach should be in reframing your language (which also changes your expectations). Rather than concentrate on its flavors, he suggests using the word “texture,” which will allow you to refocus how you taste the wine.

In comparison, “texture” is a broader term that, again for me, captures a sense of fruit density, as well as the nature of the tannins in a red wine. As is well-known, tannins are frequently described as being ripe or green; coarse or fine-grained; gritty or silky. Obviously, the nature and quality of tannins will dramatically affect “texture,” as will acidity... Bottom line: I use the term “texture” to encompass the complete tactile experience of a wine.

Just as I enjoyed Kramer writing about risk, I enjoyed this column for two more reasons:

  • His main argument is not just about language, it’s about how to taste. And tasting is not just about flavor. If you’ve been reading this tumblr, then you know identifying flavors is the hardest part of tasting for me. It’s everything that’s wrapped into his definition of “texture” – body, acidity and tannins – which I excel at and prefer discussing. And so does he.
  • This column is indeed about words and language! It’s about how to communicate. And that’s what I do. As a journalist for 20 years – who enjoys writing, editing and finding the best way to tell a story – this falls directly into my world. His use of “texture” to taste, is how he suggests telling a wine’s story: “Texture helps tell the tale of a young wine’s future or a mature wine’s lost opportunity,” he writes. 

It’s funny, as I left my class last Thursday, I realized that one of the main objectives in this six-week course is to learn the best way to communicate about wine. It’s what I’ve spent most of my career doing – honing in on the best communication and storytelling methods.

I’m beginning to understand a little better why wine is so fascinating to me. I’m also realizing it may not be such a leap from what I do now.

Why Words Matter

Why I’m Obsessed, Part 2 (Part 1)

If I had started this site a year ago, this post may have introduced you to something new, but chances are if you follow wine, you’re well aware of Somm, a documentary highlighting a group of students as they prepare for the master sommelier exam. I could spend plenty of time telling you why you should watch this film, but I won’t. Instead I just want to drop off a few items that resonated with my passion for wine while I re-watched the film this weekend (thanks,Netflix!).

  • Ian Cauble, one of the students preparing for the exam, says wine is living life through your senses. It’s true. When you’re enjoying a glass of wine, you’re taking notice of its color, of its aromas and of its taste. You’re also feeling sensations as of you drink – whether it be smooth or the tannins dancing on your tongue. There’s talk of mouth-feel. Sipping wine, is more about experiencing it than just taking a sip and swallowing.
  • Bo Barrett, of Chateau Montelena fame, talks about how buying a bottle of wine is always a wager… whether it’s $10, $100 or more, you never know exactly what you’re gong to get until you open the bottle and take your first sips. I must admit, I do enjoy a gamble, and I love the excitement as you begin to take that first sip hoping for an amazing new discovery.
  • Dustin Wilson, who is also preparing for the exam, points out that while drinking wine, you’re learning about the culture and people of where it’s from… it’s a way of traveling the world. I alluded to this in my first “Why I’m Obsessed” post. There is always something new to learn about wine, and if you learn about the bottle you’re drinking, you get an amazing lesson in geography and culture of the region its from. It’s the closest to satisfying any wanderlust without physically traveling to the location.

Why I’m Obsessed, Part 1

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(A 1996 Nebbiolo / Barbaresco from Piemonte served at The Partisan in Washington, D.C. As the wine opened up, its aromas and flavors changed so each sip was like a new adventure – one of the many reasons why I love wine.)

Thanks to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, all of my friends and colleagues have been following my foray into wine – whether they wanted to or not. So often, when I meet up with someone after it’s been a while, I’m usually asked  if I have any recommendations or favorites. That’s not always an easy question to answer, but the questions that follow are much tougher: How did you get into wine? And why do you enjoy it so much?

This came up again this past weekend at lunch with a former boss. It’s not a short answer – but the more I start to talk about it, the more my passion ignites – as if I’m a kid describing my first trip to Disneyland.

The actual “how” part is a bit straightforward: I liked the way wine tasted when I was out with friends and I wanted to learn which wines I enjoyed the most so I knew how to order. That then took me spiraling down this rabbit hole, which I’m happy to stay in for a very long time (Maybe I should rewrite Alice in Wonderland to be Alicia in Wineland).

The enjoyment part is a little more detailed. So here, for the world to see, are my reasons for loving wine. If you’re a wine nerd like me, I’m sure you will relate.

Sharing. There’s an innate connection with someone when you’re drinking from the same bottle. Whether it be the often-relaxed conversation that flows (or jovial debate), or if you’re comparing every little nuance of the wine. There’s a sense that you’re both experiencing something new together for the very first time. Even if you’ve known that person for years. It doesn’t have to be romantic (although that’s a discussion for another time). That innate bond – however fleeting –  still develops among platonic friends, colleagues, someone you sat next to at a wine bar, or that much hated frenemy. And while it may only be temporary, it can linger as a calming memory to return to.

Education. It is nearly impossible to stop learning about wine. Whether it be the kinds of grapes, the way the land is harvested, the wine-making process, the science behind the wine or how science can manipulate it. Then there’s the entire geography lesson wine provides: the kinds of soils, how the weather and oceans impact the grapes, and more importantly all the beautiful land and cultures that make up such famed wine regions as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Piemonte, Rioja, Mendoza, Sonoma and many, many more. There’s always something new happening, including the uncertainty of what each year will bring (for example, just today, there are reports of hail in Burgundy killing this year’s harvest)… how they will handle that, and what the outcome of this vintage will be, will be fun to study in real time. 

The Passion Of Others. I prefer to learn about the smaller wineries. The reason for this is simple: When you talk to the winemakers or learn about their stories, you realize that these are passion projects by hard working people who care about what they’re doing. It also includes dashes of artistry and philosophy – letting business, creativity and science combine. And there’s a certain strength of humanity. Many of these people are taking huge risks to do something they love. The documentary I posted about last week captures this (I can’t speak for more than the preview, yet). Nearly 10 years ago, long before I had any real interest in wine, I read a story in People Magazine while in a doctor’s waiting room. Not many People Magazine stories stick with me, but this one did – and it’s an example of what makes small-family wineries interesting to me – or rather inspirational:

To understand the complex relationship between poverty, immigration, entrepreneurship and the American dream, you could read a few hundred books. Or, for the short course, you could ask Reynaldo Robledo. “I didn’t want my children to suffer as I did,” says Robledo, 54, who came to Northern California from Mexico at 16 to pick grapes. “And I wanted them to have what I couldn’t." 

They do. After years of working 14-hour days, Robledo became the first Mexican migrant worker to own a winery. The Robledo Family Winery sprawls over 200 scenic acres in Napa and Sonoma counties and turns out 5,500 cases each year. 

Then there’s the story of Ray Walker, who chased his dreams all the way to Burgundy. The New York Times did a nice write-up, but to really understand his passion and success, read the book.

In the interest of knowing when a post may be getting too long, I’ll stop here for now. I’ll continue to sprinkle this Tumblr with more reasons as we go along. To Be Continued…