FOOD FOR THOUGHT - December 31, 2008
Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Article Archive
In Vino Veritas
According to the dictionary, the definition of “truth” is that which is factual and reality based. It is not personal opinion, conjecture, or subjective experience; just cold, hard facts. And yet, despite this unambiguous and objective criterion, truth can still be so elusive. The lion’s share of the problem is human nature. People aren’t forthright for multitudinous reasons. Individuals are swayed by emotion, ulterior motives and undue influences. Many dissemble, mince words, or outright lie. For all these reasons mankind has always been aware that truth is often elusory. In Roman mythology, Veritas was the goddess of truth. She reputedly lived in the bottom of a well, a symbolic representation of how hidden the truth can be.
Supposed “truth serums,” such as barbiturates like Sodium Pentothal, have been used by intelligence agencies to biochemically bypass human dissimulation and procure the truth. Such tranquilizing substances disinhibit the brain and theoretically render us more prone to be candid. But we don’t need some fancy pharmaceutical to do that. We have alcohol! Although probably not any more reliable than the dubious truth serums, everyone knows that generally speaking, people are more frank when inebriated. Hence the saying “In Vino Veritas” an old Latin phrase meaning “in wine there is truth.” But is there truth about the wine?
Anyone who has perused a wine shop is familiar with the “shelf talkers”; those little tags attached to the shelf directly below a specific bottle of wine. Obviously designed to increase sales, they sport either a positive narrative of the wine, a noteworthy numerical rating, or both. But how true are they?
The first problem with the shelf talkers is the integrity of the wine merchant. How do you know that the narrative and/or the rating is not contrived? The more reliable talkers will have the name of a confirmable, well known source, (such as Wine Spectator Magazine or Robert Parker, the highly acclaimed Bordeaux expert), but some do not. Unidentified shelf talkers could benignly signify a clerk too indolent to denote “Food and Wine Magazine” at the bottom of it. Or they could be a complete fabrication; designed by some duplicitous merchant to arouse interest in a wine whose sales are sluggish. Some shelf talkers are not only devoid of a reliable source, they don’t even indicate the name of the wine. How do you know this shelf talker is on the right shelf? Thus, while certainly not a guarantee, a more trustworthy shelf talker will include the name and year of the wine, and a reliable source that can be verified.
I get a kick out of the shelf talkers that are written by store employees. The narrative may be preceded by something like “Ken’s picks” or “Ken’s choice.” How biased is that? As if Ken is going to sample one of his employer’s wines, declare it to be rotgut and advertise that on the shelf. Needless to say, because of the considerable probability for employee reviews to be self-serving, they are highly suspect.
So let’s assume we have a shelf talker that is accurately identified, and from a professional source that can be referenced. Are we any closer to that mysterious concept known as the truth? Not necessarily. The next problem is the vernacular. Does the shelf talker speak in a language that is useful to its audience? Consider the following shelf talker displayed under a bottle of St. Emilion which I copied word for word:
“Dark in color, with intense aromas of blackberry, tar, and mineral. Almost minty. Full-bodied with loads of ripe fruit and vanilla bean character. Long and supercaressing. This racy wine has so much going on. Yet it’s subtle and sexy. Best after 2012.”
What in the world does this wine taste like? How will an admixture of blackberry, tar, mineral, mint, ripe fruit, and vanilla present itself to your palate? Especially when it’s also long, supercaressing, racy, subtle and sexy? Such a description is not only an “everything but the kitchen sink” approach, it also contains terms that are vague at best. For example, would someone please tell me how a sexy wine tastes? And how does that compare to a wine that’s both subtle and sexy? I’m sure the taster has a definition in his mind but which taste sensation is the average Joe supposed to conjure up?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m well aware that wines, particularly better ones are complex, with sometimes a dizzying array of nuances. Many of these nuances are a challenge to put into words, particularly words that will convey meaning that has a consensual validation. Nevertheless, a laundry list of adjectives, including obscure, non-taste related terms can only serve to muddy the waters of comprehension.
This leads us to the final problem with shelf talkers: our old friend subjectivity. You could offer the wine from the above example to every expert in the world, and no two of them would use all of those exact same words. There may be overlap on the blackberry, vanilla, or ripe fruit notes, but how many would say it’s supercaressing, racy, subtle AND sexy. Clearly, even amongst the connoisseurs, there must be contrariety about what nebulous terms like “racy” and “sexy” actually taste like. But forget the argot and the specific descriptors for a moment. Let’s simplify and cut to the chase. Even whether the taster simply liked the wine or not is open to subjectivity.
Professional tasters are not merely people who drink a lot of wine. Evidence shows that some people have palates that are biochemically more sensitive to a variety of taste sensations, including more subtle ones. These “supertasters” as they’ve come to be called, are assumed to have a greater number of taste buds on their tongue. Tasting, although biologically based, is also a skill that is learned with experience. Over time, even a non-supertaster would “learn” to detect differences and subtleties in the product in question. But no matter how advanced a taster’s anatomy or experience is, being human, they cannot escape the factors, (also biological and experience-based), that engender subjectivity. Everyone, professional taster or not, has certain taste sensations that resonate with their brain, and personal convictions, in a manner unique to them or a select few.
There are dimensions however in the taste profiles of wines that are more clearly delineated and therefore less subjective. A good example is a wine’s body. Even a novice can differentiate between a very light and shall we say watery wine, from one that has greater viscosity and power. Acidity is another rather conspicuous character which is facilely ascertained. It is not difficult to distinguish a flabby, flat wine from one with sharp acidity. Thus, if your shelf taker were to announce that a wine is full-bodied, you can be fairly certain you are dealing with a stouter specimen. But when you start getting into “supercaressing,” “racy,” or “sexy,” I have an adjective for you: Gray, for you are square in the gray zone.
So where does all this leave us? It’s actually quite simple. Wine appreciation is immersed in subjectivity. The conclusive truth of any wine will be your truth. There is no substitute for your own taste, personal experience, and personal subjectivity. Drink what you like and be true to yourself. That’s when there’s ultimately truth in wine.
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