I do not drink wine, and I never have. It is therefore very, very difficult for me not to lose my temper when I hear or read someone describing wine in any way that goes much beyond, “It tasted good,” or “It tasted bad.” Take, for example, this review from the New York Times, in which the author describes Tokaji aszu, a kind of Hungarian dry white wine, as “a gorgeously honeyed, lavishly sweet wine of such balance and precision that it can accompany savory meals.”
I can accept the use of the adjective “honeyed,” because honey is a thing that other things can taste like. So fair enough, New York Times wine reviewer Eric Asimov. Can something be “gorgeously” honeyed? I suppose so, although we’re now bordering on territory that makes me uncomfortable. I’ve absolutely no problem with wine being described as “sweet,” and even though the addition of “lavishly” seems a little overwrought, like a TV judge who overrules the plain and boring and befuddled attorney’s objections that the brilliant and colorful and unorthodox attorney’s methods should be forbidden, I’ll allow it. But just as the TV judge turns to the brilliant attorney and says, “This had better be going somewhere, Counselor,” I turn to Mr. Asimov and say, “Don’t push your luck.”
And then Mr. Asimov goes ahead and pushes his luck by using the phrase “balance and precision” in reference to a wine. It should be pointed out that not only are these Hungarian wines balanced and precise, they are balanced and precise to the extent that they can accompany savory meals! I won’t insult your intelligence by mentioning what inevitably occurs when one pairs a savory meal with a Hungarian dry white wine that is imprecise and unbalanced. You know what occurs, and I know what occurs, and the result is neither gorgeously honeyed nor lavishly sweet.
This kind of language is not limited to those who make a living reviewing wines, but seems to have infected the entire wine world in general. Mr. Asimov quotes a winemaker in the same article as saying, “Sweet winemaking mind-sets and techniques are at times practiced too often when making dry wines in Tokaj. As more producers find their own voices, more precisely made, terroir-expressive dry furmints will be produced.” Only the most visionary among us – the clear-eyed, the prophets, the holy fools – are able to adopt the mind-set of the sweet winemaker without allowing it to corrupt and ruin everything else they do. And there, once again, is the focus on “precision,” although I note with concern that the concept of “balance” has clumsily been omitted.
My initial reaction to all of this – and yours, too, probably – is: these people are stupid. And annoying. And they need real jobs. They’re more than likely misapplying flowery adjectives to the differences between wines that are, truth be told, really very small, if they even exist at all. I will live to be 6,000 years old before you can make me understand how a wine can be precise. In other words, most of us are thinking, “The Emperor has no clothes on this one. He just doesn’t. Somewhere along the line some brilliant huckster started talking about wine in abstract, ridiculous terms, and everyone played along for fear of not seeming intelligent and refined.”
And yet, I had an experience last week that made me slightly more sympathetic to people who speak and write about wine – or food, or football, or Afro-Caribbean funk – in the way the Mr. Asimov does. I was midway through a long, challenging day at work and stood in need of both a distraction and a refreshment. My mind turned to the bag of these that I keep in my desk for such occasions:
Daddy’s little helper.
I quickly unwrapped a Grape Blow Pop and began to consume it. Not 10 seconds in I thought, “This bag of Blow Pops isn’t very good. The hard candy shell is a little gummy, and a higher than usual percentage of the lollipops in the bag have been shattered (This is highly undesirable, as opening a shattered one leaves you with a handful of sticky shards of candy rather than a mouthful of deliciousness.) Even worse, the inner core of bubble gum is perhaps the worst I’ve ever tasted; it’s not nearly as flavorful as one finds in even an average bag, and for some strange reason the gum deteriorates after a minute or two, rather than providing the chewer with at least 0.5 hours of chewing and bubble-blowing.”
Well, you can see where I’m going with this. To the undiscerning eater of gum-centered lollipops – the dilettantes, the trick-or-treaters, the bank beneficiaries – this particular bag would have tasted exactly the same as any other bag. But that doesn’t mean that the difference between the two bags doesn’t exist. It just means that they are discernible only to those who have paid the price necessary to develop highly refined senses capable of detecting variations of a very small magnitude.
To be perfectly honest, I’ve achieved this high level of sensitivity in a number of areas – gradations so slight that to the unwashed masses they seem not to exist at all. These include: volleyball sets intended for left-handed hitters who can barely jump high enough to hit over the net, sausage and mushroom pizzas from Papa John’s, plastic trash bags designed to fit in a small container hooked to a leash for the purpose of disposing of dog scat, and different styles of t-shirts from the Gap. Because I could in good conscience use an array of many-syllabled adjectives to describe the small variations between different versions of these things, and because most people would think that the words “good” and “bad” would be more than sufficient, I guess I’m willing to cut Mr. Asimov and his fellow oenophiles a little slack.
Bold without being pretentious, this particular sausage and mushroom pizza from Papa John’s – while being ever so slightly stiff in the crust – is a pizzamaker’s coup, both in terms of the sauce/pizza/topping ratio and the overall balance and precision of the pie.
The real question, though, is this: in what things have you developed sufficient expertise to truly notice the slightest differences between versions of these things – differences that the average person would be inclined to believe you’re simply making up to sound smart?