What makes a wine supple or velvety? Grippy or chewy? How on earth can a wine smell like barnyard, leather and undergrowth and still be considered good? What is terroir? The air, the sun, rocks in the dirt, the warmth of summer, cool nights, mist and fog. The way the wind blows between the vines.
I work with words every day. They aren't always pretty words, or interesting, or even my own. They make a point, they tell a story from someone else's perspective. Sometimes they run roughshod across the page, a torrent of ideas requiring the restraining hand of a skilled editor. Often, they aren't the right words at all.
Earlier this year I brought a friend out with me to a tasting. He'd never been to one before and happily accepted the invite. We wandered around the room, sipping this and trying that, him watching me stick my nose in the glass and then run off at the mouth describing it.
Poet that he is, he soaked up the 'wine-speak' like a dry liteau, scribbling in his notebook with fevered intensity. He found it fascinating, this intricate and exclusive language murmured by us wineaux. "What sorts of words do YOU use to describe a wine?" he asked.
I had to stop and think about it. Like every other sommelier student, I'd had a litany of proper terms and descriptors hammered into me from the start. Any time I went off-script about a wine, I was admonished and reminded that I couldn't write that sort of thing on a WSET exam because it wasn't accepted. (Not that I have much ambition to write that most-feared test of one's oenophilic abilities.)
I left the tasting that night still thinking about it. What did those words mean to someone who had not studied wine or who, like the majority of people, just enjoyed it without the extensive analysis? It must be total gibberish to the untrained ear.
But I couldn't help but love it, this lexicon of flavours, aromas and textures. And sometimes, in the silence between the inhale and the first sip, words lose all meaning and a wine leaves you speechless. Poetry in its own right.
There's a part in Sideways that I really like, when Maya sits down with Miles and starts talking in a tone of complete reverence about what makes wine so special. That's how I felt, trying to describe the experience from my perspective.
Some time later, I had a chance to hear this poet friend of mine read some of his own work. The setting was perfect, so comfortably stereotypical of a poetry reading: hole-in-the-wall pub serving cheap pints in a room too small for the crowd and cluster of tables. Wild-haired bohemian types and clean-shaven government workers waiting their turn at the open mic.
My friend took the stage. His deep voice reverberated around the room as he intoned each line of text with measured pace. His words became ephemeral wisps of colour in the air that took the shape of birds in flight, windswept slabs of the Canadian Shield, and rippled water. Words that turned into images, into feelings and memories that lingered long after silence fell.
It made me think of that day at the tasting. What words do I use to describe wine? All of them and any of them that come to mind: Muscular, dainty, hair-on-your-teeth, aggressive. Big League chew, marshmallow-banana-candy, cough syrup. Summer cottage, Christmas morning, sunny beach, rushing creek.
They may not be on a WSET test, but they're the right words to me.