I wish I didn’t sound like a dum-dum when I try to describe wine. I rarely go beyond the summations of “This tastes expensive” or “This tastes like some weirdo poured a buttload of pepper on old grapes.”
When I hear most people talk about wine, I feel surrounded by a country club of lifted brows, raised pinkies, and penny loafers with dimes in them. I am a working-class guy, but I dangle my legs in the worlds of potentially pretentious things—poetry, math rock, Spanish finger meats—and I own one golf shirt. Regarding the ways of the affluent, I have always been on the outside looking into the bizarre platinum aquarium.
My former girlfriend and I used to go wine tasting when we were broke and living in the formerly affordable Austin, Texas. JB was salt of the earth, funny, and proud of her “real dog” status. While others were hobnobbing around the overwrought semantics, offering descriptions like “The wine opens up with a medley of underripe strawberries and closes with an event of nougat and wet birch” or “I am getting a cold bed of rose-laden silk and the underside of some dormant Pacific fishing vessel,” JB would always take a sip, close her eyes, and say, “Mmmmm. Grapey.”
There are plenty of articles out there trying to tell the verbose to settle down, pull back a bit, and shoot straight. But here are the dirty little secrets that no one is telling you:
- Wine snobbery talk is fun.
- It’s easy to describe wine snobbily, with a few tips.
- Snobby wine descriptors can actually help your local wine seller pinpoint your palate.
I know it will take some prying to open many of you up to this idea, but you will feel something unlock that connects your senses to your brain when you can use what poets call detail association to capture precisely what you are tasting. It’s not only practical, but it also makes you feel like a Bond villain.
Poets use simple techniques to build out descriptions to paint a scene more vividly.
We’re going to steal those, and you are going to have a blast when going out for wine with friends, maybe wearing a beret while holding an opera-length cigarette possesseur. Here are some tips for snobbing it up in the best way.
Wine Talk, step 1: Understand the basics
I have no interest in knowing the climates of various countries, their coastal wine varietals, or the names of sommeliers whose faces are raw from getting scruff-kissed by someone with a James Beard Award. All I care about is landing the exactness of what’s going on in the glass. You have to sort out four things when the juice is in your mouth:
- Specific Fruits. Which fruit(s) are closest to the flavor you’re getting from the wine? Grapefruit and a little warm raspberry? Green apples or cooked apples? And what do you like about those fruits? Kiwi is slightly tart, while the papaya is more soothing and smooth, but closer to a peach. So eat fruit, close your eyes, and try to lock in what basic flavors appear. It will help you navigate your wine better.
- Dryness Level (Tannins). If winemakers leave wine sitting for a while, it gets dry, or tannic. So red wine generally sits longer than white wine and is more tannic. You can chug wines with fewer tannins because tannins are the speed bumps that slow us down a bit and can make a wine more complex. Think of dry things that feel comparable. Cinnamon dry or Death Valley dry.
- Sweet-to-acid ratio. Acid makes a wine punchy and bright. Alternatively, a wine can be thick and smooth, which comes from sugars. To wine people, smooth is synonymous with being “round.” Think of thick things like chocolate or honey. Think of punchy things like sour patch kids or lemons.
- Feels (or body). Some wine is thin like water. Some wine is thick like cola. Thick wine is good for slow nights. Thin wine is good for when it’s hot out, and you want to toss back a glass [and forget the mountains of sorrow that live within].
Wine Talk, step 2: Capture the details
I teach poetry workshops, and I love seeing people come to understand what poetry is for: to pinpoint an exact feeling or experience. To share what has been held and make it more visceral and understood. It is supposed to be the opposite of confusion.
Poetry can be perplexing because it is often written to conjure the acclaim of other poets and bogs down in sounding poetic instead of pulling clarity into focus. However, some authors do a fantastic job of figuring out what happened, what it felt like, and what it reminds them of, and they want to take us there with them. This is all you want to do with wine descriptions, too. Get the basics down. Expand and then color the basics into something new. Make the new image even more unique. Let’s do it by noticing someone’s eyes.
Level 1. Basics: Hey. You have lovely blue eyes.
Level 2. Expand and color: Your eyes are glacier blue.
Level 3. Make unique: Your eyes feel like home in a perfect glacial blue.
This poetic line was clearly written by an emperor penguin. Let’s try it with each of the four wine descriptors.
- Take a sip of your orange wine.
- Pinpoint the fruit: It tastes like peaches, lime, melon, and salt.
- How dry?: It’s juicy and fruity.
- How much sweetness/ acid?: It leans more sweet than acidic.
- The feels: It feels like strawberry lemonade, slightly thin, and ends tarty.
Wine Talk, step 3: Snob it up
In this step, remember to unpack specific details about the peach. It’s never just peach. It’s a summer peach. It’s a fresh Georgia peach. It’s a peach that looks like a chihuahua’s rump. You get it. So take a sip and unpack:
Level 1 (Basics): I am getting peach. Lots of juicy tart peaches; 60/40 on sweetness with a thin mouthfeel.
Level 2 (Expand): I am getting flavors of young peaches. Salty beach air. Cantaloupe sliced.
Level 3 (Fun snobbery): It seems someone invited an amateur to a peach-pie-making contest and thought it would be fair to bake an underripened Floridian bag of peaches. It opens with cantaloupe sliced too close to the green and now table-warm for grandfather’s breakfast alone. Slight acids balance like lemon tea warmed in the endless hell of the Arizona sunlight. My mouth feels like my children craving attention and always wanting more, but never getting it. All in all, very grapey.