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Language is wine upon the lips

© GettyOne of my favourite quotes is by Virginia Woolf: ‘Language is wine upon the lips’ she said to her husband Leonard one evening, over a bottle of Blue Nun. What a lovely sentiment. Profound, enigmatic, erotic. Note what she did not say. She did not say: ‘Language is Dr Pepper upon the lips.’ Woolf made the connection specifically between the grape and the gob, fine language and fine wine. You know what? I think she was onto something. It forms part of my Grand Theory of Wine. Let me explain.

Wine has numerous consumer benefits: it loosens the tongue, relaxes the mind, facilitates intelligent conversation. In vino veritas, in tropicanas sanitas, as I always say. I lived in Italy for a bit and while I was there, I embraced the grape, boy did I embrace the grape, sheesh. My partner and I sampled as many wines as we could, recording our impressions on photocopied tasting sheets. Our quest took commitment, a robust and determined liver, an endless supply of cheese, olives and Ibuprofen. For nearly three years we swirled, sniffed, swished and swallowed. My fella, a thoughtful man, would give measured, precise descriptions dutifully using the adjectives provided on the sheet. The bouquet was ‘pleasant’, viscosity: ‘normal’, fruit aroma: ‘positive’, general appeal: ‘attractive’, acidity: ‘refreshing’, taste: ‘herbaceous’, overall balance: ‘good’.

My tasting notes, on the other hand, consisted of things like this:

Smells like hay bales soaked in petrol.
Cloying and gluey and chewy …  it’s like a blackcurrant Pritt Stick!
Sour apples rotting in a composter.
Rowntree’s strawberry-flavoured jelly cubes … a Marks and Spencer’s summer fruit pudding … it’s a fruity fiasco alright!
Wowzers, this baby has got some LEGS!
Colour reminds me of when I had that kidney infection … Sickly, like sucking a Pear Drop. I hate Pear Drops.

My point here is that describing wine is a combination of the pseudo-scientific and the subjective. It’s the subjective part that offers the most scope for fun. After all, when you describe a wine, you are attempting to convey a series of highly individualistic taste impressions. Wine is the only beverage that allows you to wax lyrical in this way; its colours, aromas and tastes can evoke vivid associations and memories. You just don’t get that with Dr Pepper. Of course, you could argue that much wine-talk is pompous guff. And you’d be right. But I want to celebrate, not denigrate the language of wine. It’s a fascinating semantic field, with vocabulary borrowed from anatomy, personality, food, textiles. Think about it: wine can have body, legs and a nose, backbone, guts. It can be lean, supple, robust, muscular, cheeky, aggressive, spineless, forward, honest, dumb, complex, clumsy, chalky, chewy, buttery, earthy, meaty, gamey, leathery, smooth, rich, elegant, refined, rough …  Most startling of all, wine can be grapey.

Wine critics have a reputation for being obnoxious elitists, self-aggrandizing snobs, flaunting their mastery of the language of wine, but without allowing you in. There is one notable exception, Internet Phenomenon and King of Wine, Gary Vaynerchuk. If you haven’t heard of him, then watch this clip – you are in for a treat!

The man is amazing! He’s like the Quentin Tarantino of wine. Did you catch what he said, towards the end? No, not that line about nosing a dead deer, that was a bit weird … No, this bit:

One thing you will see …  is that I love words and when I get stuck to them, I’m gonna be on them all day so I’m definitely going to be using the same words over and over.

Gary: thank you! You clearly support my Grand Theory of Wine, which is basically this: if you love wine, ipso facto you love words. Wine lovers are always word lovers. Oenophilia = logophilia. Seriously, think of all the hardcore wine drinkers you know. I bet they are a garrulous lot, always holding forth on some topic or another, full of opinions, puns only they find amusing, recounting Scrabble scores, doing crosswords … You just don’t get that calibre of person with Dr Pepper drinkers. Don’t you agree?

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About the author


Sarah McKeown


  • What a great article! It’s lovely to read something written by an author who so feels passionately about their subject(s) 🙂

  • Really evocative article, Sarah! You have me reaching for the Pinot Noir and it’s not even 9 a.m. Gary rocks, totally tells it like it is – with wine, there is no ‘middle-of-the-road’, in flavour or in opinion.

  • This is very amusing and and some interesting conclusions drawn, Sarah. Lovin’ your work.

    However, consider this: I love words but I hate wine. There, I’ve said it, Philistine that I am. I can almsot hear all you winos choking on the gloopy substance as you attempt to recover yourselves from this sacrilegious admission. It’s OK, just set the glass down and listen – or hold that intoxicating bowl of joy in your hand to maintain correct temperature – whatever!

    I have loved words all my life and have never liked or enjoyed wine. Bouquet? I say vinegar. Legs? Legless, I say. Nosing a dead deer? Well, quite! And on top of that, I actually enjoy Dr Pepper. Haha! So, I’m sorry all you word-loving winos, I think it’s more accurate to say this: Perhaps one could say wine evokes extreme responses and those who experience said extreme responses – whether good or bad – are those individuals who love words.

    N’est-ce pas?

  • Sarah, you’re a great blogger. I love your use of language – it’s so obvious you’re a lover of words. And you’re right about the wine/body metaphor. Have you seen all the metaphor boxes in the Macmillan Dictionary? See ‘conversation’ or ‘win’ for example.

  • @Mireille: none of your business! 😉
    @Vicky: Oh. You do realise you’ve totally destroyed my Grand Theory of Wine in one blow…. not to worry.
    It just seems curious to me that there is a particularly well-developed semantic field for wine, rather than any other drink. I have a little fold-out wine-tasting guide that lists over 500 adjectives to apply to wine, some that sound like they’ve come straight out of some chemistry textbook. I’m not aware of 500 ways to describe the flavours of beer. Are you? I’m by no means saying I’m some great expert on wine, by the way, far from it. All I’m saying is that it seems to open up a whole world of interesting wordy ways to describe it. If you’re really into wine, you tend to be really into expressing your love of it in the most evocative, expressive way imaginable. And that’s why I love Gary Vaynerchuk: his unpretentious enthusiasm is infectious.

    By the way, I do think the British have come a long way in their appreciation of wine. See this documentary clip from the 1980s:

  • I enjoy the reliably fruity and slightly spicy bouquet of a Dr Pepper, find Coca Cola’s Mr Pibb an overly sweet and slightly flat imitation, prefer the slightly bitter undertones of classic Coke to the slightly sweeter Pepsi, and can describe the flavors of dozens of other sodas. The culture of soda drinking doesn’t encourage such descriptions, but the rise of small artisan soda brands may yet lead to soda tastings where one clenses the palate between vintages with water and crackers and swirls a soda in ones mouth and spits it out before recording ones impressions on a tasting chart.

    I am not entirely serious about that for sodas, although it is actually easy to imagine it happening, much as it has happened to some extent with cheeses, coffees, chocolates, teas, and, to a larger extent, beers. The vocabulary used in describing the flavors of cheeses may rival that of wine, and the vocabulary associated with the taste of beers, especially those produced in micro-breweries, is rich and colorful. My point here is not to critique your grand theory of wine, but to note is generality to lots of things we enjoy, and a wider vqriety of things for which we simply (or feel we need) a wider vocabulary.

    Vendors at Times Square sell charts that name hundreds of sexual positions and boioks describe the variations of experience associated with all of thern. Skiers describe dozens of variations in the nature of snow and surfers an even richer variety of wave characteristics.

    Wine differs from most of these examples on one important fundamental. The use of a diverse descriptive vocabulary is an important element of the marketing of wine, especially for the many small vintners whose business is driven more by wine tastings like the ones described in your article than by advertising and mass marketing. In this, wine is probably the original stealth marketing product, but the concept of engaging your vocabulary in the service of selling remains q distinctive element of wine culture.

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