Responding to Matt Kramer: Is terroir a metaphor?

Matt Kramer, of Wine Spectator, recently wrote about his guest lecture for Dr. Kevin Pogue’s terroir course at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. Kramer, invited to speak to a class about terroir, led by a professor known for supporting terroir, as a wine writer known for supporting terroir, could have chosen some particular element of that big tangled concept to dissect, knowing that he didn’t have to spend most of his time explaining what terroir is and arguing for why it’s valid. Instead, as he explains in his Wine Spectator column, he explained what terroir is with an eye to why it tends to provoke such consternation. Terroir, Kramer says, is a metaphor.

My first reaction, seeing that phrase, is that it’s interesting idea.

My second reaction, reading on, is that Kramer isn’t talking about metaphors.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to explain why, and argue for why the difference isn’t pedantism but is actually significant to how we understand and work with this concept.

Kramer says that terroir is a lens through which we see and (can) come to understand the world: “As a metaphor, terroir is nothing more—and nothing less—than a way of being alert. It’s a way of both acknowledging and accepting that the Earth—not just the soil—can speak.”

Metaphors are a way of directing our attention, highlighting some elements of the metaphor’s target over others, directing us to ask some kinds of questions over others. All language functions this way, to a greater or lesser extent. If I introduce a wine as “a lush, ripe Australian red” I’m predisposing you to pay attention to its sweet fruit flavors. Introducing the same wine first as “a classic Barossa shiraz with a meaty finish,” I’m encouraging you to pay more attention to its savory side right from the start.* Rhetoricians call the ability of words to make us selectively alert “framing.” The words we use change what we see by drawing our attention to some aspects of a complex picture and hiding or downplaying others.

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Is hedgerow the same as sweaty passionfruit? (The social constructedness of wine at ICCWS, part II)

The International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton was an excellent chance to sample English wines, and to discover that what New Zealander’s call “sweaty-passionfruit” seems to be what English people – or at least Oz Clarke – calls the distinctively English aroma of an English countryside hedgerow.

Let it be duly noted that I’m not suggesting that Oz Clarke’s mode of description, or his palate, need be considered broadly representative of the English. Moreover, I expect that many of his countryfolk spend more time carrying laptop bags down exhaust fume-sodden city streets than carrying a rifle and a brace of dead waterfowl down “distinctively English” hedgerows. Even still. Hedgerow is a much better fit for an English wine than sweaty passionfruit, and the reverse is true for those New Zealand sauvignon blancs.

We have no absolute language for talking about wine aroma. Advocates for standardized tasting terms sometimes complain about wine writers “just calling a smell whatever” (I’m paraphrasing). Sure, everyone who writes about wine could agree to use the same words – and maybe even to take the kinds of standardized training necessary for us to all use those words in roughly similar ways – but we’d still just be calling a smell whatever. We use analogies. Wine aromas are like passionfruit, or sweat, or hedgerow, which is to say that we use memory to describe wine, which is to say that available and useful descriptions will vary amongst individuals and cultures.

Nothing new here. Plenty of folk will be familiar with efforts over the past few years to devise useful tasting terms for China and put them into use. Describing aromas of jujube or wolfberry seems more productive than trying to teach Chinese drinkers about “blackcurrant” as a wine aroma completely divorced from its associations with blackcurrants drowning in double cream or preserves spread on toast in the morning. At the ICCWS, Marianne McKay of the University of Stellenbosch described related efforts to define South Africa-relevant aroma terms. Most of her undergraduates begin knowing very little about wine, many not even being wine drinkers. Students who have to learn how to assess wine aroma at the same time as learning what to associate with “raspberry” have a harder time learning those assessment skills than students working with descriptors they already recognize. She and her colleagues are working with students to create a South African aroma wheel, which makes incredible sense. (So long as those students will work in South Africa, and one imagines that they can learn European terms later if they move to the Northern Hemisphere.)

The thing about all of these studies is that they assume that wine aromas remain identical while we just exchange one word for another. One Australian-German study actually tested the equivalency of European and Chinese wine descriptors: “dried wolfberry” was a fair replacement for “strawberry preserve,” but “fresh wolfberry” and “raspberry” didn’t match. The ideal is a one-to-one translation of the tasting note, with the sole effect increased understanding (and increased sales, those Australians are surely hoping) amongst their audience.

I disagree. Words aren’t transparent conduits for information. The words we use shape our realities. They direct where our attention travels. They activate memories and associations. We know that memory and smell are connected at the level of brain activity, and so we know that words change the way things smell.

I wonder whether “sweaty-passionfruit” as it’s used to describe sauvignon blanc and “English hedgerow” as it’s used to describe English whites both map to the same chemical compound (3-mercaptohexylacetate, or one of its cousins*), and I hope that Dr. Wendy Parr, who’s been at the center of characterizing what’s unique about the aromas of New Zealand’s signature wines, takes up that question. But even if sensory science says that these descriptors are two different words for “the same thing,” I won’t be willing to say that a mass spectrometer knows more, or better, than Oz Clarke. Not because I have any special love of Oz Clarke or mistrust in the scientific instrumentation, but because the English wine industry is in the process of shaping what’s unique about it’s terroir, and it is, and those hedgerows are part of it. Even if every English person doesn’t spend misty mornings walking down hedgerows, I’m sure that that mass spectrometer never has.