For someone who doesn’t drink alcohol, I sure spend a lot of time reading wine lists.
‘Freshly cut garden hose’. ‘Gasoline’. ‘Liquid Viagra’. ‘Pencil shavings’.
With descriptions like that, can you blame me?
In his book How to Speak Money, Lanchester describes learning the role of language and money as akin to becoming a wine taster. ‘As you learn to name things, you learn to taste and remember them’. Indeed, wine is famous for its domain-specific vocabulary or jargon, with terms like ‘grippy’ or ‘chewy’ tannins, and words like ‘fat’, ‘flabby’, ‘barnyard’, ‘toasty’, ‘angular’, ‘jammy’ and ‘laser-like’ used in highly specific ways.
“Remarkably perfumed nose projects an exotic bouquet of deep, leesy yellow fruit, minerals, honeycomb, smoked meat and flowers, with Asian spices building expanding in the glass. Almost painfully concentrated, offering a surreal parade of orchard and pit fruits, smoked meat, toasted brioche and marrow braced by intensely salty, stunningly incisive minerality… The best analogy I can come up with for the intensity, focus and clarity of this Champagne is liquefied barbed wire…”
That’s just an excerpt of the 2016 ‘Stupid Wine Description of the Year‘ (although I think ‘stupid’ is a bit harsh… that description whet my appetite, and I don’t drink!)
‘Perfumed nose’… ‘leesy’… ‘a surreal parade’… ‘incisive minerality’… Feel like you need a translator?
It’s no wonder many wine enthusiasts turn to dictionaries, such as The Oxford Companion to Wine, which lists almost 4,000 such terms.
‘Wine Snob. The very phrase seems redundant, doesn’t it? When faced with this snobbiest of snobberies, the civilian wine enthusiast needs the help of savvy translators like David Kamp and David Lynch.’ reads the blurb to The Wine Snob’s Dictionary. For some, perhaps the sommelier, a trained and knowledgeable wine steward acts as an interpreter of sorts.
Thanks to the wine boom in Asia, sommeliers have even taken on hero-like status in manga. Japanese comics are often educational in nature, touching on anything from ancient Japanese history to the success of investors like Warren Buffett. A growing body of manga now combines drama and informative dialogue to help educate people on the language of wine.
Language is powerful
For all the fun we can have with descriptions like ‘tennis balls’ or ‘wet dog’ or even ‘cat piss’ (only one of those is intended as a negative, can you guess which one? – let me know in the comments below) language is powerful.
In Priceless: The Hidden Psychology of Value, William Poundstone points out that a well-designed menu (from the point of view of the restaurateur!) gets the reader to focus on the product description.
Menus with short names and no descriptions, where all of the prices are aligned in a column encourage a focus on price. It’s easy to compare the different costs of the various foods or wines when they’re all in a row. When a menu has centred items, with long descriptions, your eye is naturally drawn to the words.
Compare the following:
Other tricks include the omission of the currency symbol (e.g. $) and decimals (.00). These are signals to your brain to process the numbers as prices rather than mere numbers.
Would a wine by any other name taste as good – and cost as much?
Of course it’s not just the description. The name and region of a wine is important too. This importance is perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the case of Champagne.
Champagne is the name of a sparkling wine produced in the Champagne region of France. The legal rights to use the name ‘Champagne’ are limited to those producing wine in the eponymous region and adhering to the relevant standards. Remarkably, even the terms ‘méthode champenoise’ and ‘Champagne method’ are restricted.
It’s hard to put a figure on exactly how much the name ‘Champagne’ might be worth. But as Business Insider points out, the word is practically synonymous with ‘quality’, ‘opulence’ and ‘luxury’. After all, that’s why we talk about having ‘champagne tastes and a beer budget’. The article lists a bottle of Goût de Diamants, or the aptly-named ‘Taste of Diamonds’ as one of the most expensive ever sold – not at auction, but based on the average price – of £1.2m ($2.07 million) per bottle.
In her fascinating book Mind Over Money, Claudia Hammond tells the story of a wine seller whose sales totalled $36 million in 2006 alone. But when the FBI’s Art Crime Team (yes, that is a thing, apparently) raided his home, ‘they found he was producing fake wine on an industrial scale’.
The meaning of the word ‘fake’ has been discussed a lot recently, with the worrying neologisms ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’. When I hear ‘fake wine’, I think dyed water, or vinegar, or perhaps red cordial. Some sort of miracle? But in this story, the wine involved was real wine – it was simply cheap. For eight years, he had ‘been buying cheap burgundy and blending it with top quality wine to mimic the taste of rare and expensive vintages’. The result? A bunch of people spent a lot of money on wine, they received wine, and thought it tasted as good as it should.
Oh, and he received a ten-year prison sentence. (Yes, a longer sentence than for many violent crimes – but still, not as long as someone who tried to make knowledge more accessible faced.)
Wine and art
So what does ‘fake’ mean in this context? None of the definitions on Dictionary.com really seem to fit until we get to the bottom of the page:
It’s the link to art that makes it clear. He was busted by the FBI Art Crime Team, not the Food and Drug Administration. After all, this was not a case of making fake wine – he really was selling wine.
Nor was it a case of making fake expensive wine. After all, he charged a lot for it, so the wine legitimately was expensive.
So it must be the case that his customers were upset that the quality of the wine was far below what one would expect for such expensive wine.
But if he was selling low quality wine, how did he get away with it for so long?
Confirmation bias, our tendency to search for, favour, and remember information that confirms what we already think, is one possibility.
This isn’t just an ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ situation – no one wanting to look stupid, so everyone agrees. Rather, in an experiment cited by Hammond, participants in a brain scanner actually enjoyed wine more if they were told it was more expensive, whether it really was or not.
We often think that expensive wine (or food) is more expensive because it tastes better.
But what this experiment shows is that their appreciation of the wine was at least in part a result of thinking it was more expensive. As Hammond concludes, ‘It seems the brain is a bit of a wine snob’. Of course, we don’t just act like this in regards to wine, but pretty much across the board.
Even more damming is the fact that an analysis of 6,000 blind wine tastings showed that the average drinker scores the expensive stuff worse than ordinary wines when they aren’t told the prices or names.
How to enjoy wine on a budget
On this basis, Hammond shares two tips. I don’t have a lot of experience with wine myself (save for a very brief stint wine tasting for a language learning DVD, so feel free to take it or leave it!) but I’ve added to her tongue-in-cheek suggestions:
- To enjoy wine on a budget, get your friends to buy low-price wine and tell you it’s a 2005 Château Pétrus. If, like to me, this means nothing to you, Château Pétrus currently retails at around $3-5,000 a bottle. (I’d add to this that, if you want to impress friends at a dinner party, blend a little good wine with some cheap stuff, and paste on a new label. That’s essentially what our so-called ‘fake wine’ producer above did. If you find my suggestion ridiculous, consider how much printing equipment you could buy for three grand and still have money left over)
- If you do happen to be given an expensive bottle of wine, make a big deal about the price. Tell everyone you know. That way they’ll all enjoy it more. (Plus you might lose friends by through arrogance – and have more to enjoy for yourself!)
Drinks, like clothes, aren’t art in my opinion. That’s not to say that the production of a great-tasting beverage or an incredible-looking outfit doesn’t have artistic merit.
Rather, I simply don’t understand why someone would be jailed for selling wine under a different name when far worse crimes go less punished. Or, for that matter, why such resources should be devoted to enforcing artistic rights in a country where thousands of rape kits go untested.
And that’s not to say that the recovery of art isn’t important. It is. In the last 13 years, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 14,850 items (it’s interesting to note that their website measures the value of these artifacts in dollars – over $165 million – or around $11,111 per item on average).
Wine, of course, is meant to be drunk though, and that is what the wine seller in this case did with much of the wine he purchased and then counterfeited. I can only hope they did not ‘recover’ that.
In any case, a wine is different to a painting, or a sculpture, or a film, or a video game, or a story, or music in that it is only ever going to be enjoyed by a very specific, limited group of people. It’s never going to end up in an art gallery or a museum or a library to be enjoyed by the public. It is a consumable.
What do we really need?
It’s strange there’s money for a special team to ensure those spending thousands on wine don’t get ripped off. But there apparently isn’t enough to make sure that the people of, say, Flint, Michigan have drinkable water.
And somehow I don’t imagine anyone will be jailed for ten years over the ‘fake water’ flowing through their pipes (where ‘fake’ now means ‘not what you paid for’).
Be a true connoisseur
There’s nothing wrong with choosing clothes you like the look of, or foods and drinks you enjoy the taste of. But before you go spending hundreds, thousands, or – heaven forbid – millions on a bottle of wine, thinking it will be somehow qualitatively ‘better’, you might want to examine the evidence a little closer.
You might not be getting what you’re paying for.
And even if you do, there’s no guarantee you’ll notice any difference.
The true connoisseur can appreciate good things no matter the price tag. I may not be able to relate to wine examples, but when it comes to food, Matt Preston (whose wonderful book Cravat-a-Licious I purchased without ever having seen him on Master Chef simply because the writing was so marvelous) describes ‘guilty pleasures’ such as Cheetos and Kraft cheese. ‘Combine on a spoon, bang it in your gob, and be assailed by the creaminess of the cheese and the crisp fizz of the corn puffs’ he says. Or there’s my personal favourite, microwaved salami. If a food critic that has eaten some of the best foods the world has to offer can still enjoy Cheetos, there should be no shame in the wine connoisseur enjoying a range of wines, regardless of price tag.
Remember: language is powerful
Think about how you can describe the foods and drinks you enjoy most – language is powerful.
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Today’s featured image is real ‘fake wine’ – that is, sparkling apple juice! My celebratory drink of choice.
PS. I’m busy preparing for an exciting conference on money and language, so will be posting weekly for a while. But this means there will be lots of exciting posts coming your way!
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What’s your favourite wine description? Let me know in the comments below!
(And does anyone care to guess which one is negative: ‘tennis balls’ or ‘wet dog’ or ‘cat piss’?)