Through the Grapevine Making the Language of Wine More Inclusive
Often, the vocabulary of wine is only accessible to people who have the time and money to learn it.
This is Through the Grapevine , a column by Meg Bernhard about wine and power.
Languages come to me slowly. Eight years of Spanish in high school and college gave me only the most basic of sentences, primarily questions: How are you? What is your job? Are you going to the beach this summer?
When I moved to Spain after college, I learned faster out of necessity: The families I stayed with didn’t speak English. I first lived with Carmen, a winemaker in central Spain whose vineyard I helped tend in the winter of 2017. We’d have breakfast together in her flat, drinking coffee with milk and watching the news. She’d talk about her family or dole out observations on relationships. A favorite saying of hers was Nuestras parejas son espejos , our partners are mirrors. I would offer a sentence or two, but mostly I listened. Then we’d clean up. Once, while clearing the table, I asked where the napkins went. “El cajón,” she told me, enunciating slowly as she pointed. The drawer. Those were my lessons.
Communicating in Spanish felt like listening to someone speak underwater. Some evenings, I sat at the dinner table and struggled to follow what Carmen’s family was saying, their words familiar yet just beyond the threshold of comprehension. Other times, however, the conversation was perfectly clear to me. My progress toward fluency was halting. I understood less when I was tired, more after I’d had coffee. When I spoke, sharing stories from home, I made many mistakes, but Carmen was patient. “Look how much you’ve learned,” she’d say.
In addition to Spanish, I was also learning another language with Carmen—the language of wine. That, too, came slowly. I’d first heard people speak it in college, on the rare occasion that wine transcended sweaty dorm-room parties and entered the realm of the elite, like lectures or meet and greets with artists and bankers and academics. The people at these events treated wine as an object of study. They seemed to have a secret lexicon, using corporeal words like body and legs or words I’d never heard at all, like sauv blanc and pinot gris . Back then, when I drank, I was not so discerning. I drank to lose language, not to learn it.
While working in Carmen’s vineyard and cellar, one of my early tasks was to complete Spanish-to-English translations of her technical sheets, which described each of her wine’s characteristics. I collected dozens of words while doing this work. Cepa was an individual grape vine. Pie americano was American rootstock—resistant to phylloxera, the blight that decimated Europe’s vineyards in the nineteenth century. Viña espaldera was a trellised vine, supported by a wire. La crianza was aging, often by barrel. Most beautiful of all was vendimia , the word for grape harvest. Other crops had cosecha or recogida for their harvests, but the grape merited its own term.
Certain words stumped me, requiring a multilevel translation from Spanish to technical English and then to more colloquial English. Añada , Google Translate told me, meant “vintage.” Like clothing? I assumed it was an error on Google’s part, so, using context clues, I translated it to “year.” I wasn’t too far off—vintage, I later learned, refers to the year when the wine’s grapes were harvested. Some days, Carmen and her husband Luis would siphon wine from one tank to the next—a trasiego , or, I learned later in English, racking, meant to separate the liquid from sediment.
Learning these words was an even clumsier process than learning Spanish. Reading them on paper, or hearing them spoken at wine tastings, rarely gave me the context necessary to understand their meaning. Some terms— brut , cuvee , elevage —were left, untranslated, in French, another language I didn’t know. I hadn’t grown up in a family that drank wine, so I never heard most of these words until I was surrounded by people who dropped them into conversation. During these conversations, I used the same phrase over and over: Qué significa? What does that mean?
Several months after I met Carmen, I had lunch with a classical historian in a cavernous bar near the port of Tarragona, a city in northeastern Spain. I was hoping to learn how to be more attentive when I tasted wine; as a new wine drinker, I’d been having trouble finding words to describe what was in my glass. Winemakers recommended I speak with the historian, who was also a wine columnist for Spain’s biggest newspaper and renowned for his incisive language.
“This wine,” he told me, a glass raised to his nose, “smells like yellow flowers that bloomed in my village when I was a child.”
As I sniffed the honey-colored liquid, my mind went blank. I could detect something, but I didn’t have the words to describe what I was smelling. By then, my Spanish had greatly improved, and I was able to hold complete, if limited, conversations. But I still struggled to find the right words for wine in any language.
I could detect something, but I didn’t have the words to describe what I was smelling.
Smell, the classical historian told me, is the sense most deeply associated with memory. There’s some speculation as to why, exactly, but a paper recently published by Northwestern University scientists concluded that there’s a neurological connection between the hippocampus and the brain’s olfactory regions. “Nearly everyone has been transported by a whiff of an odor to another time and place, an experience that sights or sounds rarely evoke,” the paper’s lead investigator, Christina Zelano, said in a press release for the study.
I told the historian about my difficulty matching words and memories to a wine’s smells. “One’s sense memory,” he said, “is like a muscle, meant to be exercised.” He suggested I visit a spice market and linger with its scents. Sumac, tarragon, coriander—I should store these things away. Everywhere else, I should keep my nose open, readying myself for the smells of the world.
Mapping scents, I realized, could help me identify flavors in the wine. Smell evoked memory, and certain memories could give me an object of comparison. If I could identify something familiar in the wine, then I’d be able to articulate what it was I smelled or tasted. After speaking with the historian, I made lists of the smells I knew. Red wine vinegar applied to my hair during summer break, to bleach out the green from pool chlorine. Vicks VapoRub, smeared on my throat and chest when I was sick.
Perhaps, if I could recall enduring aromas specific to my past, I would be better equipped to identify other smells, ones that were less memorable to me—sour cherries and dark chocolate, the stuff of wine-tasting notes. Maybe then I would know how to speak.
Wine, like language, is best experienced as communion—an exchange between people, something to be shared. With Carmen, wine and language brought me into her world, and her into mine.
Soon after I started drinking, however, I learned that the language of wine, like any language, also has the power to exclude. Often, the vocabulary of wine is only accessible to people who have the time and money to learn it. Friends have told me they find wine intimidating because of its jargon and assume those who know how to wield that jargon are more sophisticated; often, such people are also wealthy.
Recently, when I was at a bar in San Francisco, the sommelier began speaking with me. He was American, with a surfer’s accent, but he slipped into an incomprehensible lexicon when he began to describe the wine. He spoke of unfamiliar French domaines and châteaus, of a winemaking style from northeastern Italy. Intrigued, I waited for a pause so I could ask questions, but he carried on, his tone indicating he considered his commentary obvious. With each minute that passed, I felt less intelligent.
“You should try this,” the sommelier said, thrusting an orange-colored wine toward me. I was overwhelmed but relieved. This seemed like a welcoming gesture; instead of intending to make me feel small, he wanted to share his knowledge and his language. In Spain, I’d met sommeliers like this before; they’d pour me free glasses because they enjoyed the conversation and appreciated my curiosity. I presumed the same of him. When I had finished that glass, he poured me a red wine. He kept talking late into the night, so late that I missed the last train home.
I was wrong, in the end. He charged more than one hundred dollars for all the glasses he’d poured, none of which I’d asked for.
Among the community of people who think a lot about wine, access and language are living questions. Some wine drinkers and makers—namely the people who drink rare and expensive vintages—prefer to keep wine closed off to the rest of us. In their social world, wine is a luxury good comprehensible only to those who know how to speak about it. Others, particularly the people involved in the natural wine movement, want to make wine a drink for everyone. Many eschew formal language in favor of familiar vocabulary and highly personal interpretations of the drink.
In the 1980s, in an attempt to make wine more accessible to everyday drinkers but still establish a communal language, University of California, Davis, chemist Ann C. Noble created what is known as the “Aroma Wheel,” a circle containing dozens of possible aromas to be found in wine. “Novice tasters often complain that they ‘cannot smell anything’ or can’t think of a way to describe the aroma of wine,” Noble writes on her website. “They don’t have the words!”
Among the community of people who think a lot about wine, access and language are living questions.
Her prompt, intended to solve one problem of wine language, led to another—the proliferation of a certain type of “winespeak.” Deriving language from a set of key words stifles the imagination, limiting one’s sensorial experience of a wine to a series of finite categories. For example, on the wine-rating website Vivino, billed as a “marketplace empowering people everywhere to enjoy wine to the fullest,” I recently read the following reviews:
“Candied cherries with just a hint of blueberry with just a hint of sleet in the finish.”
“ Lemon, lime, gin-like spices, bubblegum, lemon grass, ginger, lemon myrtle, very gentle palate, shrewd acidity, medium weight, dry.”
“An expressive bouquet with powerful aromas of blueberries, black cherries, plums and sweet spices. Very full bodied wine with velvety tannins and round on the palate, it has very concentrated flavours of ripe forest fruits and integrated oak.”
These tasting notes sound like most others that I hear at restaurants or tastings, full of words used so widely and frequently they become meaningless.
Other guides followed the Wine Wheel’s attempt to make a science out of tasting. In its Systematic Approach to Tasting, the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom, offers a protocol and a set of terms for how drinkers should taste wine, starting with an examination of the wine’s appearance and ending with its flavors. According to the WSET, a drinker can experience the smells and tastes of a wine in three registers.
Under the primary aroma/flavor category, there are subcategories—floral, fruit, herbaceous, herbal, and spice—all of which arise from the grape variety and the vineyard. There are many types of fruit-flavored wines that can evoke anything from “banana” to, rather obviously, “grape.” Secondary aromas and flavors refer to smells and tastes resulting from the actual winemaking process (smells of “butter” or “cheese” can be identified at this level), while the tertiary level refers to the sensations resulting from bottle aging, when wine sits untouched for years. Such smells range from “orange marmalade” to “petrol.”
At the bottom of each Systematic Approach to Tasting handout, there is a note to students who are studying to obtain their certification. The terms are not a panacea; “you do not need to limit yourself.” Examiners will accept any words, “so long as they are accurate.”
Despite the objectivity these tasting guides project, taste and smell are fundamentally subjective. Esther Mobley, the San Francisco Chronicle ’s wine critic, wrote last year that conventional wine language excludes “ dimensions of flavor that are unfamiliar to the white, Western cultures that dominate the world of fine wine.” During a conversation I had with Mobley in San Francisco, I learned that black currant, typically evoked in tasting notes for cabernets, is illegal to grow in many parts of the United States, meaning that Americans who have never traveled abroad will not be familiar with the fruit’s flavor.
Miguel de Leon, a New York–based wine professional who grew up in the Philippines, described another aspect of wine’s capacity to exclude for Punch magazine. “I smell the memory of my childhood wrapped up in the jackfruit of Savennières,” he wrote, describing a French wine from the Loire Valley. “I taste cab franc and it reminds me of the tamarind candies I used to buy in the Philippines when I was little, before I moved to America—before now, when no one else in this wine class understands what I am trying to say.”
When we discuss wine, we grasp for metaphors in order to render our experience of the drink legible to others. But a smell that is “accurate” for one person may not be accurate to another. Those metaphors might have no meaning for certain people, those whose sense histories differ from our own. In response to the standardization of wine language, young wine professionals are pushing to free the language from the confines of technical, exclusionary tasting notes. When scents and tastes are grounded in the familiar, they argue, wine drinking can be more inclusive—and, ultimately, more joyful.
Lingering in scents, as the historian instructed me to do years ago, taught me to pay closer attention to my world. I now notice subtleties—the smell of humid dust after summer rain, the faint scent of soap after my mother has washed her face before bed. By paying attention, I’m now better at conjuring precise words to describe what I’m tasting, but for me, the drink more readily evokes people and places—the situations and emotions when I first drank a similar wine—than notes of fruits or flowers. Heavy garnachas recall winter nights in a small Barcelona flat, where I drank glass after glass with my sister, who was lonely after recently moving to Europe. Briny xarellos remind me of lighthearted beach days with friends in Catalonia. Salty trebbianos will always taste a little like breakup—the first one I ever tried was gifted to me by a man I’d been casually dating, as a way of ending things. I drank it that night on my best friend’s bed, a salve for my wounded pride as we laughed and sipped and wondered where our lives might lead.
Three years ago, in Southern California, I bought my mother a bottle of Carmen’s wine from a small shop. It had been a year since I’d first done translation work for her, and now I was six thousand miles away, pouring her wine in my parents’ living room. The wine was from 2015, made with acidic graciano grapes native to Spain. I remembered the long mornings in Carmen’s kitchen, learning how to speak. I remembered fresh grapes we harvested together earlier that fall and tart blackberries I collected from bushes growing along a riverbank at another vineyard farther north. My mother had never been to Spain, had never traveled outside of North America, and yet with this bottle, she knew something of Carmen and the life I’d lived with her.
My mother took a sip and smiled. “Delicious,” she said. I sent Carmen a photo of my mother and me with the wine, the message traveling across time zones.