I was a weary shopper looking for a simple Riesling when my innocent eyes fell upon this:
“Opens with a gorgeous bouquet of yellow flowers, stone fruit and musk against a backdrop of chalk and minerals. It’s richly fruity, with a sharp, honed acidity that’s shocking and penetrating. Finishes long, with an elegant honeyed touch.”
I wasn’t sure if I was in a liquor store or in some seedy place reading Fifty Shades of Grapes. As E.L. James would say, “Holy cow!” I looked left. I looked right. I unlocked my cell phone and photographed the posted review card. The description of this pricey 94-pointer just floored me. I had to have it. The words, not the bottle.
It’s an old story. Those of us who are, shall we say, less experienced wine lovers are intrigued and bemused by the industry’s word sommeliers. They can be a bit too passionate, or even bizarre, when explaining the flavor subtleties trapped beneath the cork. Call me a rube, but I don’t think my taste buds could ever fathom a backdrop of chalk.
Yet the words quoted above had been fermenting in my cell phone picture gallery for a full season, and I had this crushing column deadline. The time arrived to fully investigate this exotic verbiage at a bigger wine store.
Lo and behold, my research day coincided with a storewide wine tasting. Everywhere I turned, there was a rep tempting customers with sips of their forbidden fruits. They were stationed at the aisle endcaps, pouring samples of “honed acidity” and “deeply pitched notes of blistered tomato and pomegranate.” It was like a high-octane Saturday at Costco.
The place was crowded, but I managed to sneak some shots of the review cards. I honestly had no idea a bottle of pinot could tease your palate with supple tannins that build slowly to frame a sappy floral pastille, but apparently it can.
I hadn’t quite snapped enough reviews when a champagne expert waved me over to her table. As I slammed down a few sips of Taittinger, I explained why I was there: “I am baffled at how specific and bizarre some of these booze reviews can be. For instance, how can you taste underbrush? Underbrush! Do these aficionados crawl through the woods and chomp on low lying twigs?”
She shrugged and told me descriptions including “forest floor brambles” are, indeed, a thing. But, as she poured me something dryer, she said linking squirrel environments to Syrah was the least of the crazy. “I’ve actually seen reviewers use the words ‘manure’ and ‘cat pee.’”
I was stunned. “Really? Surely they finessed the descriptions with something like ‘hints of fertile meadow and subtle feline mist.’” Though concerned, I managed a quick sip of the dry stuff.
But as she poured me yet another sample, she insisted, “No. The exact words were manure and cat pee.”
Wow, I thought. Animal droppings. The dark forest’s underbelly. It was dizzying to imagine the wine scribes getting so noir.
But a funny thing happened. We continued discussing all the weirdness right there under the fluorescent retail lights. I was on my fifth (or sixth or seventh) sample and—boom—I tasted it. My senses took me back to a private champagne cave tour I was fortunate to experience years ago in Reims, France.
That one sip blossomed into a sweet yet musty-dry medieval tapestry of tarnished armor, lightly sun-kissed by a lavender reduction.
In other words, I think the secret to writing this stuff requires full immersion.