Tag Archives: wine

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.


Wines, the world, and so on

I love wines. Especially good ones. From all over. Aina and I go on trips just to taste wines. My serious wine education started when I was 19 (thanks, cousin Sharon). For the past 16 years I’ve edited the website of Tony Aspler, Canada’s wine guy, and that was where I got the idea of doing word tastings.

So, naturally, when I got the opportunity to write an article for a travel website about wines to choose for a starter wine cellar, I very happily took it. And I sure enjoyed writing it. Here it is. If you don’t enjoy reading it, have a glass of wine and try again (I recommend a chilled sparkling wine – a blanc de noirs from Champagne if you want to spend the money, or a Gloria Ferrer from Sonoma, or a crémant de Loire or, heck, why not Seaview Brut?).

The world in your home: How to build the ultimate international wine collection




Keuka Lake from Bully Hill

As I mentioned in my tasting of traminette, I spent some time last weekend tasting wines along Keuka Lake. Keuka Lake is one of New York’s Finger Lakes; it’s on the west side of the bunch, and it has a distinctive feature: it’s forked. In fact, it looks not so much like a finger as like your thumb and forefinger and a continuation of their joining down to the wrist. Actually, it looks more like a forked branch you’d use to roast hot dogs or marshmallows. Or, you know, like a lake with a fork in it halfway up.

Keuka would seem a distinctive name, with its two k’s and its echoes of cucumber and cue card and eureka, but I imagine many people get confused between Keuka Lake and the lake two to the east, Cayuga Lake. It’s not that they look similar – Cayuga is longer, not forked, and has much gentler slopes on its sides – but the names sound nearly identical. If you say them slowly, it’s “key you ka” versus “cay you ga,” but who says place names carefully more than a couple of times? In the more relaxed pronunciation, the only real difference is the /k/ versus /g/ in the middle. Coincidence? Not altogether.

It’s not that the two words are really the same name. But they are related. Keuka comes from a word meaning ‘canoe landing’ and Cayuga comes from a word meaning ‘canoe carrying place (trimmed of a final syllable). Canoe see the common element? Of course, in both cases, the names aren’t accurate; they’re really names for shoreline places – the lakes themselves are more canoe rowing places.

Or, today, boat sailing places. Or looking at the pretty water from the shore places. Or, for a lot of people, wine tasting nearby places.

Which is where Keuka comes in for me. A trip down Keuka Lake for me is a trip down memory lane. I went on my first wine tasting trip there about a quarter of a century ago with my cousin Sharon, a wine aficionado (and somewhat older than me). That’s also when and where I first tasted icewine (at Hunt Country, which still makes an excellent icewine, full of brown sugar flavours). I don’t drink too much icewine – just too sweet for me after the first sniff and sip – but I love wine touring. That first experience made Keuka a bit of a eureka for me: it opened up whole new vistas.

Vistas are another reason this isn’t my first return to Keuka. Other Finger Lakes have wineries too – even more of them, in fact – but none are as pretty as Keuka. None have as European a feel. The hillsides sloping into Keuka Lake are dramatic. And there is a high bluff over the fork. With houses on it that look like a stiff rain might just wash them down into the drink.

Ah, never mind the houses, and never mind the canoes, either. I will prefer the drink. The wineries have not improved as rapidly as the ones in the Niagara region of Ontario, but they are catching up now. And I have some more catching up with them to do… next time through.

View from Heron Hill.


I was off on a little wine-tasting excursion over the weekend. We went to Keuka Lake, one of New York State’s Finger Lakes. Wine has been made in that area for about a century, but it’s been only a half century since Dr. Konstantin Frank introduced vinifera grapes to the area – the kind of grapes usually used in the non-benighted world to make wine. The grapes that had been used in New York before – and are still used for some products – tend to produce what Tony Aspler has called “block and tackle wines”: one drink and you can walk a block and tackle anyone.

The climate in New York can be hard on some varieties of grapes, so the winemakers are always looking to improve their stock with something that tastes good and is also sufficiently hardy. Enter traminette, a pleasant little white wine grape that is now being used by a number of the wineries in the area. It is a hybrid created in about 1965 at the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign by Herb Barrett. It would be fun if Barrett had been trying to create a kind of urban champagne, but actually he just want to make a nice table grape that had some of the taste of Gewürztraminer. He made it by crossing Gewürztraminer with the hybrid Joannes Seyve 23.416 (does that look like a scriptural reference?). He sent some of it to the experimental grape breeding program at Cornell University, which is at the south end of Cayuga Lake, which is another one of the Finger Lakes. It has spread from there because it survives and it tastes good.

What does it taste like? Well, I’m not here to give you wine tasting notes. You would do better to go see for yourself. I will tell you that it’s reminiscent of Gewürztraminer but toned down, with some flavours that might remind you of pinot blanc or vidal or just maybe Riesling. Or, if you aren’t a wine geek: it’s a nice, moderately fruity white wine, not buttery and not too tart or crazy, but just a little quirky.

What I am here to give you is word tasting notes. Come on, now: we have the word right in front of us. Let’s taste it together. Say it slowly: /træ mi nɛt/. It starts crisp on the tip of the tongue /t/, with a little rolling release into the liquid /r/; the vowel can be realized a bit harder as /æ/ or a bit milder as /a/. The lips come together softly /m/ as though considering a taste. Then another vowel, which can be high and sweet /i/ or more restrained /ɪ/ or rather subdued, almost dull /ə/. The tongue tip presses in again softly and quickly /n/ to start the ending, which is strong and clear, medium-bright and dry /ɛ/ with a fast, crisp final stop /t/.

The word can’t avoid seeming feminine; it has that ette ending. But such a range of flavours swirl around: a mechanical conveyance tram, with a rough hint of tramp and a suggestion of jam; a tighter, tidier trim; perhaps a girl’s name, Tammy; a net effect that could be an ensnaring mesh or a tennis game. It may bring to mind a stern and hectoring martinet, or a dangling, dancing marionette, and perhaps something to marinate in the interim. Look at its shape on the page and you may get a glimpse of a mitten to make it handle the cold better, perhaps a bit of mint (absent from the wine’s flavour), a questionable marine influence, possibly inert, and a backwards look at the commercial mart. But you will certainly see how balanced it is, with the i in the middle and humps and crosses on either side – to the left one cross and two humps, to the right one hump and two crosses. It even looks vaguely reminiscent of rows of grape vines in an orchard.

Will all this affect how the wine tastes to you? I don’t know. It would be a fun experiment to have a number of wine aficionados taste a new hybrid and tell some of them it had one name – say, merlina – and some another – say, xenoraz – and see if their tasting notes seem to be influenced by the name.

But whether or not it would, it’s best to be conscious of all aspects of what you’re tasting. When you taste the wine, taste the word too.

A champagne snobbery glossary

I’ve just gotten back from two weeks in Europe with my wife. I’ll be doing a few word tasting notes on it. While I was away, I wrote an article for TheWeek.com on the basis of the first leg of our trip: champagne country. So let’s start with that:

How to be a champagne snob