Purple prose in wine writing should make you salivate
Delving serendipitously into my favourite reference book, Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, I came across the term Gleipnir.
Definition: In Scandinavian legend, the chain by which the wolf Fenrir was bound. It was extremely light and made from the noise made by the footfalls of a cat, the roots of mountains, the sinews of bears, the breath of fishes, the beards of women and the spittle of birds.
Which got me thinking about the flights of fancy some of my wine-writing brethren are prone to when it comes to describing the aromas and tastes of wine.
I have been guilty of adjectival excesses myself, having once described an Alsace Gewürztraminer as “a lumberjack wearing too much after-shave.” But now I realize it was a mere conceit and not something that helps a prospective consumer make a purchasing decision.
A small quiz here. To what or to whom do the following two quotations refer: “Raspberry scented like the breezes from the Islands of the Blessed, a dream of grace and delicacy, the twinkling feet of dancing nymphs suddenly set free in our tedious world …”
“They opened the gates of Paradise which Swinburne fathered on Swedenborg where all the senses were confounded and where music, colour and perfume were one.”
Believe it or not, both refer to bottles of wine. Not just any wine. These panegyrics were penned by two British connoisseurs in the 1940s. They allude, respectively, to a tasting of Château Margaux 1871 and Château La Lagune 1858 — wines made during the Golden Age of Claret before the dreaded phylloxera blight destroyed the vineyards of Europe. They say that Bordeaux reds have never been quite as good since. But then, they always say that about all Golden Ages.
I surfed the net looking for some contemporary examples of purple prose in wine writing and found this award-winner: “Dark and packed with a large core of hoisin sauce, Port reduction, bittersweet cocoa, raw steak, raspberry ganache and charcoal that manages to stay fleshy and driven through the long, structured finish. A stallion of a wine. Offers youthful impact now, but really built for cellaring — unlike most of its peers, which offer vivid fruit right out of the gate.” (The wine in question was a $44 Chilean red.)
Other runners-up were: “Essence of the felt in the case of a Stradivarius violin case” and “Reminds me of the sharp keys on a well-tuned Steinway — only the sharp keys!”
The best wine writing should make you salivate and should convey the taster’s enthusiasm for the product. Any analogies should be democratically universal and comprehensible (not: “Smells like my grandmother’s knitting box”). Above all, it should avoid references to medical conditions, body parts or the writer’s matrimonial problems. And shun such weasel words as “interesting” and “complex.” They sound like the answers to survey questions about a first date.
And then there’s the minimalist school of wine writing, as advocated by my old friend Tim Hanni, America’s first Master of Wine, a trained chef and the man who entered the term “umami” into the wine lexicon. For Tim, wines need only a one-word descriptor. They are, quite simply, either thumbs up or thumbs down: either “Yum” or “Yuck.”
Harking back to my opening sentence, Mr. Brewer also enlightened me as to the derivation of the word serendipity. Apparently, it was coined by Horace Walpole, the eighteenth-century historian, politician and novelist. He formed it based on the title of a fairy story, The Three Princes of Serendip, because the princes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’”
Bless you, the Reverend Ebenezer Cobham Brewer for your erudition and the volume you gave the world in 1870. It should be on every wine writer’s shelf.