How And Why Words Count…

Despite a preference for words, I do also like numbers – both cardinal and ordinal – and I value their reassuring and definitive benefit.

In fact, rather like words and vocabulary, numbers can be a language in themselves. I have a friend who is fond of saying, ‘Give me one number, and I have a data-point; give me two, and I have a position; give me three, and I have a pattern. I don’t need much else to determine whether something is working or not.”

But here’s the thing…

Consider the following sequence: 4; 8; 5; 3; 9; 7; 6. Read them aloud, then try to commit them to memory and recite unseen. If English is your mother tongue, then you have about a 50% chance of getting it right. If, however, you speak Chinese, then your chance of successful recall is about 90%.

Is this the famous Asian predisposition for maths and/or higher average IQ at work? Of course not. It is neither, for both of which are a fallacy.

The simple fact is that memory is held in a two-second loop in the brain, and the ‘mechanics’ of certain languages perform better than others. In this regard, Cantonese is king, with the words for numbers typically 1/3 of a second shorter to articulate than their English equivalents. In its simplest explanation, more numbers ‘fit’ more easily into that two-second memory loop.

At which point, we introduce wine.

We have previously discussed the language of wine, and, in particular, the nature of tasting notes and terms. Whichever position has been adopted – antagonist or apologist – it would be fair to say that both sides agreed that ‘improvement’ was required: a wine language that can ‘set free’ rather than confuse, imprison or exclude. (This year alone is still sustaining a trans-Atlantic ping-pong match around the interpretation of ‘minerality’ as a descriptor – meanwhile the fastest-growing wine brand currently in the UK is a Shiraz ‘cut’ with chocolate…)

I believe that we need to construct a language of wine that – like our Cantonese analogue – is better ‘built’ for comprehension, recall, and, critically, for shared understanding. Not an emasculating uniformity – a vinous ‘received pronunciation’ – but a simple, base vocabulary built around ‘benefits and understanding’ rather than ‘features and knowledge’. Noam Chomsky (see,’On Language’) refers to this kind of tension as the ‘the language of discovery’ versus the ‘language of evaluation’.

Most language schools suggest that with 100 words you can perform ‘hotel’ French/Spanish/Italian, thereby making yourself better understood, and hopefully enjoying both improved inclusion and easier participation. In a world of apparently disinterested consumers – increasingly driven by ‘price offer’ alone – this sounds pretty enticing.

‘Hotel’ wine-speak for interested consumers, anyone?

Suggestions for a list of a 100 word starter program gratefully received…Thanks!

11 thoughts on “How And Why Words Count…

  1. Several fold issue here. Finding common markers debases breadth of expression – a chasm of yawn for a form of communication already bent by variegated factors like marketing, duress of competition, implied conflicts of interest, restricted space. But to likewise remove context and conversation, to create a language better ‘better ‘built’ for comprehension, recall, and, critically, for shared understanding’, risks floating a homogenisation. How can communication be successful if mind’s eye of individual communicating is removed and decoded to base element? I am all for a greater forum in which wine is talked about, but we kid ourselves in thinking that our niche is mass consumed reading. Even if growth had wine writing at immersion, then the import is interactivity, consumer involvement, not laying out ‘benefit and understanding’ but encouraging an exchange through individuality. Two cents, maybe three here. As always, the intellect behind your thoughts are clear and engaging, I just come from a different place on this post. MB

      • Hi Mike,

        Great response – thanks!

        I feel I did cover your fear-of-homogenisation issue by saying that this was not an exercise in introducing ‘received pronunciation’ for wine-speak, rather establishing a base line of words (benefits, as well as features) that are commonly recognised and understood.

        I really don’t see the brave new world of diverse critical opinion that you do – instead, many people using the same language and yet meaning different things.

        Some consistency doesn’t have to mean colourless uniformity, or, even worse, dumbing down. It might actually be liberating.

        Anyway, a conversation worth having, I hope. Definitely appreciate your contribution and your perspective, just – on this occasion – don’t see it the same way!



  2. Nice post Paul.

    I think the intended audience is the key but tend to agree with Mike that context and voice probably trump any set of words we may come up with.

    At the recent Robert Joseph Chardonnay talk….which I know you were at Paul….it was interesting….and quite sobering, to hear some of the “touchstone” words consumers gravitate to when they are about to purchase a bottle of wine.

    I do though…like the idea of some tonality-type structure for words used in wine communication where certain hierarchical word relationships are based on a certain key or “tonic” phrases that can then be applied to different audiences.

    Just like in music, consonance, dissonance, resolution and counterpoint would all come into play…and I guess in some respect this already happens with the great wine communicators with the ebb & flow of their words creating an emotional reaction in the reader.

    I think what our aim is as wine writers and wine communicators is often lost….and that it is our job to make people love wine a little more…. whether that is via word-salad, voice, tone, context, petrogasm or a combination is up to the individual conveying the message.


    • Hi Dave

      Really appreciate your visit – thanks!

      You and I have spoken on this before, and I very much like your idea of ‘tonality’ – whereby a word or descriptor may have graded synonyms for various audiences, depending on whether ‘detail’ (interest) or ‘discovery’ (enjoyment) is the principal cue…(and, no, I am not suggesting that either of those facets are mutually exclusive!!!)

      I also agree with you and Mike about the importance of context. My feeling is that the most important issue re context is relevance, and I am far from confident that much of current wine writing or engagement, is… at least not on a mainstream level.

      All I am wondering is ‘how’ and ‘can’ we do better, and if that involves an improved conversation, should we be thinking about the language as well as the medium we use?

      Thanks again for your thoughtful contribution.


  3. Well extended Dave. I think the only thing I will add is a clarification – that words are important, but ultimately for me, the lessening of the ‘critic on pedestal’ and the encouragement of participation (like in comments sections just like this one) is where ongoing benefit extends. Interactivity trumps critical opinion, but is reliant on context and voice to feed it. Let readership, whatever the pitch, be involved and share the space, not be dictated to. My evolution. Brave new world beyond the base lines of words.

  4. I have a suspicion that confronting wine as a functional product is a big deal for a lot of wine writers with deep, historical and intensely personal investments in wine. I think there’s value in anchoring at least some of my wine writing in the immediate experience of retail – of talking directly to final consumers about wine, their purchases and their use.
    ‘What would go well with this?’ is such a common question from consumers, yet so much of mainstream wine communication shies away from a direct answer, or treats these questions as side-issues. There’s some irony in championing ‘wines for the table’ and then not talking about the rest of what’s on the table.

  5. Great post Paul and indeed one worthy of discussion. And I really like Mike & Dave’s comments that followed as a result.

    Some quick comments:
    The ‘language’ of wine is always going to be intimidating to many and enlightening to others. This is indeed why we all love it. However, as you say, there must be an easier way to engage and, more importantly, ‘empower’ the consumer with knowledge rather than dictate.

    For me, regardless of language, this all comes down to a question of style. Whether it be a style of writing, and or a ‘style’ of wine. Through the education courses we run, style is always the key entry point to a greater understanding to this whole ‘wine’ thing. Light, medium and full bodied/flavoured have been three terms that resonate and ‘empower’. Most people can grasp those terms regardless of perceived wine knowledge. From there, the consumer can decide what they like, why, and choose which commentator/critic to follow. This isn’t about dumbing it down (I hate that term), it’s more about empowering and educating.

    As always, there are more questions than answers (hey, it’s wine). Great discussion though.

  6. The lack of smell specific words in English ensures that “this smells like something prepostorus” makes much of our wine writing and desciptions sound so awkward for so many. It would be much easier and of course much more fun if the smell of aging schoolyard ashphalt drying after a sun shower had its own word as it can and does in other languages. Perhaps, Paul we could propose an esperanto like smell dictionary…

    I’ve often thought that if we did have great smell specific words in English the notion of terroir would probably never have been embraced such as it has. Time and place and the recognition thereof is an timeless argument for the always problematic defintion (or critical search thereof – reference the Shock of the New) of greatness in the art, but the purintaical pursuit, (myself most certainly included for more than two decades of unending tasting note books) of the essence or truth in wine being the accuate or unique represenation of its terroir, could be argued is not unlike assesing a person via their family tree and medical history.
    (The smell of teen spirit would argue wine descrition can only ever be fictionalised. I give it all 89 points)

  7. Paul has raised an issue which I have been mulling over and, at times, acting on in a tactical way, for many years now. But I’ve been doing this in another language – Japanese. Let me explain.

    What Paul Starr touches on is in fact close to my personal experience. In a former life, on the Paul Henry team, I represented the Australian wine industry here in Japan. During that time I was involved in a most fascinating project with a colleague of mine – Yoshiji Sato from the trade rag Shuhan News. Some of you may have come across Yoshiji on his many travels to Australia.

    The challenge we faced was to find a way to help Japanese consumers navigate a retail wine shelf. The working assumption was that the shelf was unmanned – no ‘manikins’ there to explain it all. Back track just a little and understand that a typical Japanese consumer finds a wine shelf a daunting experience. Imagine how you would feel if you were faced with an aisle chock-full of Sake – strange bottles with vertical characters in various states of indecipherable calligraphy – and no guide. Where would you start? Probably in the adjacent beer aisle.

    We struck out to develop a self-explanatory shelf system that would provide a total novice with enough visual and textual clues to make a simple choice for a bottle of plonk for that nights’ dinner.

    The system we came up with constituted the following:
    - non-vinous descriptors in plain Japanese
    - colour system to match the ‘style’
    - food match recommendations linked accordingly

    Somewhat along the lines of what Dan Sims says, the descriptors we laboured over were the first key to the project. The existing shelf language, as employed by the distributors because so few retail buyers had any clue then, split wine into arbitrary segments – colour-based red and white (but alas no pink), sweet and dry, by country or even worse – grouped by importer! The word for dry – karakuchi – is also used on the Asahi beer can and it’s also the same word for describing Sake. Japanese consumers ‘get’ karakuchi, but does that help them navigate the vast spectrum of wine, 98% of styles sold falling into this one dry bracket?

    So we split wine into 2 whites and 2 reds and gave them ‘plain Japanese’ labels as follows:

    – Fresh and lively (‘sawayaka na..’)
    – Bodied (‘koku no aru..’)

    – Soft (‘yasashii shibumi..’)
    – Firm (‘shikkari shita shibumi..’)

    The translations don’t reveal the careful selection of the original words in Japanese, so you’ll have to trust me. Along similar lines to Zar’s point about smell, Japanese have a deep linguistic understanding of the concept of astringency – in large part due to their green tea drinking culture. So we were able to make direct use of that word – shibumi – to explain tannin levels, within using the word tannin (which is commonly employed on back-labels to some confusion).

    The split gave only 4 types of wine. On the side we included ‘bubbles’ and ‘rose’ but only where there was appetite from the retailer. This split enabled a smooth entree into a food match – whether the white wine had undergone oak or malolactic treatment or not was the cue for white-fish tempura or a boiled (nimono) dish. The heaviness of the red pointed the shopper towards either shabu-shabu (for a light red) or sukiyaki (for something heavier).

    At no time did we talk about grape varieties. At no time did we use any ‘wine speak’ like tannin or oak treatment.

    But the proof of all of this was in the pudding – when we ran aisle promotions featuring colour-coded point-of-sale material (it dangled just above the wine screwcap, attached to the shelf above – think of the cloth with splits that hangs above the entrance to a Japanese udon shop) sales increased by over 30%.

    Since then, many retailers in Japan have adopted versions on the theme – talking to consumers in a language they will understand. This was pleasing because it’s the concept that counts, not necessarily the exact words.

    However, the more specialist we are, the harder it seems to be to communicate; as our resident MW Ned Goodwin will passionately tell you – having the knowledge is one thing, being able to share and relate that with customers is another skill altogether.

    Ben Holt

  8. Big ups to everyone engaging in these types of discussions- it makes it so much richer for those who quietly go about the crafting the very wine we speak of.

    From the crafting perspective, I endeavour to articulate in wine, something that can barely be expressesd in worlds. I’m trying to say something of where the fruit came from in the context of who grew it, combined with how I envisage the grapes can be shown for what they are, whilst messing with techniques that subtly enhance these attributes with out dominating them. All this still doesn’t include the shear thrill be be able to have my enjoyment of crafting wine enjoyed by others in the context of the way the experience it.

    A dualist Newtonian atomistic view quickly leads us to the AWRI flavour, aroma and mouthfeel wheels. A good place to start, but I’m sure you will agree, no where near the full picture. The scientific philosopher in me would suggest an answer to developing such language rests with encountering those who strive to give a voice to wine by engaging with them in their diverse human experiences. In short, develop an algorithm that trawls internet writers’ for the most frequently used wine descriptors and expectorates the “Hottest 100″. Crude, discriminatory and bias I know, however it would remain current and reveal what is, rather than relying on projected thought forms.

    This is not fully the answer either, but provides yet another discussion point to be considered as we go pruning for another year. I’m sure we’ll work it all out this year……. ;)

    Maybe I’m disclosing my poor grasp of language

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>