This week on the “VinePair Podcast,” Adam Teeter, Zach Geballe, and Joanna Sciarrino discuss how the language of wine tasting notes has created a gatekeeping effect in the industry. After listing what they have been drinking recently — including a Pennsylvania Nebbiolo — our hosts dive into a discussion about the pretension of many wine descriptors.
That conversation leads into the hosts’ opinions about how wine tasting notes often alienate people who are just getting into wine. This particular Eurocentric language creates a barrier for entry into wine, which can be intimidating to some and a turn-off for others. Instead, Geballe, Sciarrino, and Teeter believe that professionals should take a step back and allow consumers to make their own decisions about wine.
If you have any thoughts on wine language, please send your ideas to email@example.com.
Or Check out the Conversation Here
Adam Teeter: From VinePair’s New York City headquarters, I’m Adam Teeter.
Joanna Sciarrino: I’m Joanna Sciarrino.
Zach Geballe: And in Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe.
A: And this is the “VinePair Podcast.” Zach and Joanna, how were your holiday weekends? What’s going on?
J: Do you want to take it, Zach?
Z: Oh sure.
A: He never misses a chance to be called on first.
Z: Well, I just follow the lead. Anyway, my weekend was nice. We had a pretty low-key fourth. We had a few of my cousins over for what my wife, who is from Wisconsin, refers to as “cooking out.” I refer to it as grilling. Whatever, it’s cool. It was pretty casual. The Fourth of July is a rough night for my dog, which is unfortunate, but he did OK. It was nice that my wife had a four-day weekend, which is cool. Yesterday, she said, “We gotta go back to work.” That just means her office. Still, it’s an adjustment for all of us. But it was nice to drink a lot of rosé over the weekend. It was warm, sunny, and just good weather for rosé. We also had some chilled reds from northern Italy. It was lovely. Joanna, what did you do?
J: Nice. So our Fourth of July was also very low-key. We just hung out at home and on our roof for a little bit. We also grabbed dinner at a local restaurant. We also had some rosé and had some more Tip Top Proper Cocktails, which I love. I really like them. I also had a really good, Oaxaca Old Fashioned.
A: Very cool, so my Fourth of July was good and also not good. On the good front, I had some really delicious wine. My wife is from Lancaster, Pa., and we brought some really cool wines with us. Keith, who is VinePair’s tastings director, and his wife Gina came along, and we had a bottle of Biondi Santi that was incredible. We also actually had a really great wine that’s made in Pennsylvania. It’s called Vox Vineti. He was a big wine lover from Manhattan, moved to Pennsylvania, found this amazing piece of property, and is making Nebbiolo and things like that, which was awesome. On the not-so-good front, I wasn’t sure I was going to talk about this, but I think I need to. That night of the Fourth of July, we were playing with fireworks in the front yard with the whole neighborhood. This guy across the street came out and yelled f*****g Jews at us and it wasn’t the first time that I have experienced anti-Semitism in my life, but it was pretty jarring. It reminded me of the two times recently I have experienced it in our industry. Once, an Amarone producer told me, without knowing I was Jewish, that the reason his Amarone prices were falling was that the Jews control the markets. Another time when I was in Chile, a wine producer said to me that the reason Chile is known for cheap wine is because of the Jews. I thought about that and thought this is completely unacceptable. The fact that this person felt it was OK to yell at us, and he had no clue that we were Jewish. Besides the fact that my in-laws are, but they’re not outwardly looking Jewish at all, meaning that they’re not religious. They don’t wear any head coverings, etc. He still chose to yell that at us anyway. Keith and Gina, obviously, are not Jewish. Then, the fact that these two producers have said these things to me prior to Covid as a “we know the truth,” right? I felt that I needed to say something because it’s completely unacceptable and absolutely ridiculous. We’re talking about all these other times where we want to root out all the huge issues in our drinking culture, whether it’s sexism, racism, xenophobia, etc. I believe that when this happened to me, I had not spoken up in the past. In both those situations, I didn’t say anything. This weekend made me regret that. I wanted to protect the publicist, who apologized for the winemaker who said it. I wanted to look the other way. At this point, I’m not going to protect those people anymore. Actually, the publicist who wanted to protect that winemaker, I’m pretty disappointed, still has that winery as a client, which is not cool. Anyways, not to take us down a weird path, but it was just something that I’ve been thinking about since it happened on Sunday. It weirdly ended my Fourth of July weekend, and it needed to be somewhat brought up because we all have to talk about these things or they’re just not going to go away.
J: I’m really sorry that happened to you. That sucks.
A: It was nuts.
J: It’s really disgusting.
Z: Adam, I think you and I have talked off-air about this before, but I, too, have been subjected to anti-Semitism. I have also been present when those things have been said when someone doesn’t necessarily know that I’m Jewish, and it’s awkward. It’s both offensive and awkward. For me, it’s often been hardest with “jokes,” where you think, “Do I want to be that person who makes a big deal about this?” One time in particular, I came very close to saying something, and I regret not doing it. I also think it’s one of those things where sometimes, you make a decision where the person telling the joke that’s inappropriate is frankly, someone who passed away within the next year and was quite old. Then, is this really worth getting into? I don’t know what it is. You end up in this place where you just recognize it. It also reminds you that this thinking, these beliefs, whether it is anti-Semitism or bigotry of all other kinds, it is there. Frankly, I’ve thought in my life that when someone says something in that vein, I know where they stand. They never say anything and they’re just thinking it real hard, you know where you’re at with that person. When they open their mouths and say something like that, now I know this is how you feel about me, women, or people of color. Obviously, this happens in a lot of ways and I know that many of our listeners have been present or victim to this, so it’s obviously not just anti-Semitism. For you and me, Adam, we’ve experienced it personally.
A: Yeah, exactly. I would assume a lot of our listeners have experienced this in another form, whether it’s sexism, racism, etc., and it’s just not appropriate. It’s not OK. If you are listening, and this happened to you, it can be really scary to say something in the moment, right? You don’t want to say something. I think whether you address it later or you talk to people who are involved, it is important if you believe you can. I think it’s important for people who represent these people. If you have a client, I understand that’s revenue, but if you have a client that is doing these things or is saying these things, it’s a reflection on you if you continue to work with them, and in this regard when it was the winemaker from Italy, “Oh, he’s just their export manager. He’s just one of the brothers.” He’s the export manager?! Come on, that means he deals with people publicly all the time and that reflects on that winery. You shouldn’t be working with them anymore, regardless of what fees they pay. Again, we have a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, over the past five years, there’s been an acceptance of saying these things again. Hopefully, we’re moving away from that, but there definitely seems to still be a large number of people who are very emboldened to say very hateful things to people — whether they know or don’t know those people are part of those groups. It’s not cool. It’s just not cool. Anyways, I will change the subject so we don’t only talk about this for the rest of the episode and get into a different one which is also equally, I think, about acceptance and trying to make things more inclusive to all people. Zach, I’ll let you jump into our topic for today.
Z: Yeah, so this started as a thought in my head that that’s been getting more concrete over the last couple of years, and it’s come from a lot of teaching and working with the public on wine in particular. Unfortunately, the wine industry — and I think you see this spilling out into beer and spirits, too — there is this emphasis on really specific almost comical tasting notes as well as European-centric, too. What I mean by this is if you go look at the tasting notes for a wine and it says “late season blackberry compote and spring sandalwood,” that is the type of language that I think all of us in one way or another roll our eyes at in a sense. It also has this really pernicious effect, which in my opinion, at least, it really gives casual wine drinkers and people who work in the trade, this sense that every wine is a test, and all of us fail. One, picking out all of those tasting notes is often being pulled out of someone’s ass, to be completely honest. You’ve got to write a paragraph about wine if you’re a reviewer or if you’re the person creating the shelf talkers for the winery or for the distributor. You’ve got to say something, and there’s only so many ways to describe wine. There are only so many flavors and aromas. There are a lot of them, but in the end, how many different ways can you say blackberry? Again, it creates this idea that these flavors, these aromas, are not just present in the wine, but distinguishable for everyone. If you drink this one, you should get these notes. That’s the perception that the industry gives off. It is not true and also serves to alienate people. I was just pouring at a public event the other day, and people asked, “What should I be getting in this wine?” I mean, just drink it. You can tell me what you think, but this isn’t a test. I don’t have a scoresheet here. I’m not looking to grade how good of a wine drinker you are. I’m really disinterested in that entirely. Again, this idea that every wine is a test for people is the one that I really want to see go away. Joanna, since you’re someone who is newer to wine, I would love to know from you if this rings true. Is something that you have experienced?
J: Yeah, that’s a good question. My initial thought when I’m tasting wine is what I taste, versus what I think I’m supposed to taste. Seeing something that says “marionberry,” maybe I can pick up some berry qualities or berry on the palate. I’m not necessarily looking to those descriptors to inform how it tastes for me. If I can taste a wine and then identify something that’s been written, great. But I also understand what you’re saying, Zach. I think for people, especially people who are trying to educate themselves about wine, people who are attending classes, I understand this desire to be able to taste what a professional says you should taste. I also see where that’s problematic because that leaves it to your own palate and what you’ve tasted. If you haven’t tasted a marionberry, which I don’t actually think I have, then you’re excluded from that experience, right?
A: Well, when you see these tasting notes, do you find them to be intimidating? I’ve definitely heard that from people who are getting into wine that’s what has always intimidated them to begin with. Or do you just think that they’re pointless?
J: Actually, what I find more intimidating in some of these other descriptors. I don’t know what a chewy wine is. What is a crunchy wine? I don’t know what that is, so that’s when I feel stupid.
A: No, I agree. An issue with wine is that it’s created this language for itself over years and years of writing about it. People collect it and make it, which is great, but it does then create a barrier to entry. The only challenge that I would posit, which is something that I think Zach and I have talked about before, is that I think a lot of people lose in wine like that barrier. That barrier to entry means that not everyone can enter the luxury market. I mean, think about it this way. If you’re talking about handbags…
Z: Adam’s favorite comparison!
A: I haven’t talked about this in the past?!
Z: Yes, you have.
A: No, I haven’t.
Z: Oh, yes, you have.
A: Whatever, so not everyone’s allowed to buy a Birkin bag. You have to walk into Hermès and you have to ask a certain way. Then, they have to size you up and then they’ll let you buy a Birkin. It’s an elite club. When you have the Birkin, you are known as someone who was able to buy a Birkin. I think in a lot of ways, the way we talk about wine is, are you in the know, or are you not? I’m going to say things in a way such as, are you going to appreciate this wine, or are you just buying it because it’s expensive? I had a similar experience recently where I went out to dinner with some people and we went to a very nice restaurant in Manhattan, Le Bernardin. I ordered a bottle of wine, and the wine came to the table. It was from an area of Burgundy that is not known for having the best Pinot Noirs, but if you’re on this specific spot in this area, you actually might as well be in one of the best areas of Burgundy for Pinot. The two people that I was with love wine, but don’t know a lot about or don’t speak the language. They asked, “Hey, can you tell us what wine?” The server just went off this laundry list of all these random descriptors and said what I said, but almost making them think that the wine was a diamond in the rough, but in a really weird way that totally overwhelmed them. All they were looking for him to say is “Oh, the producer is this person. They’re really known for making whatever and the wines f*cking delicious.” That’s all they were looking for. When he left, they were saying it was like he was testing them and did they understand what he’s saying? That’s what I’ve always wondered with wine: Is it both? First of all, to become really versed in wine, you are almost forced to learn all these descriptors and all these ways to talk about it because you want to be able to have these conversations with other people in the know. So it’s a way to challenge people, but then it’s also this barrier for a lot of people. Joanna, as you were saying before we started recording, it also doesn’t take into account the experiences of so many people who are currently coming into wine who have different aroma experiences, have different cuisine experiences than this traditional, very much French, Eurocentric way that we have always talked about wine.
Z: I think you make a good point, Adam, about a segment of the wine industry reveling in some sense in the way that the language creates a barrier to entry. Tasting notes like I’ve described are ubiquitous. You see them on $7 bottles of wine as much as you see them on $700 bottles of wine. It’s not just a high-end problem. I think it’s an all-of-wine problem. To me, it comes back to a fundamental issue that we have in the industry. If we want to talk about wine in a way that is accessible to people but also not the opposite. Sometimes, when it’s just like, “This wine is good,” I find that to be a little bit “eh, fine.” I think there is a middle ground to find and it’s maybe a middle ground of accepting that most people, given their life experience, may not be able to distinguish between blackberry, marionberry, loganberry, and boysenberry, but they probably have had berries before. They have some sense of that. Maybe they can’t tell you the difference between all these different pears but they’ve had a pear before. It’s about simplifying the language. Will there be a little bit of nuance lost? Yes, but I honestly think that a lot of those nuances are in the eye of the beholder in the first place. One person’s ripe pear is another person’s tart pear. It’s very hard to objectively discern these things, in my opinion. At the same time, to talk about other parts of the wine experience and the impact of the wine on us that often doesn’t get mentioned in tasting notes. They get talked about some in professional circles, and they’re adjacent to the things you both recoiled against — chewy and crunchy — but they are more about the texture of the wine. One of the reasons why I think it’s so important to talk about texture when it comes to wine and anything that we drink is because for so many of us, the things that we like and don’t like, have a lot more to do with texture than flavor. Yes, some flavors are off-putting, but I see this because I have a child, and I’m seeing him learn what he does and doesn’t like. It’s so much more about the texture of a thing than the flavor of a thing because flavors are malleable. We can learn to appreciate new flavors but if you don’t like mushy things, you’re never going to like a banana. It doesn’t matter what the banana tastes like, the texture of the thing is the problem. Wine, too, has lots of different textures that have to do with the ripeness of the grapes, the level of alcohol, residual sugar, the tannins — all these things and more. Yet, that element of wine is not mentioned, or it’s given an opaque term such as crunchy or chewy. I could sit here and try to explain to you what those things mean, but the point is we could talk a lot more interesting notes in descriptions of wine. I think it would be good for everyone in the industry to talk much more about the actual physical sensations of having the wine and waste a lot less time talking about ephemeral and very hard to define aromas and flavors. A wine that’s high in tannin is going to have the exact same physiological impact on everyone who drinks it because it’s just a physical and chemical reaction in your mouth. It’s not based on a memory. If you didn’t have red currants when you were a kid, and you don’t know what the f**k a red currant tastes like, it might as well be gibberish. Everyone can recognize, if they pay attention to it — part of it is paying attention to, of course — what their physical tactile senses are telling them. We have to be willing to talk about those things. I find them fascinating and interesting in how wine affects us in the same way that it’s interesting to talk about how alcohol affects us. And how over the course of an evening all the things we experience will be in some way affected by that. I don’t know, I get why the florid prose seems to sell bottles or sounds good or give someone something to do, but I just don’t think it does anyone any real good.
J: I also find that those types of descriptors — the more objective ones that perhaps more people experience — also feel intimidating. Almost as intimidating as saying something tastes like a rare fruit you’ve never had.
A: I agree with Joanna.
Z: I’m wondering if reading or hearing someone say it without any explanation is more alienating. I mean, someone can say this wine tastes like an anjou pear and you maybe not have had that, or I don’t remember how that is different from other pears, but you know it tastes like a pear, so you feel OK. And talking about a wine that is rich, oily, or wine that is really lean and linear. We need to learn what it means to have those wines, but I do think that there’s real value. Again, maybe this isn’t for every last person who drinks wine. Nothing is, but for people who want to learn a little more, I do think there’s real value in focusing or thinking about these more objective, chemically and physiologically derived experiences with wine than just emphasizing flavor. I think it is similar to the difference between al dente pasta and overcooked pasta. It’s the same thing, but our experience eating it is different, even though the noodles are the same either way.
A: If you want to talk about descriptors, good for you. That is, if you want to get more into wine, but I think the problem that we encounter all the time that we need to try to rectify is when you are someone who is selling wine or you are someone talking about wine to people who love wine but aren’t as geeky or learning, just say it’s f*cking good. I think that’s something that beer does much better than wine, and I think spirits do in a way, too. Also, don’t judge people for words they use because you think you know better than them. Again, a publication we will not name wrote a whole takedown of the word “smooth” recently. It’s not the people’s fault who used that word? Don’t be a f*cking prick. I get that you don’t like that word, but that word exists in so many other beverages. Oh, this whiskey is really smooth. Oh, this New England IPA is really smooth and fluffy. Of course people are going to apply it to wine, so get over it and try to understand why they like that.
Z: Many wineries have sold their wine based on the notion that it’s smooth. That was the selling point for a lot of California Merlot for a long time. It’s smooth, and with red blends, same thing.
A: Again, that’s where I question: Do you really want to make money? Do you really want to get other people into these beverages? Do you want to get them excited? If you did, you would amend your language and you would become more accessible. If you don’t, then you won’t. Don’t be upset at the companies that have decided they’re going to figure it out and do it. Don’t shake your fist at the sky and say, “Well, they’re big wine.” Well, they figured it out. They’re bringing more people into wine in general, and there’s something that’s awesome about that. I think we’d be much better off starting with, “The wine is really delicious. It’s super refreshing.” People know what refreshing is, right? When you talk about wine, say, “This is a very refreshing white wine. It might remind you of lemonade.” Most people know what lemonade tastes like. Or, “This is a great red wine with the steak that I see that you ordered.” Things like that, I think, are much better. The reason that gosh, now, a decade or more ago, someone like Gary Vaynerchuk had such success was he just was willing to say that these tasted like banana runts or this tasted like Juicy Fruit. I don’t think that there were more people in America who knew what Juicy Fruit tastes like. I don’t really remember what Juicy Fruit tastes like. I was not allowed to have a lot of candy growing up. I think they thought, oh, my gosh, he’s breaking the mold using candy and other things as opposed to Anjou pear, which I love that that’s what we’re using right now in this conversation. Anyways, it was just refreshing to people that he wasn’t scared to say it tasted like something else. At the end of the day, what’s so cool about wine is that wine tastes like what you remember so it’s all based on flavors you’ve had before. When you walk up to a consumer who’s getting into wine and say you’re going to have X, Y and Z, and they don’t taste those things, you just make them feel stupid. I don’t understand why there has to be such one-upmanship of what is good and what isn’t. For example, there was another thing that happened to me this last weekend.
Z: This was quite a weekend, my goodness.
A: I think it’s interesting because this goes back to what you guys are talking about. Keith and I went to this amazing producer, Vox Vineti. We had his Nebbiolo, which was really, really good, but it tastes much leaner, less tannic, and all that stuff. I posted it on Instagram and I had a few somms who slipped into my DMs, some of whom I’m not actually friends with, who just happened to follow me. They said there’s no way. Well, that is what my palate told me. Trust my palate or don’t, why are you arguing with me? That is exactly what my palate said it tasted like to me based on the fair amount I had because I like that style of wine. What’s the fight? Why does it matter? I posted that not trying to say that Pennsylvania is going to be the next source of the best Nebbiolo in the world. I didn’t say any of that. That’s the problem with wine that we need to get over. Don’t tell the consumers it tastes like strawberries, let them tell you what they think it tastes like. “I think it tastes good.” Awesome. Then, that’s how it tastes. “I think this tastes like boysenberry.” Sweet, I don’t know what boysenberry is, but good for you. ‘This reminds me of the red wine I used to drink with my grandmother.” Dope. “This is from Virginia, but it tastes like Bordeaux.” Awesome. People should just get to have their own experiences with wine and everyone else should shut the f**k up.
Z: Well, I think there’s also one last piece of this. There is this unfortunate belief that there are right wines and wrong wines, again, coming back to this notion of it not being a test. I found this a lot as a sommelier, so often with tables, they do want to be essentially told what you said, Adam: “This is really good f*cking wine.” I always train my servers and say that my job as the wine director is to make sure that all the wine is good. The point is you’re not going to ever get to the wine that you recommend to them as the right wine and all the other wines are the wrong wine. Well-made wine is well-made wine. If people like the broad-strokes style that it’s in, they’re probably going to like it. Yes, some people might be more particular than others. This is true in all things. However, at some point you get yourself, guests, and consumers in this headspace where they’re worried about being wrong or worried about making mistakes. That’s when they choose something else. They either step away or they go back to the same thing they always bought or ordered. It’s a language problem. It’s a marketing problem. It’s an attitudinal problem, for sure. It’s unfortunate because it’s pretty widely spread, but it’s also exciting to me because I think it is an area where you get people coming into wine from other places, from other backgrounds, other experiences where you do see people who don’t need this framing. They don’t need to play within this established benchmark and established lexicon that exists around wine in a very Eurocentric way. I think it’s super exciting to see people breaking out of that framework and using the verbiage that makes sense to them. That is connected to their life experiences, their sense memories, and the foods they eat. That’s fantastic, and I may or may not connect with all of it. It may not be in my lived experience, but wine and the wine industry would be all the richer for more of that and less of the same old shit that’s been written for the last 50, 60, 70 years.
A: Totally. I completely agree.
J: Yeah, and one last thing. Some of my favorite wine experiences that I’ve had are when I’ve been in a restaurant and expressed to a sommelier the types of flavors or wines that I like. Then, they would bring me something that they think I would like.
A: I agree. That’s how it should always be, right? I’ve had a wine recently that’s one of the trendy wines out of California right now. I don’t really love oak, so I didn’t really love this wine. Yet, a lot of people do right now, and that’s OK. Even with critics, the reason certain critics took off in the past and still have followings is they have palates that other people like. There’s a lot of other people in wine that don’t agree with those people’s palates and that’s also OK. We shouldn’t just make wine for one person’s palate. That was a huge mistake when everyone followed Parker, and we’re now correcting that. It’s OK if some wineries make that style of wine and his palate likes that style of wine and there’s a lot of people that like that style of wine. That’s OK. I just think that there’s so much variety in the world of beverages that we can all find things that are delicious. At the end of the day, it’s just as you said, Zach. It’s the job of the person selling that wine to just ensure that the person knows that it’s really good.
J: I think the more language we can use to describe wine, the better.
A: I agree. Well, guys, this has been a great conversation, as always. I won’t be with you next week. You’re going to miss me so much.
Z: I also do want to hear, listeners, if you have thoughts on this. We love to get your feedback on anything, but particularly this topic in which we are trying to push the conversation forward in how we talk about and think about things like wine. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. It’s really exciting to hear from you all, whether you agree or disagree, whether you think Adam’s Pennsylvania Nebbiolo is crap. Let us know.
A: Hey, hey, hey.
Z: Well, slide into his DMs for that, I guess. I’m sure it’s good. I would love to try it. I’m just saying.
A: I had some bottles.
Z: Oh, excellent.
A: I mean you are going to have such not a good conversation without me next week, but I hope it is at least a B-level conversation.
Z: We’ll see what we can do.
A: Talk to you guys later.
J: All right, bye.
Z: Sounds great.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe. He does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shout-out to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director, who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.