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The Semantics of Taste : One Man's 'Cedar Sawdust' Is Another Man's 'Chocolate'


Verbal descriptions of wines can be open to as many interpretations as a Rorschach inkblot. An oak-aged Cabernet Sauvignon, for instance, is swirled in the glass, lifted to the nose, sniffed, its bouquet telegraphing a remembered scent: "Cedar sawdust!" Another bottle may evoke more subtle descriptions. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, a 1929 Chateau Haut-Brion to which I was treated at the Cafe Royal in London in 1939. The ample fragrance rising from the bowl of the glass, while ingratiatingly complex, had the delicacy of wood violets.

Splendid vintages of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild are often prized for their aroma of black currants. Yet, were you to drop a bottle of either wine onto a marble floor, spilling the contents, the reaction of someone entering the room and sniffing the odor would certainly not include references to wood violets or black currants. It's a safe bet they'd say, "Who spilled the wine?" And yet, wine lovers everywhere attempt ardently, sometimes poetically, often vaguely to describe the sensory pleasures of wine.

Seeking to bring about a more scientific approach to wine tasting, UC Davis some years ago developed the now well-known 20-point scale. Numerical values are given to: Appearance (2), Color (2), Aroma and Bouquet (4), Volatile Acidity (vinegary) (2), Total Acidity (2), Sweetness (1), Body (1), Flavor (2), Bitterness (2), General Quality (2). In each category, tasters may opt to give the wine 0, 1 or 2 points, with a perfect wine scoring 20 points. A wine of outstanding quality may score from 17 to 20 points; a sound commercial wine from 13 to 16; commercial with noticeable defects 9 to 12; common, poor wine 6 to 8 and unsatisfactory 1 to 5.

In the February issue of Wine & Spirits magazine, Richard Paul Hinkle takes not only the Davis 20-point scale but several others, including the Wine Spectator's 100-point scale, to task as being inadequate. "Who," he wonders quite appropriately, "can distinguish between a wine rated 95 and one pegged at 94? It seems like arguing angels on pinheads." He cites an Italian wine expert who uses a two-point system: Good and No Good, hedging his bet with a third classification: "I'd drink it if someone else paid for it." You can just hear Gertrude Stein saying: "A rose is a rose is a rose."

A wine simply is what it is. One should not, however, deprive oneself of some of the great pleasures wines offer: being shared, talked about, savored verbally.

Thirty years ago, that most erudite, urbane essayist, Clifton Fadiman, wrote of his lifelong love affair with wine in Holiday magazine: "As a subject, one can as easily finish with wine as with Shakespeare. There is always more to be learned and, therefore, more to be communicated, for wine does not isolate but binds men together. The drinking of wine . . . is not a lone occupation. A bottle of wine begs to be shared; I have never met a miserly wine lover. The social emotions it generates are equidistant from the philatelists's solitary gloating and the football fan's gregarious hysteria."

In the literature of wine, there is no more rapturous description of a splendid Montrachet than that of novelist Alexander Dumas, who, it is said, declared: "Divine Montrachet! A wine to drink bareheaded and kneeling." On the other hand, after tasting a wine flawed with faulty fermentation, dirty cooperage, or poor storage, have you heard this reaction: "Sweat socks!" or "Barnyard!" or--of the synthetic fruitiness of some wine coolers--"Bubble gum!"? I've experienced examples that were tanky, weedy, sometimes suggesting old rubber boots, asparagus juice, armpits, shaving lotion, menthol, eucalyptus or banana oil.

Every bottle of wine has among its lures the anticipation of its taste. I'm forever looking to find a Zinfandel with its indigenous potential of ripe red raspberries, just as I always hope for that litchi-nut taste and aroma in a wonderful Gewurztraminer. There are Chardonnays that go beyond buttery richness to memories of butterscotch, while others suggest pippin apples. Many well-aged, tongue-wrapping Cabernets suggest chocolate, and so do the best Merlots. Late-harvest Rieslings, botrytis-affected, invariably suggest apricots, pineapple or honey. It is the mysterious promise of its bouquet that leads wine lovers to pay huge sums for the Pinot Noir wines of the Domaine de la Romanee-Conti. These translucent ruby nectars invariably marry the late afternoon depth of red rose petals with distant smoke, sometimes held together with echoes of sandalwood.

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