Wraths of Grape: the Case Against Wine Talk

We love people who are passionate about what they do and what they like.  Or don’t like.  We love to hear them talk, to read them and we love to engage with them.  We don’t have to agree – but civilized, coherent debate is a wonderful stimulant.  And there’s nothing wrong with a good rant.  THE WRATHS OF GRAPE is a regular wine-rant authored by a man passionately devoted to wine who likes to call himself Grape.  If you enjoy it and become a regular reader, we’ll be happy to read your rant – and perhaps post it on our site.

The Wraths of Grape: The Case Against Wine Talk
I have never, in a life of rubbing shoulders with precious writers, actors, advertising parasites and artists heard or read as much pretentious nonsense as I do in wine forums, books, stores and restaurants.  And, by the way, I’m capable of a high degree of pretentiousness myself.  I’ll try to remain civil as I explain why so much wine talk makes me want to pop my cork to unleash some fresh invective.

Big Man, Big Nose, Big Heart

I met Lance Szilagi at school, playing water polo.  His first name had seven consonants and no vowels but it began with L and so we called him Lance. He had been a toddler when his parents escaped Hungary one step ahead of the Russian tanks that suppressed the uprising with terrible savagery.  According to his father, Lance walked all the way.  Refused to be carried.

At seventeen, he was a behemoth, 6’ 4” and 240 lbs.  I was a hundred pounds lighter and substantially more stupid.  Our first water polo contest, he shoved me around the pool for half the game.  I lost my temper and elbowed him in the nose.  It was a big nose and now severely altered.  He practiced aquatic chiropractics on me for the rest of the match and later we became friends.

He never did get his nose straightened.  I think that, secretly, he was proud of it and I only uncovered a possible reason for that when, later in life, I was made an honorary member of the Polish Cavalry Club in London.  My sponsor told me that Polish aristocrats (and cavalry officers) look like English construction workers and Polish construction workers look like English aristocrats.  An unlikely story but it might explain Lance’s affection for his sideways nose.

What Does This Have to Do with Wine?

When we left school, Lance went into the wine trade where, it transpired, his nose demonstrated unusual if not unique talents.  So, as a very young man, he became a buyer and, later, one of the few non-native sherry and port blenders.  Even back then, his employers insured his nose for several hundred thousand pounds.

Lance invited me to many blind tastings.  They were attended mostly by buyers, restaurateurs and sommeliers but this was the heyday of London advertising and many young men and women with too much earning power and too little humility went along to hear themselves practice winespeak.

I was one of them.

We moved around the room, tasting numbered bottles and writing our comments on forms which would later be collected for analysis.  I’m certain that only the professionals’ forms were considered but how they culled us pompous amateurs, I’m not sure.

I learned an interesting lesson which has stayed with me.  I was a pretty good judge of cheap to moderately priced wines but when it came to assessing the Big Vintages, the wines which real connoisseurs knew would blossom in five, ten or twenty years, I didn’t have a clue.  I dismissed some of the 20th century’s great vintages as rubbish, bitter, cottony or simply yeuch.

In all these sessions, however, I never heard one expert use words like asphalt, meat, blackberry, raspberry, tobacco, iron or cats’ piss to describe any taste-element of any wine on the list.

And it really sticks in my craw when a sommelier who’s offering me a $80 bottle of wine which I know – positively know – is $20 at the local supermarket, unctuously describes his offering as having “a surprisingly delicate bouquet with an overtone of iron and an after taste of raspberry.  You may, too, sir … “ If your palette is anything like as cultivated as mine … “hear a faint echo of tobacco.”

Personally, I’ve never heard a wine speak but a Welsh rugby prop forward once smacked me upside my left ear so that might account for that.

For God’s sake, if I want raspberry, I can find that next to the cranberry.  Iron?  That’s in the tonic aisle.  And I gave up smoking after a setting fire to five in a row in a treehouse, and falling out of same treehouse.

Of course, I’m not entirely stupid.  I understand that anyone selling anything – wine, wine book or punditry – has to separate his product from all his competitors, but that doesn’t mean we peasant consumers have to buy into their foolishness or pay the premium that foolishness confers on their product.

Plus, it seems to me, that to describe a magnificent wine in terms of boxed candy drinks that we feed our kids into order to make them fat, is just another facet of the infantilization of America.  God forbid that we should appreciate a wine in simple, adult terms.

Lance Szilagi died young, skiing a glacier.  I miss him.  I wish him a peaceful repose.  I hope he never hears his gorgeous wines mentioned in the same breath as fruit drinks, road toppings or metal alloys.  Otherwise, he’ll spin himself into a resurrection.  No bad thing, come to think of it: his big frame, big heart and big nose could do some serious damage to the more ridiculous oenophiles abroad.

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Water polo by Tsutomu Takasu, and Wine tasting by Umbrialovers via Creative Commons License.