Pretentious prose and expert knowledge

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jan 13, 2015

This post is something of a follow-up to my previous one, on ‘wine-sensing.’ This time, and in the following post, I want to consider talking and writing about wine, in part as a way of trying to sort out ideas for an academic paper I’m working on. Anyone visiting this website is probably familiar with the stereotypes of pretentious wine snobs and their descriptions: an elegant if demanding wine, at the peak of maturity, with hints of forest floor and pencil shavings. And that, made-up, description is actually relatively straightforward, at least if you know how to decode it, which is what I’m going to consider here. Another aspect of such potentially pretentious prose, I think, is the issue of translating between the senses, which I hope to cover in my next post.


My point is deceptively simple: while anyone can drink wine, wine-tasting in a narrower, more technical sense, is actually something that needs to be learned. The demarcation between these two areas is not necessarily evident, and it is, I suggest, the misrecognition of this that leads to the viewing of some wine-tasting notes as pretentious. (Although, to be fair, some are.)


In learning to taste wine, you are actually learning a realm of expert knowledge than encompasses a range of knowing. It is, in some ways, similar to serving an apprenticeship. A vital difference is that many, if not most, apprenticeships are recognisable as such. In wine-tasting, and, I’d argue, other fields, this is self-evident, and gives rise to the appearance that people are simply making stuff up. With the added acknowledgements that this does happen, and that to claim expert knowledge is not to be infallible, or even necessarily a reliable expert.


This expert knowledge includes, most relevantly here, two levels of information in a term like ‘forest floor’. The first is fairly straightforward. You describe a wine as smelling of forest floor because, well, it does. Admittedly, many people today probably don’t spend much time in a forest, and so the term might not be the most immediately relevant. But most of us would have at least an idea of what is meant – a certain rich earthiness, perhaps reminding you of mushrooms or loam. (All of these terms have been used in place of ‘forest floor.’) It is meant to be an evocative description that reflects the perceived smell.


Being familiar with the terminology, however, is not as straightforward as it may seem. The terminology is the same words anyone can use, and it is about smelling, and tasting – something just about everyone can do. So, unlike being a brain surgeon, or a master woodcarver, it isn’t immediately evident that these terms reflect a specific realm of knowledge, with specific associations. This, I think, is an additional factor that causes wine descriptions to come across as pretentious.


The second level of information is about the development of the wine. ‘Forest floor’ is a smell that reflects a certain degree of age, or maturity, in a wine. It is a secondary aroma, one that is not present in younger wines. Thus, to someone familiar with the terminology it provides more information about the wine than simply what it smells like.


There are further complications. One particular aspect, which I have run into myself, is simply cultural background. Quince is not particularly popular in the US, and I had certainly never tasted or smelled it until I moved to the UK. Running across it as an aroma description didn’t mean a whole lot to me. Similarly, I can take a guess at ‘hedgerow,’ but it isn’t as clear a descriptor to me as other terms are. Another element is the social life, and arguably even social class, of such descriptors. Someone, somewhere, described an element of a wine aroma as ‘forest floor,’ and that term stuck, more so than ‘loamy’ perhaps. There’s no objective reason for this. Perhaps people thought it was more evocative, or more pleasant sounding. Who knows? But once it is out in the world, it becomes embedded and finally making its way into the more or less recognised lexicon of wine descriptors.


This leads me back to expert knowledge more generally. While learning to evaluate wine, which is perhaps a clearer term than ‘taste wine,’ is a form of expert knowledge, it has no fences or boundaries. I mean this not just in the sense I’ve already mentioned – that it isn’t always clear how this is different from just drinking wine. But also in the sense that someone familiar with the vocabulary will often reflexively resort to it when talking about wine to people without the same background. In other words, we encourage this blurring of expert knowledge.


Finally, one other element is worth mentioning. In many contexts, the language used for talking about wine isn’t just about the analytical aspects. It is also used to convey emotions, images, impressions. And here, I think it is quite clear, expert knowledge dissolves. At a wine-tasting I once ran, someone who claims no great knowledge of wines described one particular red wine as a ‘fireside wine.’ It was clear what she meant, even without the further description she gave: a fairly heavy and robust wine, but pleasantly so. A wine one could easily imagine drinking in front of a fire on a cold winter’s evening. And that – the evocation of a particular setting that the wine brings to mind – in the end is more important for most people than concerns about primary and secondary aromas, and other expert knowledge.


Further reading:

Although I haven’t drawn upon it here, at least consciously, and in many ways it deals with different aspects of language and wine, Adrienne Lehrer’s Wine and conversation (2009, Oxford University Press) is worth a look.

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