Friends of Semantic Compositions

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May 11, 2004


language hat

I was disappointed in Mark's post; I hate to see him joining the bandwagon of people making easy jokes about winetalk. Yes, it sounds silly to outsiders (as any form of jargon does); yes, it can be overdone. But it's absurd to pretend that it's nothing but pretentiousness and pulling the wool over people's eyes -- it's a specialized set of descriptions for very particular taste/smell sensations. I am by no means a wine expert, but I've taken courses, and I assure you there is a great deal of chemical information about the components of taste that can be learned by sniffing tubes with essence of chocolate, herbs, &c, and learning to discern them as components of the sensory impact of wine. To snicker at connoisseurs for their "barnyard flavors" is as much know-nothingism as to sneer at literature critics for analyzing the symbolism in Donne's poetry. The fact is that there is such a thing as a barnyard flavor (or as the French more directly put it, "merde"), and it's an excellent thing in Burgundies, and I've tasted it myself. So there.

(Really, you'd think linguists would know better than to make fun of peculiar subcultures!)

Semantic Compositions

Mrs. SC agrees with you on this one; as for myself, I often find myself unable to detect many of the tastes that wine reviewers claim to be observing. On the other hand, I have no problems at all distinguishing between Coke, Pepsi, RC and any number of other colas, so I can't dismiss the possibility that other people are simply much more sensitive to the differences among wines than I am.

Having said that, I think the burden of proof for the meaningfulness of these terms is firmly on the users. Again, I only feel competent to discuss the merits of language like this in electronics, where I am qualified, than wines, where I'm not. Within the field of audio electronics, practitioners of the subjective winetalk style have repeatedly failed to do better than chance in telling two components apart in double-blind tests. Worse, the use of such language has grown precisely as the objective differences between products has shrunk. I can imagine how wines are very different in this regard -- while good equipment should all measure similarly, good wines can easily vary considerably in chemical composition, and that can have tastable consequences (or at least this seems plausible to me).

I should add that my reference to "sweet tubes" was not to anything about wine tasting, but to the frequently made claim that vacuum tubes sound "sweeter" than transistors, a statement which I have never seen a satisfactory explanation of from any of its users. I also should clarify that when I wrote "Despite being wildly skeptical about winetalk", I meant " applied to electronics"; in spite of the Roundup wisecrack, I admit that I'm not particuarly qualified to discuss the veracity of claims about wine.

language hat

I am at a loss to understand why wine experts should be held responsible for the misuse of their jargon in totally unrelated fields. If makers of components decided to use the terms "phonemic," "morphemic," &c in discussing the qualities of various wires, would that arouse suspicions as to the validity of these terms in linguistics? It is a rather elementary logical error I am sniffing here; the bouquet is earthy, with just a hint of unripe fruit...

Oh, and a word of advice from an old married: listen to your wife. She knows.

Semantic Compositions

I'm not saying that wine experts are liable for the foibles of electronics reviewers. But they are liable for the stylistic habits that they've popularized. Even granting that the descriptions of taste are accurate in a general sort of way, it's hard to feel sure that all of the "hints" and "notes" alluded to are things that they'd repeatedly identify in a blind test.

While it's strictly anecdotal, in a last-gasp bid to refashion itself a few months before the end of its life, Audio magazine hired a professional wine dealer named Willie Gluckstern (who wrote still use it on their website, albeit only with proper attribution to another quote from the same article. A couple of those words have been used repeatedly by other reviewers before and since, but I don't even know what it would mean for an amplifier to sound "full-bodied".

And I guess that's what really bugs me about the style. A lot of the terms that are thrown around sound like they mean something familiar, but there's a lot of wiggle room. If someone says they taste a "hint of chocolate", who am I to disagree if all I can taste is grape, grape, grape? Maybe I'm just no good at picking up hints (another statement Mrs. SC would agree with, especially as applied to housework).

To borrow from your analogy about linguistics terms, I don't think my complaint is analogous to arguing that something would be fishy about "morphemic" in linguistics if electronics reviewers used it incorrectly. It's more a complaint that linguists would have done the world a disservice by popularizing a style that produced statements like, "well, this construction is morphophonemic, with just a touch of morphosyntactic complexity, and a faint whiff of semantics". Nobody would dispute that the terms have clear meanings, but the way they're being used would make it hard to ever say if a statement like that is even wrong.

I'm not saying that there should be no room for writing reviews in a literary style, or that only statements which can be rigorously verified through laboratory testing should be published. But as a genre of writing, reviews at least implicitly promise to contain factual assertions, and the winetalk style stretches that promise thin. The fact that "full-bodied" may mean something more readily identifiable to wine drinkers than audiophiles doesn't mean that it's used responsibly by writers in either community.

To go back to one of Mark Liberman's observations, it's probably not a coincidence that this style has spread to discussions of other luxury goods. Once it was clear that wine consumers would drink it up (pun intended), then it was inevitable that others would use the same template to appeal to the same audience. And unfortunately, even if the oenophiles who started it had only the best of intentions, no small number of hucksters have taken advantage of the potential for abuse that the style offers. As you said, it's not the fault of wine experts if their jargon is misused in other fields; I think that it is their fault, however, for promoting a style of writing that encourages such misuse.

language hat

I don't wish to cause offense, but I fear I'm going to have to be direct here: you're not thinking clearly about this. Your talk of "promoting a style of writing that encourages such misuse" implies that wine writers sit around thinking up terms with malice aforethought, cackling over how easily they'll be misused by people in all sorts of unrelated fields. Surely you can see how ridiculous this is? Wine writers write for themselves and for others interested in the minutia of wine; they have no thought for, or interest in, the vendors of stereo components or other such. They are just trying to describe wine. They are using a vocabulary and style that has grown up over the last couple of centuries, just as are physicists and other specialists. Is it physicists' fault if laymen toss around terms like "relativity" or "quantum" with no understanding of what they properly mean? I think not. The problem is that you respect physicists but not wine experts.

And here we come to the second thing I am forced to be direct about. When it comes to wine, you don't know what you're talking about. By your own admission, all you taste is grape. There's nothing wrong with that; most people aren't wine experts, and there's no reason why they should be. It's quite sufficient to enjoy the stuff. But you are putting yourself in the position of a monoglot who listens to people speaking Chinese and says complacently "Ha ha! It's all ching-chong hong-kong!" Fine if you're a village (as Stein said of Pound's quasi-scholarship), but if not, not. Seriously, ignorance of a subject does not give you license to doubt its validity.

Semantic Compositions

No offense taken; if I didn't want to risk being called on the carpet, I wouldn't publish my thoughts on the web. I'm enjoying this tremendously, although I suspect ultimately we may have to agree to disagree.

I don't think it's quite right to say that I think "wine writers sit around thinking up terms with malice aforethought, cackling over how easily they'll be misused by people in all sorts of unrelated fields". My contention is not that they set out with the intent to write things that they know to be false, but that they've created a style of discourse which seems to lean heavily on expansive claims about very subtle differences. It's not clear to me that wine writers are part of a uniquely virtuous class of people who never exaggerate or overstate things in order to curry favor with their suppliers, while everyone else is. Having said that, I should also acknowledge that I don't have anything I can cite directly as evidence that a wine writer is saying things he can't back up, and it's not fair to cast aspersions on people's ethics without solid evidence of a reason to do so.

You're quite right about the fact that physicists ought not be held accountable for the abuses of terms like "quantum". I will even go further and add that I often want to tape shut the mouths of MBAs who go on CNBC and spout "inflection point". But these are terms with precise meanings within their fields; talk of "hints" and "notes" strikes me as an effort to avoid precision, and would not be considered fair game by people in many other hobbyist fields, never mind natural sciences. To the extent that writers for magazines like the Robb Report, Cigar Aficionado or Wine Spectator write about wine this way, and then leverage it to talk about other luxury goods, I am not prepared to abandon my claim. But it's not fair to implicate someone like Robert Parker who writes strictly about wines (even though he certainly has recognized meaningful economic benefits from it), so consider this a limited retraction of the argument that wine writers bear responsibility for abuses of the style.

Before addressing your argument that ultimately, my problem is ignorance, I'll make an important, but limited, concession. Mrs. SC and I have been on two trips to go wine-tasting, once in Napa, and once in Temecula. It was very obvious that there was a difference in the flavors of the regions -- every last wine we tried in Temecula was disgustingly sour, with a taste that was undeniably not present in even the most unpalatable Napa wines. Similarly, I don't have a problem distinguishing the taste of a Viognier from a Chardonnay; I'm not denying the existence of differences, but rather that the level of precision being claimed is beyond the actual abilities of the critics to discern.

I think I've been fairly clear on the conditions required for me to accept the validity of the criticism: demonstration in a blind test (even if only single, not double) that wine writers can reliably detect the things they claim to be writing about. Not the parts about varietals and regions, even, but the bits about "pepper", "leather", and "tobacco". Claims to ultra-fine discriminations in sighted tests don't carry the same weight as blind tests. When I get into arguments with purveyors of $1000/foot cables about whether or not their wares could have the claimed effects, ultimately they always have to fall back on arguing that I simply can't hear. This would carry a lot more weight if there was any evidence that they were really sensitive to something I'm missing, but to put it bluntly, there isn't. I don't think that this is an unreasonable standard to hold critics to in any field.

By way of comparison, would you tell a colorblind person who denied the variety of colors out there by saying that they were simply ignorant? You could, but it would be far more convincing to demonstrate to them that there are recognizably different wavelengths of light, and that subjective observations indeed correlate with physical facts.

It's not clear to me that smelling a test tube filled with chocolate and then telling someone "now, doesn't the wine taste like this?" is anything more than suggestion at work, just as people will swear they hear differences among amplifiers when told that they're listening to a particular sound. Ditto with the Pepsi Challenge; people who can't discriminate among Coke and Pepsi will usually think that #2 tastes better, which is why the Pepsi is always presented second.

However, having presented largely theoretical arguments on a topic that I myself have been claiming ought to be subject to empirical validation, I'm willing to investigate further. Brief Google searching this afternoon suggests that correlations between some chemical activities and some taste reports are already known. And Mrs. SC (a newly-minted Languagehat fan) is up in arms over this discussion, and insists that I submit to a professionally taught wine tasting course before retaining the right to remiain skeptical. That may not all happen right now, but a trip to Santa Barbara is suddenly in the works as well. Look what you've gotten me into.

language hat

I am thoroughly content with the outcome of this dispute: a course in wine appreciation for a (soon to be duly repentant) SC, and a newly minted Languagehat fan. Enjoy Santa Barbara, home of my aged progenitor and perhaps the most beautiful city in America, taking into account both architecture (don't miss the courthouse!) and location. I'll be there myself in July.

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