If you’re deep into wine, beer or spirits and enjoy podcasts, you may already know about VinePair, the U.S.-based digital media company devoted to drinks. Among its regular features is a smart podcast hosted by Adam Teeter, the company’s New York-based chief executive and co-founder, and Zach Geballe, wine educator for Seattle-based Tom Douglas Restaurants, which is available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud. A couple of weeks ago they posted a provocative conversation entitled “The Beer, Wine And Spirits Words That Must Die.” I couldn’t resist. I had to tune in.
Numerical scores matter much in the drinks-reviewing game, no doubt, but I hope you’ll agree that words ought to matter more. Unfortunately, the argot of alcohol can often be oblique, hackneyed or even politically incorrect. Just as off-putting, it can drip with pretentiousness, one good reason the world loves to skewer wine critics in particular. Sometimes I feel as if I’m living in my own New Yorker cartoon, as in: “Here’s an award-winning meritage with whiffs of barnyard, wet rock and outrageous excise taxes.”
Teeter and Geballe came up with a few excellent offenders, four of which I’m starting with here with their kind approval. The rest either have been drawn from my own list of linguistic pet peeves or solicited from the Twittersphere. (Predictably, a few contributors chimed in with facetious knee-slappers, such as “most of them” and “LCBO sale,” the latter presumably a reference to the questionable appeal of discounted products at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.)
Ready for a brief lexicon of dubious drink doublespeak?
Masculine/Feminine: VinePair is right to sound the alarm on this retrograde verbiage, which was echoed by at least one of my Twitter followers. Sorry, but drinks are neither masculine nor feminine, and, ironically, vines are hermaphroditic, or self-pollinating. Let’s reserve gender politics for public restrooms, not the bar.
Crushable: Perhaps you’ve heard this hipster slang over a shared table at a craft brewery. It means “chuggable,” as in “I could throw back a liver-busting lake of this crushable beer in one sitting.” Overconsumption is sophomoric and not something that people in the industry should be promoting. And there are many equally objectionable modern synonyms, such as glou-glou, which according to Teeter and Geballe means glug-glug or chug-chug. Personally, I also detest “moreish,” as in “I want more.”
Minerality: Teeter and Geballe cite perhaps the most overused word in wine (after “terroir”). They are 100-per-cent correct in arguing that wine does not literally possess flavours of mineral, as I reported in a scientifically based article years ago. Geologists know the score: The mineral content in wine is so trivial as to be well below the threshold of human perception. But I must admit that I continue to reference the term metaphorically in certain circumstances because it’s useful in conveying the tangy, non-fruity character produced by a combination of acidity and the microbial activity of yeast.
Mixologist: Much as I hate to sound like Frank Sinatra (wait, I actually would love to sound like Frank Sinatra, but that’s another story), the correct term for the guy or gal who mixes you a proper drink is bartender. Yes, even the mad scientist who uses dry ice to frost up your kale-kombucha-vodka smoothie (if you really must) is a bartender. There is no shame in that honourable title.
Sustainable: Thank you for telling us, but are your wine or spirits actually any good to drink?
Natural: At the risk of being clubbed senseless with a skin-contact Sicilian grecanico by a wine-bar sommelier, I must concede that I’ve long had a problem with this au courant adjective. So has Peter Boyd, long-time wine director at Toronto’s Scaramouche restaurant. He’s not against the “natural wine” movement per se, which has produced many intriguing delights by eschewing industrial, mass-production techniques. But “there are no constants” in what constitutes what we have come to call natural, Boyd notes. “Skin contact isn’t ‘natural.’ It’s a human decision,” he adds. “The only natural wine ever made was that first discovery of fresh grapes gone ‘wrong’ in a crock in prehistoric Georgia. Every attempt to recreate it afterwards was unnatural.” So true, especially given that almost all fine wine is made from highly domesticated vine clones that would not exist in nature.
Sessionable: A shoutout to Vancouver’s Kevin Lee (a.k.a. @GrapeyWine) for this craft-beer assault on the English language. It’s meant to describe a low-alcohol brew that could be consumed in large quantity over the course of an extended drinking “session.” As I’ve written before, it’s just hipster-speak for “lite.”
Varietal: This was on my list and was, to my happy surprise, seconded by several people on Twitter. Most wine writers are guilty of its misuse in an attempt to sound erudite. The correct classification for a grape type, such as chardonnay, is “variety.” Meanwhile, “varietal” is an adjective and refers specifically to a wine made exclusively from a single variety, as in, “Pinot noir makes a great varietal wine but doesn’t taste so good when it’s blended with other varieties.”
Crowd-pleaser: Ouch. I use this one a lot, but it received a thumbs-down from someone on Twitter. Generally I trot it out to describe mouth-filling wines that come with familiar flavours and a soft texture but which may not offer great depth or subtle intrigue. I hope the “crowd” won’t take offence.
Award-winning: Jim Boyce, who is based in Beijing and has covered Chinese wines and spirits in the English language for more than a dozen years at Beijingboyce.com, came up with this excellent submission. “Almost any wine is going to get an award if entered in enough or strategically chosen contests,” he says.
Suds: If Troy Burtch, marketing and communications manager for Great Lakes Brewery in Toronto, had his way, we’d banish this cheesy, derogatory beer synonym. I’ll raise a frothy brewski to that.
Unctuous: Here’s a word cited by two of my Twitter followers, a reference to a malapropism favoured by the great U.S. critic Robert Parker. According to Dictionary.com, the definition that comes closest to his intent is “of the nature of or characteristic of an unguent or ointment; oily; greasy.” I’ve got an idea: How about banishing not just the adjective but also the wines it refers to?
Barnyard/Horse blanket: Vancouver-based beer writer Joe Wiebe reminded me that such descriptors mean something mainly only to farmers. Oops, as someone fond of trotting out funky horse-aroma analogies from time to time, I hope there may at least be one or two stable boys (or women) out there among my regular readers.
Funky: I like it because it describes a less-than-clean (but not necessarily unpleasant) odour. Wine-wise or beer-wise, you can take me to funkytown any time. But I realize from Twitter that I may be in a minority.
Vintner: I’m as turned off by this snooty title as many people are. But I rely on it from time to time in paragraphs where I’ve already used “winemaker” – as a way to avoid an awkward-sounding echo. “When did the winemaker know she wanted to become a vintner?”
Reserve/reserva/riserva: There were several calls on Twitter to bury this marketing ploy. It’s a legitimately regulated term only in certain jurisdictions, such as Rioja, yet producers all over the world list it proudly on labels to imply something special. “Means nothing, they’re not fooling anyone,” says Bradley Cooper of Black Cloud Wines in British Columbia.
Old vines: See the entry for “reserve/reserva/riserva.“
Easy-drinking: “What wine isn’t?” asked Joanne Koskie on Twitter. “Seriously. Unless you’re using it as another way of saying ‘not swill.’” I think she nailed it on the head.
Toasty: I’ve been guilty of using this, particularly with long-aged Champagnes or oak-aged chardonnays. But I concede it can be cryptic. Boyd doesn’t like it. “When I think ‘toasty,’” he says, “I’m thinking about ambient temperature or if I’m having a stroke.”
Infanticide: Not common, thankfully, but it is uttered in jest by smart alecks when somebody uncorks a cellar-worthy wine well before its peak maturity. I think that “joke” reached its peak maturity a long time ago.
Quaffable: “Wine is for tasting and sipping,” said one Twitter follower. “I scoff at quaff.” Fair point.
Smooth: I’m on both sides of this one, wisely suggested by Davin de Kergommeaux, author of Canadian Whisky: The New Portable Expert. There’s nothing inherently wrong with smoothness, I think, but often the term is too eagerly embraced by people looking for an innocuous beverage with little going on except velvety texture and buzz-inducing alcohol.
And many more suggestions poured in at press time, including lifted and suffused, both from Toronto-based wine writer Frank Baldock. Other honourable mentions: approachable; chalky tannins; libations; premium; smoky; and world-class.
Yikes, I fear I’m running out of permissible words with which to write my next column.