About Wine Bullshit

Wine bullshit is the wonderful, adjective-laden language of the wine review. It's the tendency to identify six to ten flavors where an average mortal might taste two or three, and then to lard the descriptions of those flavors with a barnyard of dusky, oaky, leathery, smoky, sweaty adjectives.

In his essay on "On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software," Princeton economist Richard Quandt analyzed adjectives from 24 wine reviews. Typical is this review of a 2003 Ch√Ęteauneuf du Pape:

Packed and tight, with sage, licorice root, black currant, plum and tobacco aromas and flavors supported by ferrous and hot stone notes. Yes despite its power it has remarkably lush tannins running through the lengthy finish. This has a great expression of ‘terroir' .... Soy, dried herbs, roasted meat, sweet cherries, and some blacker fruits make an appearance .... Full-bodied, dense with low acidity, velvety tannin, and an opulent, full-bodied personality.
Wasn't it nice of the blacker fruits to "make an appeareance"? Can anyone honestly pretend to taste that many flavors at once? Quandt quickly gathered 120 typical modifiers from the reviews he surveyed. He then drew from the adjectives randomly (the way software would) to create wine bullshit. Here's one of his randomly churned out reviews:

Ch√Ęteau La Merde, 1995. Packed and tight, with oily, smoked game and petrol, yet with refined fruit, a hint of black fruit and olive flavors and aromas, and supported by meaty fruit, undergrowth and lush tannins running through the lengthy finish. Best from 2007 through 2025, inky, with olive-tinged black currants, blackberries, tobacco and delicious vegetable flavors.
The fake review hardly seemed different from the real ones.

If you want to read some really great examples of wine bullshit, along with very good analysis, see Robin Goldstein's review of Robert Parker's "Parker’s Wine Bargains: The World’s Greatest Wine Values Under $25." (Scroll to page 209 in this PDF of the review from the Journal of Wine Economics.) Parker's book relies on multiple authors to cover 3,000 wines (many of which are obscure and unavailable to average buyers, says Goldstein). Goldstein praises one of the reviewers, Mark Squires, for writing concise entries that cite only five specific types of fruit and focus "instead on basic properties like acidity, tannin, oak, and sweetness."

This spartan quality contrasts with the lengthier, more bullshit-laden prose of reviewer David Schildknecht. As Goldstein writes,

By the end of Schildknecht’s eighth South Africa review ... he has also mentioned quince, wet wool, lime zest, mulberries, sage, fresh green beans, apple, nuts, lemon, rose hip, more flowers, saddle leather, licorice, “smoky black tea,” vanilla, “lightly cooked blackberry and blueberry,” mint (twice), tobacco (twice), black pepper, sap, “dried black currants,” tar, (just plain) tea, baking spices, black olives, acacia, peach, cress, and white pepper. Later in the chapter, he identifies such pomposities as “salted grapefruit,” grapefruit rind, winter pear, “restrained gooseberry,” milk chocolate, roasted red peppers, “smoky Latakia tobacco,” beef jerky, soy, baked apple, tangerine zest, “salt-tinged nuts and grains,” and “tomato foliage.”
Wine bullshit is an easy target. It's also a problem. The onslaught of adjectives puts the emphasis on the reviewer's experience of a wine, not the reader's. Most of us have no plans to learn what graphite, gun barrel, or new saddle leather taste like. We don't have much entry to reviews barraging us with such terms. In contrast, simpler descriptions focused on basic properties like acidity, body, and sweetness give readers a chance to consider how they will react to a wine.

This blog tries to be all about the simpler approach. There's only one problem: It's fun to write wine bullshit. So when a wine inspires it, I've added a little "wine-bullshit" phraseology, clearly marked as such. Some of this bullshit even comes straight from other reviewers.

The Special Qualities of Robert Parker's Wine Bullshit

Goldstein is especially fun to read on bullshit from the master, Robert Parker. Goldstein does not take cheap shots at Parker. Read his whole review of Parker's book, for example, and you'll see his great appreciation for Parker's accomplishments.

But Goldstein insightfully identifies the strength of Parker's famously purple prose: It inspires fantasy. "For most readers, flipping through an issue of Wine Advocate and reading about 100-point wines," he writes, "is like flipping through an issue of Motor Trends and looking at pictures of a Lamborghini." You don't think you'll ever buy a Lamboghini, but it's fun to think you could:

It is the mix of idolatry and attainability that make Parker’s prose so compelling: these wines that win 100 points are described as Platonic forms, yet they’re also physical objects with real molecular structures; they’re liquids that can, at least in theory, come into contact with your mouth. Your local wine store doesn’t have the object of worship, and you couldn’t afford it anyway, but that’s hardly the point. It’s the ontology that matters: the idea that some wines really do win 100, that it is concretely possible to taste perfection, is irresistible. The very thing that invalidates Parker’s writing as nonfiction is what redeems it as fiction: his topic isn’t wine. It’s human contact with the divine.
Well, it's one method of contact with the divine. God also sent Jesus to dwell down here among us mere mortals, where he famously turned water into wine. So maybe we can find some divinity in the bargain bin.

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