If there were a Wine Writer Olympics, the second most competitive event (after the contest to see who can get the most free wine) would be the Taste Descriptor Biathalon. In this event, wine writers compete to describe wines with words that are both highly original and utterly fatuous. Ordinal scores are based on off-handedness of execution and degree of absurdity.
My personal favorite is “forest floor,” a description of earthy wines that is the double toe-loop of wine writing — once a bring-them-to-their-feet crowd pleaser, now so commonplace the only people who bother with it are 50-year old has-beens cutting it up on the Mall of America ice rink.
Though I accept as a matter of philosophy that wine writers need to write something to justify their daily UPS shipments of free wine, I’ve always thought taste descriptors say more about the person doing the describing than the wine being described. Wine writers who use “forest floor,” for example, assume that people know what forest floor tastes like. That assumption is based on the fact that most wine writers were nerdy children set upon by bullies, who pushed the future wine writers down and rubbed dirt into their faces before taking their lunch money. By assuming everyone has had similar experiences, wine writers can delude themselves that they’re not nerdy, but in fact just like everyone else.
To stay competitive, wine writers have to invent increasingly difficult and impressive taste descriptors. I overheard one critic recently describe a wine as tasting of “sunbaked sandstone,” an impressive feat that will no doubt be commonplace a decade from now. (There are rumors that China has begun selecting promising three year olds, removing them from their families to isolated wine-writing training facilities where they’re fed a special diet and train 14 hours a day.)
Given the increasing cultural, economic, and even geopolitical importance of wine writing, it’s not surprising that a few unscrupulous marketers are attempting to corrupt the system to their own advantage. (“Money is the root of all marketing plans,” wrote marketer Michael Brenner.) This is not the familiar corruption of wineries giving special treatment to writers who don’t write for print publications, but a new form of corruption in which wines are manufactured with world-class taste descriptors built right in — as if someone had brewed a Cabernet with actual pieces of forest floor in the bottle in order to prompt wine writers to promote the wine.
The breakthrough product on this front is Meteorito wine (obvious advertising tag line: “It’s out of this world!”) which is made by Ian Hutcheon’s Tremonte Vineyard in Chile’s Cachapoal Valley. Meteorito’s secret ingredient is a three-inch meteorite that steeps in the wine as it ages.
“When you drink this wine, you are drinking elements from the birth of the solar system,” (Hutcheon) added. “The idea behind submerging it in wine was to give everybody the opportunity to touch something from space; the very history of the solar system, and feel it via a grand wine.”
Leaving aside, for the moment, that molecular migration means you ingest with every breath elements from the birth of the solar system, Hutcheon insists the presence of microscopic quantities of meteorite give the wine a “livelier” taste.
Like Dick Fosbury, who forever changed high jumping by going over the bar backwards, Hutcheon has set in motion events that will inevitably — pardon the mixture of metaphors — raise the bar on wine writing in the future. From this moment forward, in their repertoire of wine descriptors, wine writers who aspire to Olympian greatness will have to include vocabulary familiar to viewers of The Jetsons. Wine that has, in the past, been sufficiently described using terrestrial terms (you don’t get more terrestrial than “forest floor”) will have to be described as intergalactic, planetary, even asteroidal. And as more and more cosmological terminology is assimilated into wine writing, those who read wine reviews will have to make sense out of something like this:
In the glass, a pleasing range of the electromagnetic spectrum with hints of dark matter in the nose and redshift on the mid-palate. Plasma mouthfeel, and a 47-dimensional finish with good supersymmetry.
I, personally, am already nostalgic for forest floor.