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December 8, 2015

On Wine and Anthropomorphism

08 December 2015 | by Andrea Frost

As a tool for describing wine, anthropomorphism or its gentler cousin personification are low in the serious wine critic’s armoury. Phrases such as “like a man flexing weight and muscle” or “an ambitious wine of poise and pedigree” have lost favour in recent years, being replaced with the objective ‘structure, colour, balance and acidity’ assessment or the pithy and clinical ‘95 points’.

In defence of anthropomorphism, the instinct to add human qualities is one the oldest tricks we have for explaining that which perplexes us. The ancient Greeks came up with their gods to explain phenomena that confused them, as have countless other cultures, thereby creating all manner of myth and legend. It brought comfort from the mysteries and helped to make sense of the world.

When it comes to wine, I can see why applying human terms is categorised now as more vinous entertainment than professional assessment – such terms lack specificity, require the listener to have the same image for a description to be meaningful, negate scientific advances in wine knowledge, make objective-ish wine assessment methods redundant and open one up to all sorts of faux pas when describing human qualities. This is to say nothing of the unhelpful gender stereotypes and personal fantasies so often revealed in one’s imagery: “I’m sorry, you imagine the wine is wearing a what colour dress and winking at you?”

But despite its limitations, the exploration of the human qualities is helpful in understanding our most beloved drink, especially when controversial or challenging wines confuse us. As it turns out, the same qualities we admire, deride or are confused by in humans are the same things that do so in wine. What could be more straightforward than understanding the human condition?

Take the much-maligned icon wine. For the sake of this argument, let’s describe it as a wine invented to obtain status by positioning itself at the ultra premium end of the market by pulling on all of the marketing levers available: price, quality, packaging, distribution. A wine born pre-GFC when luxury monograms were worn on shirt pockets as proudly, and with the same sense of achievement, as boy scouts wore their badges of merit.

The wine itself is typically red, heavily oaked and intense, like a big, ripe, warm mouthful of money. Though it might not be to everyone’s taste, it is a legitimate style and there are plenty who enjoy it.

And yet, the reasons that many don’t revere such wines aren’t these flavour attributes exclusively, but more that it is a wine designed to win. Specifically, a wine designed to beat others while taking shortcuts that other wines earn over time. As philosopher A.C. Grayling explains: “it is only ambition that explains a person’s persistence … in warping facts to conceal the marches he stole, the ties he gate-crashed, the one-way streets he drove up the wrong way, and in general the smaller and greater dishonesties by which he wormed his way, without a ticket, into life’s front row.” The flavours, textures and aromas of an intense wine we can handle on occasion and often receive high praise; it’s the alleged shortcuts taken to an assumed status that can leave the bad taste in our mouth.

Another wine style that is better understood when analysed through human qualities are those that position themselves as romantic but are, in fact, more industrial than they would have us believe. Such wines touch on our universal longing for romance and mislead us with their images of bucolic vineyards, dreamy fonts, phrases so poetic one could think they flowed from Keats’ own quill … ‘the finest parcels’ … ‘crafted at the mercy of mother nature’. Sigh.

But how heartbreaking it is to discover some wines merely mimic romance and borrow sentiment to make a deal. The wine might taste delicious until we discover it is none of these things. It’s not the label, the copy, the empty promises, but the intentional manipulation where our respect is lost. To make an anthropomorphic point, such wines are like the player who read The Art of Seduction but whose character never evolved to reading The Art of Happiness; it’s romance without heart, sentiment without soul, manipulation of our most innocent longing. Try capturing that in a tasting note.

André Simon, the late and legendary writer wrote of the importance of certain human values in wine in his 1929 book, The Art of Good Living. “But whether wine be plain, fair or fine it must be honest and it must be sound.” The specifics might be technical but the idea quite human. He continues: “an honest wine is also a wine which does not masquerade under some assumed wine.” And taking human traits even further: “Wine requires and repays care, the loving care which is the only care that is intelligent and worthy of so precious a gift.”

One might argue such ideas in wine writing are no longer relevant when compared to the technical and scientific information we have at hand. But I think understanding why wild ambition disappoints, callous manipulation offends, or honesty is revered, are easier to understand in human terms than they are in technical ones. Tasting notes and scores fall short in this regard, not to mention leave us wanting in terms of evocative imagery or engaging conversation. Trying to understand ambition, conflict, honesty, aspiration, integrity, love and betrayal is merely the human condition.

Given this, it’s no wonder we’re all so confused.

This column first appeared on timatkin.com.