Descriptions for Pedestrian Palates
by Mad Dog
While cat’s pee
sounds like an extremely unappetizing description for wine, it turns out
to be in common usage. At least among those who serve kitty litter canapés
for hors d’oeuvres.
||Last week an article in
the wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle (motto: “We had
to do something with Section W now that it was no longer about the War
in Iraq”) described two wines as smelling like cat urine. This week
the wine editor wrote a column explaining that this is a good thing. I
can’t wait until next week when the food editor tries to convince us
that it’s a compliment when the kids say your tuna casserole tastes
like dog shit.
Apparently this isn’t the first
time the newspaper has used the term, and no, the last time wasn’t in
a description of local politics. But this time they received a pile of
mail about it because it was a little different. The editor explained
that the usual term, which is the one they used before, is “cat’s
pee,” but some overly zealous copy editor was in a particularly
scientific mood and changed it to “cat urine.” According to the
editor, cat’s pee is a softer and gentler term. Not as soft and gentle
as fruity, but it’s a San Francisco newspaper so they’re very
careful about using that word.
While cat’s pee sounds like an
extremely unappetizing description for wine, it turns out to be in
common usage. At least among those who serve kitty litter canapés for
hors d’oeuvres. Interestingly, most of the wine terms we hear tossed
about are standardized.
The vintages I drink are usually described as cheap,
tolerable, or screw-top. If I’m really lucky I can use all three at
|| Years ago a
professor at the University of California Davis created the Wine Aroma
Wheel, which not surprisingly has a balanced finish of burnt rubber. In
addition to the more enticing sounding aromas a wine can have, such as
raspberry, rose, and honey, it also includes descriptors like
sauerkraut, wet dog, artificial fruit, burnt match, soy sauce, and
methyl anthranilate. There’s also skunk, moldy, medicinal, and
kerosene, which is nice to know since a few years ago a friend showed me
a review of a wine that said it had “an aftertaste of turpentine”
and we spent the rest of the evening and two bottles of
non-paint-thinner-like spirits trying to figure out if it was intended
as an insult or not. Now I know it was a compliment. In light of this
information, from here on out I’m going to take it as a compliment
whenever someone tells me I smell like a skunk and I’m not wearing
terms probably have a good reason for being used, though I have to admit
they’re not in my realm of oenological experience. That’s because the vintages I drink are
usually described as cheap, tolerable, or screw-top. If I’m really
lucky I can use all three at once. Luckily I live on the west coast, so
I can drink Charles Shaw wine, a
rather tolerable vintage that sells for all of $1.99 a bottle at Trader
Joe’s, a chain of grocery stores. If, that is, you can find any in
stock. The wine’s so popular that people haul the Merlot, Chardonnay,
and Cabernet Sauvignon home by the case as quickly as it can be aged for
three days and put out on the sales floor. Hey, what’s not to like?
It’s cheap, it’s drinkable, and it even has a cork. Edward Deitch of
MSNBC described the wines, commonly called Two-Buck Chuck, as
“dominated by wood and alcohol with a bitter finish.” At least they
don’t smell like cat’s pee after eating asparagus.
And to think, I always saved
those adjectives for my mother’s salmon croquettes. It’s a shame she
didn’t realize she was being complimented.
|| I’m not
sure why such a wide range of descriptors is used for wine but not for
food. No one describes food as having “the bouquet of burnt toast”
unless they’re talking about charred English Muffins. Think about it,
when was the last time you described breakfast as “earthy,” lunch as
“flabby,” or dinner as “flat”? Unless, of course, you had
Grapenuts with wheat germ for breakfast, a supersized fast food combo
meal for lunch, and day-old already opened soda with dinner.
There is one food item which is
described a lot like wine, and that’s olive oil. In case you’ve been
too busy trying to find a place to store that 55-gallon drum of Crisco
to notice, tasting olive oil has become the new foodie ritual. And why
not, it’s definitely easier than wine. There are no corks to break off
in the neck, snobby sommeliers to make you feel stupid and cheap, and
the only hangover you’ll have the next day is your stomach over your
Somewhere along the way, olive oil tasters adopted the language of wine.
They also adopted the Wine Aroma Wheel. The Australian Olive Association
Tasting Panel (motto: “What a croc!”) used it as the basis for its
Olive Oil Tasting Wheel. Not only does it let you know that olive oil
can be buttery, nutty, and perfumed, you find out that it’s okay to
use descriptors like vomit, fetid cheese, grubby, moldy spores, and
metallic. It’s true. And to think, I always saved those adjectives for
my mother’s salmon croquettes. It’s a shame she didn’t realize she
was being complimented.
©2003 Mad Dog
Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
These columns appear in better newspapers across the country.
Notice the smooth finish of burnt manure?