"Ah, this wine is steamy, racy and upside-down. Oh, and with a great nose!"
It's one thing to hear a genuine oenologist make this statement. It's another thing entirely to hear it from someone who just finished Wine For Dummies and now mistakes himself for an expert.
The problem with wine and food (and, for that matter, classical music and art), is that the sensations and experiences of these disciplines are extremely difficult to describe in plain English. Thus, each discipline naturally develops its own specialized jargon as shorthand for difficult-to-explain concepts.
There's more. Jargon can be a useful signalling device (a doctor can easily reveal himself to another doctor by tossing off a few key technical terms and phrases), and jargon can act as a barrier to a profession (lawyers create a comprehension barrier around their field by using a sort of shadow language of terms and expressions). At its worst, jargon can allow two insiders to have an entire conversation in front of an outsider without the outsider comprehending a single word (think two doctors discussing your case in front of you as if you aren't even there).
Food and wine, however, are different. After all, everybody eats, many of us drink, and most of us are on a mission to learn more about what we're eating and drinking. So it's inevitable that we'll pick up at least some eating and drinking terms, if only to help us talk about what we're experiencing.
But there's a distinct line between discussing a subject and slinging jargon like a sanctimonious blowhard. Which reminds me of a former Wall Street colleague named Bentley*, who, in the few short years I knew him, gave me a lifetime's worth of amusing food and wine snob stories.
Within days of deciding that he wanted to become an expert in wine, Bentley began asking for the "head sommelier" at all of his business dinners. He'd then sling ten minutes' worth of inaccurately-used jargon at the poor sommelier, oblivious to the wincing of everyone around him--including the wincing of the sommelier himself, who would be a fool in any event to correct a customer on an expense-account meal. At long last, Bentley would invariably select the most expensive wine on the menu, leading us all to wonder: why ask for a sommelier's help when you knew you what you were going to pick all along?
So, when in the company of friends, family or colleagues, how can we discuss food and wine intelligently without sounding pretentious? Here are a few ideas:
1) If you're the only person at the table slinging jargon, you're being pretentious. It doesn't matter if you're being insightful, it doesn't matter if you use every term correctly, and it doesn't matter if you're absolutely right about everything you say. Just stop.
2) Read the people around you. If you think you might be at a higher food or wine "level" than the people you're with, cut way back on the jargon and terminology. Don't create a situation where the people you're talking to can't understand what you're talking about.
3) Listen. Let others speak and share their experiences, thoughts and preferences. You might be surprised at how much you learn.
4) Ask questions, don't hold forth. Ask other people around you what they think about what they are eating and drinking. Help out by getting the conversation going, and don't expect to be in the center of it.
5) Finally, you can always use finger quotes and a self-deprecating tone of voice whenever you find yourself forced to use a jargon term. After all, finger quotes are the cure for everything, aren't they?
Readers, what else would you add? And do you have a favorite wine- or food-snob story to share?
* Note: Bentley is not (quite) a real person. He's a composite of several people I knew from my Wall Street years, and for obvious reasons I've completely disguised his identity--after all, Wall Street is smaller than you might think.
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