How to impress people with your knowledge of wine, when you have none.


The thing to remember is that wine-speak isn't about expertise; it's about what the philosopher professor Harry Frankfurt called "bullshit." Because even a Princeton University philosophy professor couldn't come up with a better word for it.

One of my favorite movie lines comes from that scene in Goldfinger, where Bond, eating with M and Colonel Smithers, says of his brandy: "I'd say it was a 30-year-old, fine, indifferently blended ... with an overdose of Bon Bois." The fact that those are industry terms for brandy didn't stop me from using the line at a wine-tasting once. The only person in the room who caught the B.S. I was swirling around wasn't a wine expert at all, but a die-hard James Bond fan.

Like a good movie line, wine-speak is all in the delivery. Think about those stories on 60 Minutes where the famed art expert can't tell the difference between a 6-year-old's finger painting and a Jackson Pollock, or that hot-shot Wall Street trader whose 10-year running average is only slightly better than what could be attained by a chimp with a dartboard.

If you think an industry can't be based entirely on B.S., consider that the "quants" who didn't see the global financial collapse coming still have their careers. So do the Kardashians. They may not be good at their jobs, but they are good at keeping them, which has a lot more to do with cunning than expertise. Not to knock these bold con artists: A successful sham takes almost as much smarts as running a successful business.

The trick to wine-speak, then, as Stephen Potter wrote back in 1950, is to be "boldly meaningless." French words are best, because almost no one you know actually speaks it; they just know some French terms. Translations are provided for the examples here, but they don't really matter. Without the context, your complete ignorance can be hidden. Try the following:

"This Bordeaux has got interesting traces of mer chat."(sea cat)

"I like the way the ventre singe plays on the palate." (stomach monkey)

"The pipé dés is overdone ..." (loaded dice)

A light just went on, didn't it?

Since wine never really tastes like asparagus or pine tar, even though those descriptors are sometimes tossed around, discussing its ventre singe can't be terribly off-base. If no French terms come to mind, it's often helpful to liken the experience of drinking the vintage at hand to some quasi-spiritual aspect of the natural world: I'm partial to, "It's like a winter sunrise."

Obviously, if you are a beer nerd, French won't do. You'll want to use German words. Try, "this lager has a great kummerspeck" (grief bacon) — which is an actual euphemism in the fatherland for the weight you gain from emotional over-eating. Or if you want to be a real first-rate ass, just learn some Flemish.

Now that you know the B.S. fundamentals, let's get on to besting the wine-snob on the field of battle. Avoid quoting too directly from Wine Spectator; chances are they read the same issue. You won't get called out, because the only ones who would know are as guilty as you. But they'll know. On the other hand, Wine Spectator, to my knowledge, has never mentioned the mer chat of any vintage.

No matter what drivel you might mutter when scanning a wine menu, try a slightly pensive face, which will make it look like you are thinking. Do NOT engage, which could lead to an actual discussion of wine. Better to say, "Let's be adventurous ..." so if whatever you pick turns out to be not so great, it's because you're an interesting free spirit, not because you're just a baratineur.

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