Thursday, July 18, 2013

How Dare You Use The "S" Word?!

So I have been wrestling with this post, not the writing part (which is my usual issue) but if I should even bother. It’s been done, the argument had and the outcome is always the same…nothing is ever resolved, both camps believing they are right and the other must be high. So why bother bringing it up again…just not so good with the whole, “leaving well enough alone” deal I guess. After tasting and commenting on a bunch of California wines this past weekend the whole thing came up again….sweetness.

Now before anyone goes jumping on my neck let me just say, sweetness, perceived or actual is all in the palate of the beholder. I don’t wish to continue the argument about what is sweet and what is not, or if the, “perceived” sweetness is from actual residual sugar, alcohol or oak…wanna know why? Because it doesn’t freaking matter! Who cares what is giving the “impression” of sweetness, if the wine tastes sweet, it is freaking sweet. This thing drives me nuts, every time I taste something and say, “it’s a little sweet” I get to hear the speech again, “Oh no, that wine is not sweet, there’s no RS on that wine. If you are getting a perceived sweetness it might be from the oak” this speech is always delivered with the slightly aghast, how dare you say that, face.

Two things about this whole thing twist my undies; one is the arrogance of one person telling another what they are tasting or worse, that they are tasting wrong…who the hell do you think you are?! What I taste, how I taste and my perceptions are correct…for me. Would I turn around and tell a customer that the wine is sweet, probably not, not unless I knew their palate well enough to know that it would likely taste sweet to them. All taste is subjective, some people have a higher threshold for sweetness than I do, matter of fact I think most do. I don’t drink soda, will take cheese over dessert every time and I even put salt on my fruit for balance, I don’t find pleasure in sweetness but I would never call it a flaw. The other thing that gives my knickers a twist is the fact that those people that scrunch up their face when I say I am getting sweetness on a wine, see that as me pointing out a fault or flaw….when did, “sweet” become a bad word?!

I just don’t get it, some of the world’s greatest wines are sweet, some of the most respected, most sought after, most expensive…but I mention that I got sweetness on a Marcassin Pinot Noir and I get the scrunchy face and speech. Did I say I didn’t like the wine? Did I say that it was in any way jacked up?! No, as a matter of fact I rather liked the wine, it was sweet to me but I still liked it, was still able to taste things beyond the initial, “perception” of sweetness…so what gives? Why the defensive attacks on people’s palate when they mention sweetness? Why be defensive at all? Somehow we can talk about animal pee and poo but mention sweet and the fancy pants wine police thump you about the head and shoulders. Fruit is supposed to be sweet right; I mean you rarely see a shelf talker that says, “aroma of nowhere near ripe cherries” now do you?

"This wine was sort of created for the U.S. market. You know, to be a crossover wine" the second the words leaped from my lips I could feel the fur beginning to gather around the neck of the woman I was pouring it for. "And what is that supposed to mean?" the lips pulled into the start of a snarl, the eyes now narrowed and suspicious as they honed in on me like heat seeking missiles. You know that high-pitched sound that a landmine emits right before it blows up....this felt a little like that. And Ms. What'sWrongWithMerica was clearly on the verge of being offended. I went on to explain to the now way-too-focused-on-my-every-flipping-word woman, that the wine in question, the one with the edgy label sporting in big chunky script the word Grenache on it, that it was made in a more fruit forward, flashier, more showy...on the fruit side, style. "What does that have to do with American palates?" she asked, those eyes taking in my every wrinkle and laugh line, nose raised high and alerting me of just how bent out of shape my words, or moreover the implication, was making her. Now this is where a salesman/woman might have started a tappy dance of, "Looka this way!" but it was the educator in me that ached to have the woman understand, so I went for it, "Well the American palate tends to favor things on the sweeter side" yeah, took less that half a second to know that I had peed all up in her Frosted Mini Wheats. 

What followed was a sort of tennis match of comments, hers assuring me that she didn't like sweet things in the least as she sucked back Banyuls like it was iced tea and mine, trying to be soothing and far from accusatory as I brought up things like pancakes, waffles, cinnamon rolls and breakfast cereal all of which are foods so sweet they might be served as dessert in other parts of the world.....not that there's anything wrong with that. The soda pop and catchup culture that has shaped the American palate and how even our wine culture, which is younger than most, has been shaped and molded to suit a particular critic's palate that is very much drawn to ample, supple and ultra-ripe fruit. Maybe I should have worked on my tap dance moves because this woman was about a million miles away from cutting me any slack. I felt a little defeated but as I watched Ms. America grab her bottles of Rombauer Zinfandel and Peach "Champagne" I realized that it wasn't sweetness in wine that offended her, it was simply the word sweet that put a hitch in her get-a-long....really?! What the hell gives? When did sweet become a dirty word?  I mean, it's not like we use sweetness to make things like medications or vitamins all candy like so we'll take them....oh wait. 

Sweet in no way implies inferior when I use it and it is miles away from a negative sensation or flavor when it comes to wine but pretending that certain things don't leave the impression of sweetness is just silly and creates an even bigger divide or hurdle when trying to get the consumer what they really want to drink. When you've been selling wine to the general public for a long time you start to pick up on the little reads or tells, pulling the important, (to the person that will in fact be drinking the wine) names from in between emphatic assurances of "I like a big, bold, dry red!" nodding when the name "Opolo" or "Rombauer" follow, I have figured out how to do it but it would just be so much easier if we stopped treating sweetness as if it were a suggestion of an immature palate or somehow a bad thing....dang it.

That feels better.  


Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
No one likes to be told they're wrong when they talk about their taste--their actual human sense, or their taste in books, clothes, sexual perversion or a million other things. Sit with six wine people tasting the same wine, listen to what they say, and it sounds like they're tasting six different wines. One says "sweet," the other says "balanced," another says "thin"--hell, everybody's right and everybody's wrong. That's the fun of wine.

"Sweet" is something of a loaded word in the wine business, tossed around haphazardly by almost everybody, including me. You don't need permission to use it the way you do, and I know you're not asking for permission. You also don't need to explain yourself. A wine you would say is sweet is also a wine someone else might want to add Sweet 'n' Low to--seen that happen. Wine is food, after all, and you get to screw with your glass as much as you want as long as you leave my glass alone.

But there is sweet, and then there is Rombauer sweet. Vastly different, to my mind. It's degrees of sweetness we ultimately argue about, not its existence. Saying Marcassin Pinot Noir is sweet, and then saying Peach Champagne is sweet, doesn't really reflect what you mean by sweet. The word sweet by itself doesn't measure HOW sweet. That's the problem, I think. Not that you say a measurably dry wine is sweet to you, but that it then is lumped in with Rombauer or Peach Champagne, which are sickeningly sweet (to me).

OK, you wanted argument, I gave you argument.

And, by the way, you are the sweetest soul I know. No accounting for taste...

I love you!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,

I think the first step, beyond arguing about levels of sweetness, (which I was not trying to do anymore than I was looking for an argument at all....wrong blogger. I know STEVE! and I look alike and all but I don't write posts just to stir shit. Over that noise) is trying to erase the negative implications or insulted feelings when the word sweet is used, which was the only and entire point of the post as it flew from my resurfacing brain this morning. Well right after the, "I'm going to go on hiatus" one I wrote but judging from your comment I am assuming this steaming pile of a piece should have been scrapped the hiatus one put in its place but it's here now so leave it I will.

So what I was getting at, or wondering about is not who thinks what is sweet, (and I'm sorry that 2003 Marcassin was quite sweet to me, not flawed or fucked up, not yucky in any way but brown sugery sweet to me, not so much in a way that I would sell it to a customer looking for something sweeter but I sure wouldn't recommend it to a Oregon or French Pinot Noir lover) that is the fun kind of arguing around the dinner or tasting table, my concern or irritation comes from people being wholly offended when the word sweet is applied and I simply don't get that. Guess that was what I was unsuccessfully trying to say. Just makes for more confusion as was the case with that woman that bit my head off for even suggesting sweetness even though she clearly liked sweeter things. Just looking to make my life a little easier dammit.

"A wine you would say is sweet is also a wine someone else might want to add Sweet 'n' Low to--seen that happen"- to that I can only offer, gross!

"And, by the way, you are the sweetest soul I know. No accounting for taste..." for that all I got is, ouch.

I love you too Ron Washam HMW....with all my sweet-free heart.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
I understood your point, I think, though I didn't address it. There is a prejudice against "sweet" when it comes to wine, and it probably goes back to the prejudice against White Zinfandel. Folks who liked White Zin were always looked down upon by wine snobs for drinking something sweet. Sweet was equated with cheap and lowbrow. That's still hanging around, appropriate or not. And the word sweet still tends to rile wine dweebs.

As for going on hiatus, I hear you. I think about that every day. Let's go on hiatus together! I'm as tired of writing my useless blog as you are of writing yours. Might be nice to walk away for a bit, say, forever.

Don't judge anything by my comment, My Love. Your blog is still one of the few worth reading. And you certainly don't have to apologize for your opinion of the Marcassin. I just wanted you to taste one, see what you thought of it. I wasn't insulted or hurt.

And I was just being a wiseguy with my final line, not attempting to take a cheap shot at you, Gorgeous. Using sweet in another context. Oh well, can't win 'em all.

I love you, MB!

Samantha Dugan said...

Ron My Love,
After this past week a little "wiseguy" crack from you is a welcome sting. Now get down here and kiss me already!

webb said...

Cheap - yep.
Lowbrow - yep.
Sweet(er) wines - yep.

Sorry her highness was offended, but if she would spend half the time learning what she likes and why, instead of worrying about labels maybe you could sell her some wines she would like ... withoutchoosing them by the picture on the label.

Sorry to butt into your lovefest.

Samantha Dugan said...

I am all for whatever gets a person off, trust me, but to pretend that sweet is repugnant and offensive and then walk off with wines that are of the sweeter variety, and act like you "Would never" just proves that we have run the car off the rails with regards to the word sweet. It's okay to call someone sweet, to have sweet fruit in your bowl but wine? Oh, Hells, NO! Stupid. Had the exact same thing happen tonight at our tasting of wines from Piedmont. We asked a newer guy what he thought of the tasting and he had no problem telling us that he didn't much care for the wines but added, "The only one I really liked, and I am not normally a sweet wine person, was the Moscato d'Asti"...dude. I looked at what he was buying, Paso Zins, Viognier and even domestic CalItal wines. Went for it again, "So you like wines with just a little more sweet fruit?" and before I could even finish, rigid back and farty in, "How dare you imply?!". Fucking crazy to me. I mean, I get some of it, I used to get all stick up the butt when people used the word thing to describe my Burgundies but after awhile I had to think of how those wines feel in the mouth and...well they sure as hell aren't fat so I had to be okay with thin right? I think another palate pleaser for the domestic wine prefer-er, is texture, as in unctuous and creamy, or full and luscious, (sounds better than fat or gooey right? Aint language and the perception of it grand?) feeling wines that get them off where me, I want, crave and need zip and zing. It's a whole bottom top thing that is only about preference for the individual and not one is actually better than the other. Pretty sexy no? Kinda sorta why I can't get my crunders too wadded about it....

Oh and you thought this was a love fest? I thought Mr, Smart E. Pants was giving me a spanking...again, aint language grand?

Samantha Dugan said...

"Thin" not "thing"....sonofabitch I cannot type/write. Grrrr

Thomas said...


Words always have consequences. If you want to erase the negative connotation from the word "sweet," don't use the word at all when you describe a wine to someone. Use words that aren't so easily subjective.

I believe that deep down people know that sweet is the simplest taste to take and that they feel a little weird being so simple. Added to that is the negative view of "sweet" that Ron spoke of that permeates the wine industry (even though wine writers and cost a shitload of money).

In any case, we have just discovered another similarity between us: I haven't a sweet tooth in my mouth. When I was a child I loved to suck on lemons--straight. I hardly ever ate candy.

When I used to judge wine, I found myself so many times trying to persuade the panel that a certain wine came with some sweetness--until I accepted that for whatever reason, my sense of sugar is not the same as most people's. It's why I don't go out of my way to dine in Asian restaurants--too much sweetness in many of the dishes.

Thomas said...

somehow, some of my words got lost. Should read: (even though wine writers and critics write about sweet wines that cost a shitload of money).

Samantha Dugan said...

I did the same with lemon as a kid but I sprinkled them with salt. Could be why certain measurably dry wines still leave an impression of sweetness with me. And tryst me, for what I do, that is more of a hindrance than a virtue.

I've tried to curb the hairy eyeball look by reminding or telling people that some of the most sought after, and expensive wines in the world are sweet wines, dessert wines even but somehow those wines get a pass. I just find the whole thing fascinating....

Samantha Dugan said...

Holy shit...I cannot write anything without screwing up right now!

Trust me, not tryst me. (That one was funny though)

Charlie Olken said...

Tryst you? I have been trying.

As to "sweet", as one of those who has been openly critical of the way you have used the word, I can only say that there is a vast difference between the way a wine works with food when it has real sweetness as opposed to fruit or caramelized vanilla oak, and those differences get lost when the word "sweet" is attached to every possible thing in wine that is not rich, round and less than acid-driven.

To me, the difference between a wine with "sweetness" and one that has fruit or richness or other source of what one might call sweet, shows up most clearly in the finish.

And because we are all wordsmiths in this business, including those who sell wine who are far less competent in the use of language than you are, it is possible to find ways to describe characteristics in wine with lumping them under the catchall of sweet.

I never mind a wine with residual sugar as long as it is balanced and tastes good. Riesling does better that way than Chardonnay. Zinfandel, at low levels of residual sugar, do better than Syrah or Cab Sauv, especially if the Zin is otherwise balanced and is used with appropriate foods.

Sweetness in the right place and in the right proportions is no sin, but it is different from oak and fruit--and that is why, my dear Samantha, some of us bust your bawls when it comes to that particular piece of language and its usage.

Samantha Dugan said...

Charlie My Tryster,

I had a feeling I might hear from you on this one. Have to say I like the way you went here, that sweet is not a sin thing. As I was saying to Ron, it's not the determining of levels of sweetness, (of fruit, alcohol or as you mentioned, caramelized oak-which if you don't get sweet from that, of the brown sugar variety like I found in that Pinot, well I'm baffled) that I wish to tackle as much as people feeling like they have just been called a 3rd grader when the word sweet is mentioned with regards to a wine they like t drink. Really is a polarizing word for some.

Had a woman come in and taste a off-dry German Riesling on the wine bar, she loved it and wanted a couple bottles of it. We took her to the case stacks of the wine and there, on a little stick was a tag we had placed on the wine saying, "Semi-Sweet" I shit you not, she took a step back, hand draped across her collarbone, face slightly aghast and she said, "Oh, I don't like sweet wines!",,,,she wouldn't buy it! Wouldn't buy the wine that she herself had just tasted and loved because of that little tag that said semi-sweet. That is just cra-zy. That is what I would like to see squished love, and what I was talking about.

Oh and Charlie, don't know what I would do if you and Ron stopped busting my bawls!

Thomas said...


People who like what they taste and then dislike it after they read about it have always spun my head, until I learned the lesson that you cannot teach stupid.

Thomas said...

Oh, and I do tryst you--in my dreams...

Samantha Dugan said...

"Can't teach stupid" or taste I would say. A dream tryst, sounds like fun to you there? xoxox

gabriel jagle said...

our mantra at the winery is, "people ask for dry but buy sweet".

(apologies, the following antecdote will be based on the scientific definition of sweetness). Most people who come to our winery usually don't want to buy our riesling because it is "too sweet", even tho it is bone dry (below 0.5% residual sugar). Our most popular wine is our viognier, which usually has about 1.5% residual sugar. Ironically, nobody ever calls that wine "too sweet". go figure

Thomas said...


People call the Riesling "too sweet" because that's been Riesling's M.O. ever since the success of Blue Nun in the early 70s (oddly, Blue Nun's formula was not exactly Riesling).

The fate of Riesling proves that a lie or half truth has an infinite shelf life, and that the majority of consumers do what they are told to do, no matter whether who told them has credibility.

Samantha Dugan said...

That is exactly why I think we need to wipe the stink and smugness off the word sweet. I see it over and over again, they say dry and buy sweet...what's wrong with liking sweet things? People gush about chocolates and pastry, swoon for desserts and confections...why would it be, or should it be, any different with wine? So freaking bizarre to me. Thanks for making me feel less crazy...

gabriel jagle said...

I really look at sweetness in wine as a bell curve. Novice drinkers love sweet wines, people with developing palates shy away from sweet wines, and people with sophisticated palates appreciate sweet wines as much as any.

As much as I love Burgundy or Champagne, i have just as much love for off-dry Riesling or Tokaji. If you can't appreciate a good sweet wine, then you're missing some of the best wines in the world.

Anonymous said...

There's sweet as part of an overall balance that makes one want to sip and sip again. Like you. Then there's
sweet as in overripe, fat, clumsy. cloying and oafish. And you're funnier than him, too.

Samantha Dugan said...

Well welcome back you! Thanks for the "sweet" words and how can I not love a little jab at my beloved? Nice to see you again!