by Ron Washam

The five essential wine words

Most people are uncomfortable talking about wine. They think they lack the vocabulary to speak about it and, therefore, they sound stupid. They are correct. There is no subject that has people sounding so incredibly ignorant as often as wine, unless you count poetry. So many stupid things have been said about wine you’d think it was climate change, or something even more complicated, like the 100 Point Scale (neither of which is real).

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Wine isn’t actually that challenging to talk about, not if you know the Five Essential Words that we wine experts use. Once you’ve mastered these Five Essential Words, you’ll be able to speak confidently about wine without any fear of embarrassment. The great and most sought-after speakers on the subject of wine, MWs and wine columnists for major wine publications, have to learn early on how to deal with embarrassment — especially when they accept their speaking fees.


A very important word when you talk about wine. Important because it’s impossible to define and yet everyone wants it, like an orgasm. It can be said that every great wine is authentic; and the beauty of it is, that doesn’t really mean anything at all, and yet it’s true! Here is the very essence of how we talk about wine when we truly understand it. We speak gibberish. What makes a wine authentic? No one knows, the word is meaningless when it comes to wine; it’s authentic because I just said it is, and I’m a wine expert. Q.E.D. Simple.

Care to argue? Now you’re sounding smart. You can also use authentic with the opposite kind of authority. “Yes, that’s a nice bottle of Barolo, but I didn’t think it was very authentic.” “Authentic” impresses the shit out of wine-impaired people, and you should use it as often as possible when speaking about wine. “That’s a pretty nice bottle of wine, but is the style authentic for the appellation?” Wow, now you’re cookin’. Make sure to verbally emphasize the word, too. “Authentic” must always be spoken with, well, authenticity.

By the way, one of the ways you can recognize another person who is faking it when it comes to his wine knowledge, just like you are, is his use of the word “authentic.” The use of “authentic” is a dead giveaway to the speaker’s inherent wine ignorance. It’s code. It’s like the safe word in a BDSM relationship —when you hear it, it’s time to walk away. I cannot hear the word “authentic” without thinking of nipple clamps.


Think of terroir as God. Everyone’s definition is different, no one can prove it actually exists, everyone worships it, and if you don’t believe in it you’re going straight to Hell. There are even priests of terroir — old men who speak in tongues and mystifying metaphor, and demand obedience to terroir. Think Kermit Lynch. As someone who wants to speak confidently about wine, remember, when talking about any wine that has an actual place name on the label, to mention terroir. In reality, “terroir” is French for “I have no clue what I’m tasting.” But your listener will hear, “Ooohwee, that’s one authentic wine!”

Terroir is commonly defined as the combination of climate, soil, aspect, geography, élevage and, well, everything that makes the wine unique. The Germans use a different word for terroir — Blitzkrieg. But that’s another story. Terroir is so general, and yet, at the same time, so specific, it’s another indispensable word to use when talking about wine. More splendid gibberish. “What is that smell?” “Oh,” you say, “that’s the terroir. All the wines from that region have it. That one isn’t particularly authentic, but it will do.”

Note: Not every region has terroir. Many regions, like Tuscany, don’t have it any more. Doesn’t mean you can’t smell a wine and say, wisely, with a note of concern, “Where’s the terroir?”


Another essential wine word, balance comes into play whenever a wine is otherwise indefensible, which is most of the time. Perhaps the wine you’re talking about is ridiculously underripe, as thin as Tom Cruise’s heterosexual disguise and acting talent, and you really don’t like it much though you’re feeling like you should based on its reputation. You can always say, “I love the wine’s balance, it’s perfectly balanced, and balance is everything.”

On the other hand, perhaps the wine is preposterously ripe and alcoholic, like Lindsey Lohan. Then you can say, “Yes, it’s pretty intense, but it has nice balance.” We say a wine is balanced when we have nothing nice to say about it otherwise. It’s like saying the last person you dated was interesting. We all know that means ugly or crazy, or both. But balance, in its subjectivity, makes the user sound experienced and wise, and it’s very hard to argue with, so it’s a good word to throw around when talking about wine. “That wine was a bit sweet, but it has the acidity to balance the sugar.” You don’t know that, but just say it about every white wine you taste. You’ll be right most of the time and not even know why. This is the way all wine experts speak about wine. Gibberish. Truthfully, most wines have the balance of a dead Wallenda.


Young is an all-purpose sort of wine word. When used properly, it can make you sound very insightful and wine savvy. For example, when you order a wine from the sommelier at that intimidating Michelin-starred restaurant, after you sniff the wine remember to say, “Oh, it’s too young, but it will be fine.” Your guests will be impressed, the sommelier will think you’re a jackass because at least one moron says that every night she works, so she’ll avoid your table. A win-win!

Or, let’s say someone serves you a wine you don’t know anything about and asks your opinion. Just thinking about that probably gives you sweaty palms. No need. Taste the wine and say, “It’s pretty good, but it tastes like it’s from young vines.” Note: If it says “Vieilles Vignes” on the label, don’t worry about it. That could just be an importer lie. “Vieilles Vignes” is importer talk for “Authentic.”


Easy. Girls, you know how to use this. That little white boy lie. “Oh, that’s impressive length.” Something to say when there’s not much else good about the experience. Works with wine, too. “You know, it’s fine when you first put it in your mouth, but it doesn’t have much length.” More wine gibberish, of course. Length is relative. As in, doesn’t run in my family.

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