Home > Art, wine writing, Wine Writing Challenge > Translation – Implicit Virtue and Pain of Oenophile

Translation – Implicit Virtue and Pain of Oenophile

When you hear the word “translation”, what is the first thought which comes to the mind? Make no mistake – we will be talking about the wine here, but let’s leave that aside for now – we will connect the dots a bit later. So, how about that translation?

I would bet that your immediate thought was of a foreign language. This is where “translation” is typically invoked. Maybe you remember your French class in the high school; may be you have a vivid picture of your last trip to Italy – in either case, we see or hear the word (at least, we assume whatever we hear to be a word), and then we make an effort to understand what that word mean in our own language, and not just by itself, but also taking it in the context of conversation or a text we are reading.

When we speak and read in our mother tongue, the words typically create immediate associations. If you hear the word “door”, you have an instant mental image of the door – whatever the style is, but you know it is a door. If you will see or hear the word “porte”, unless you speak French and expect to see a French word, that word will cause no mental images to show up, despite the fact that “porte” simply means “door” in French.

You don’t have to travel or try to read Swiss newspaper in the morning to have a need to translate something. There are plenty of interesting words we encounter all the time, which need translation in order to achieve that comfortable mental image. Some of those words came from foreign languages, some are specific technical terms, some are just an urban jargon – either way we need to translate those word one way or the other in order to “get” them. Need examples? Let’s look at something as straightforward as steak. I’m sure the word “steak” generates an instant mental image (apologies to the vegetarian readers), of juicy, crusted goodness. But, without the help of Google, how many people do you think will be puzzled if asked if they would like to order steak Diane, chateaubriand or tournedos (okay, you can use Google now)? Steak is complicated, you say? No problems, let’s go even simpler here – how about some pasta? Easy, right? Okay, please describe to me croxetti, rachette or gigli. No? Yeah, sure, go ask Google.

You know what is important here? Rachette or gigli, but we know that it is pasta, and it is comfortable enough for us, so we can skip the translation. Our experience can replace the translation itself – not always, but often. Take a couple of trips to France, and you will not be reaching for the dictionary to understand “merci” or “bonjour”. We don’t even think about what those words mean, but we know where and how to use them, and that works. We do learn, and as we learn, we get comfortable. But we have to still remember that translation is all about little details.

You must be thirsty by now, so let’s talk wine. How often do we have to use translation skills around wine? If you said “all the time”, you are right. I’m not even talking about dealing with professional winemakers’ language (debourbage, remouage, Oechsle, anyone?). I’m not talking about translating from the crazy winespeak of some of the tasting notes (references to various exotic fruits are my “favorite” – how many people know how bilberry, jostaberry or a tayberry taste like? I’m sure we all can identify Satsuma plum and Castlebrite apricots, right?). Leaving all that aside, getting comfortable with wines requires a lot of learning – and translation.

Yes, we can skip translation and just learn by drinking the wines, it is easy – I like this wine, and I don’t like that wine. But this approach doesn’t scale – there are millions of wines in the world, it is not given that the exact wine we like will be available anywhere, any time we want it. So we need to start translating the “winespeak”, which is typically right in front of us on the wine label, into the “mental images” we can bring on at any time. When we start drinking wine, we probably start from the grape. We try one Cabernet Sauvignon, and we like it. Then the next, and the next, and then we know – we like Cabernet Sauvignon. But one day we try Cabernet Sauvignon and it might be nothing like the wine we like. What happened? Time to learn about the regions. We start stating “I like Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. Until it is time to learn again – the label says “Cabernet Sauvignon”, the label says “Napa Valley”, but the wine is not that great – and this is when we might start learning about producers.

Paul Hobbs Cabernet Sauvignon Becjksrtoffer Dr Crane VineyardThere is not much translation in what I just described above – depending on where you live and what language you speak. Let’s not forget that Europe is still the most influential “wine region”, and so most of the wine drinkers will have to translate what they see, and pay attention to the “fine print”.

Okay, it is a wine label, not a legal document, but we still need to learn to translate, as the language we assumed to be our native is not universal. Remember we started our love of wine from the Cabernet Sauvignon? Unlike California, French wines typically list only the region and not the grapes the wine is made out of. It is now our job as oenophiles to translate Pomerol and Saint-Émilion into “predominantly Merlot-based wines”, and Pauillac and Margaux into “predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines”. Many French winemakers understand this Achilles hill and they put the name of the main grape directly on the label. This becomes a great thing for some wine drinkers, while some of us are getting on the offensive – “ahh, this French wine list the grape – it must be a cheap plonk made specifically for the export”. Nothing is perfect, right?

And then that fine print… As we keep translating, we learn that every little word is important, very important – but depending on the context. If you see the word “Reserve” on the bottle of California wine, it doesn’t translate into anything of any significance, as the use of the word “reserve” is not regulated in California. The word “Reserva” on the bottle of Chianti or Rioja, however,  can mean the world of difference in the taste of the wine, as the use of this word is tightly regulated and it also translates into the significant difference in taste.

Funny thing that when you think you have achieved your level of proficiency and can “translate” anything with the word “wine” in it, this is when there is a good chance you are going to make a mistake. Here is one of my favorite illustrations to this statement. A few years back, I was in Portugal with a group of colleagues. We stopped by a restaurant, and I ordered the bottle of wine which was absolutely delicious. I actually loved it so much that I bought two extra bottles at the restaurant to take home. A few days later, we visited the same restaurant again, and I ordered exact same wine. When the wine arrived at the table, I couldn’t believe that I liked that wine so much before. The wine was not spoiled, but it definitely lacked the depth and layers of flavor. For a while, I couldn’t understand what have happened – until I found the tiny difference – the second wine was lacking the word “Reserva” on the label…

I hope I didn’t lose you in translation, my friends. When translating, and we always do, we, oenophiles, should always pay attention – and enjoy the ride. Cheers!

This post is an entry for the 32nd Monthly Wine Writing Challenge (#MWWC32), with the theme of “Translation”. Previous themes in the order of appearance were: Transportation, Trouble, Possession, Oops, Feast, Mystery, Devotion, Luck, Fear, Value, Friend, Local, Serendipity, Tradition, Success, Finish, Epiphany, Crisis, Choice, Variety, Pairing, Second Chance, New, Pleasure, Travel, Solitude, Bubbles, Smile, Winestory, Obscure, Faith

  1. April 25, 2017 at 7:41 am

    Reblogged this on mwwcblog.

  2. JvB
    April 25, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    You seemed to have found your topic, my friend. BOOM! Can’t wait to get together with you again soon.

    • April 26, 2017 at 12:21 pm

      Thank you, my friend – I tried 🙂

      • April 26, 2017 at 12:21 pm

        And ditto for getting together again soon!

  1. April 25, 2017 at 9:28 am

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