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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Cross reference, ordinary language and wine tasting.


We went to the Ojai music festival this Sunday. We’d never been to Ojai. On the way, we passed through  Casitas Springs, which greets the motorist with a large sign adorned with Johnny Cash’s picture and the boast of being the great man’s home. We are  I walk the line heads, so of course we had to look this up, and it turns out those were Cash’s dark years, when he was chasing the amphetimine blues. Vivian got the house on the hill, in a nice Hank Williams turn of thing.
The music we heard at Ojai was more avant garde than country. Adam said he didn’t like it. I did. So did A. Ojai turns out to be a very pleasant resorty kind of place. Apparently it was adopted by a plutocrat – a Libby, guy who founded Libby glass – and so it shows off all kinds of restoration that is really fakedoration, like a mission tower that was built, really, in 1919, not 1719. But I can dig that, and especially the setting – it is nestled in a valley with three large peaks taking up the Eastern horizon.
This kind of country is great for grapes. So I wandered into a wine shop, where they were having a tasting. The tourists at the bar were loving it. Instead of the oenophile sniff, taste, and toss routine, they gobbled down their free samples. The gal pouring, though, gamely spouted the usual thing. Here’s a wine with hints of mint, chocolate, wood and crickets. Or whatever.
Which made me think about the construction of this sub-language.
Philosophers of language are divided about the function of the name, and especially the status of the proper name. However, most of them believe that the name or description functions in relationship to truth. If I described an automobile as a feathered creature that flies south in the winter, what I am showing is that I don’t know what automobile means. Maybe I’ve mistaken it for another word.
What strikes me about wine descriptions is how far away they are from anything I actually taste.
In a sense, this may be because these descriptions do not cross reference. Movie and book reviewers often cross-reference the works they are describing in order to give a sense that is given by experience in the genre. Describing a movie as Silence of the Lambs meets Star Trek  does mean something – but only if you know something else about movies. This knowledge doesn’t really have to be direct. I can have acquaintance with Silence of the Lambs without seeing it, as long as I have heard enough references to it. In contrast, if I described a movie as Satantango meets Sult, I am probably only talking to people who have a more cinephilic knowledge of movies, and are more likely to have seen both of these films. Cross-reference, in other words, assumes a certain knowledge.
But what kind of knowledge is presumed by smoky, or earthy, or nutty? Surely this is the tongue’s knowledge. If I have never tasted anything smoky, then I will have no idea – even from references by people who have tasted it – what that means.
Here’s the thing. To me, wine taste descriptions rarely if ever suggest the taste of wine.
Now, if – as philosophers like to say – language, even sublanguage, has a relation to truth, then – if I am right about wine taste descriptions – it would seem that this sublanguage would soon fail. It is as if the wine server started talking Jabberwocky. It has tastes of brillig, with hints of borogrove and mome raths.
But I can’t really say that the sublanguage is failing, even though it is often mocked. Rather, the method seems to have extended itself to coffee shops – I am seeing more and more wine tasting like language in them.
So what gives? I think this is a good subject for a nice philosophy paper. Something on a language of pseudo-descriptions, and its acceptance and use. In fact, the more I make these descriptions correspond to the wines they are supposed to describe, the more I can predict the taste of the wine even if I taste nothing nutty in it. They have become indexicals, I guess one would say. Just as I can tell the subject of a book from its LOC number, I can tell the “subject” of the wine from its description.
This is a rather fascinating thing. Roland Barthes, I think, found something similar happening in the Fashion world.

So I bought a nice bottle of wine, we had ice cream, and then we all went home. The end. You will find this paragraph to be full of earthy notes, with some nuttiness added. 

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