Assertive Descriptions for Pedestrian Palates

Last week an article in the wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle (motto: "We had to do something with Section W now that it was no longer about the War in Iraq") described two wines as smelling like cat urine. This week the wine editor wrote a column explaining that this is a good thing. I can't wait until next week when the food editor tries to convince us that it's a compliment when the kids say your tuna casserole tastes like dog shit.

Apparently this isn't the first time the newspaper has used the term, and no, the last time wasn't in a description of local politics. But this time they received a pile of mail about it because it was a little different. The editor explained that the usual term, which is the one they used before, is "cat's pee," but some overly zealous copy editor was in a particularly scientific mood and changed it to "cat urine." According to the editor, cat's pee is a softer and gentler term. Not as soft and gentle as fruity, but it's a San Francisco newspaper so they're very careful about using that word.

While cat's pee sounds like an extremely unappetizing description for wine, it turns out to be in common usage. At least among those who serve kitty litter canapés for hors d'oeuvres. Interestingly, most of the wine terms we hear tossed about are standardized. Years ago a professor at the University of California Davis created the Wine Aroma Wheel, which not surprisingly has a balanced finish of burnt rubber. In addition to the more enticing sounding aromas a wine can have, such as raspberry, rose, and honey, it also includes descriptors like sauerkraut, wet dog, artificial fruit, burnt match, soy sauce, and methyl anthranilate. There's also skunk, moldy, medicinal, and kerosene, which is nice to know since a few years ago a friend showed me a review of a wine that said it had "an aftertaste of turpentine" and we spent the rest of the evening and two bottles of non-paint-thinner-like spirits trying to figure out if it was intended as an insult or not. Now I know it was a compliment. In light of this information, from here on out I'm going to take it as a compliment whenever someone tells me I smell like a skunk and I'm not wearing Aramis.

These terms probably have a good reason for being used, though I have to admit they're not in my realm of oenological experience. That's because the vintages I drink are usually described as cheap, tolerable, or screw-top. If I'm really lucky I can use all three at once. Luckily I live on the west coast, so I can drink Charles Shaw wine, a rather tolerable vintage that sells for all of $1.99 a bottle at Trader Joe's, a chain of grocery stores. If, that is, you can find any in stock. The wine's so popular that people haul the Merlot, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon home by the case as quickly as it can be aged for three days and put out on the sales floor. Hey, what's not to like? It's cheap, it's drinkable, and it even has a cork. Edward Deitch of MSNBC described the wines, commonly called Two-Buck Chuck, as "dominated by wood and alcohol with a bitter finish." At least they don't smell like cat's pee after eating asparagus.

I'm not sure why such a wide range of descriptors is used for wine but not for food. No one describes food as having "the bouquet of burnt toast" unless they're talking about charred English Muffins. Think about it, when was the last time you described breakfast as "earthy," lunch as "flabby," or dinner as "flat"? Unless, of course, you had Grapenuts with wheat germ for breakfast, a supersized fast food combo meal for lunch, and day-old already opened soda with dinner.

There is one food item which is described a lot like wine, and that's olive oil. In case you've been too busy trying to find a place to store that 55-gallon drum of Crisco to notice, tasting olive oil has become the new foodie ritual. And why not, it's definitely easier than wine. There are no corks to break off in the neck or snobby sommeliers to make you feel stupid and cheap, and the only hangover you'll have the next day is your stomach over your belt.

Somewhere along the way, olive oil tasters adopted the language of wine. They also adopted the Wine Aroma Wheel. The Australian Olive Association Tasting Panel (motto: "What a croc!") used it as the basis for its Olive Oil Tasting Wheel. Not only does it let you know that olive oil can be buttery, nutty, and perfumed, you find out that it's okay to use descriptors like vomit, fetid cheese, grubby, moldy spores, and metallic. It's true. And to think, I always saved those adjectives for my mother's salmon croquettes. It's a shame she didn't realize she was being complimented.

More Mad Dog can be found online at: www.maddogproductions.com. His compilation of humorous travel columns, "If It's Such a Small World Then Why Have I Been Sitting on This Airplane For Twelve Hours?" is available from Xlibris Corporation.

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