Learning a foreign language as an adult is a humbling experience. There is simply no substitute for being born into a language, molded by it, so that your thoughts naturally arise in that tongue. That is, after all, what language is; a way of expressing concepts and experiences through sound and symbol. So, when trying to adopt a language, you find yourself in a perpetual struggle to catch up with the skills of a five year-old.
And, do you know what five year-olds don’t understand? Humor. They may be funny -- and are certainly silly -- but, invariably, they don’t understand the complexities of humor. Their language skills and consequently, their reasoning, are very literal. They are still learning the rules of language to form basic concepts into words. It is too much to ask to bend those rules and play games with them.
I am at the tail-end of a six month stay in France. And as an adult with the French language skills of a 5-year old, it has been striking to be thrust into this world of the serious. The complex, and often subtle, concepts on which humor is based are no longer comprehensible while I’m struggling to learn the rules. Humor is an important source of connection between people and without the language to comprehend it, interactions can be lonely.
It can sometimes feel that the main way you encounter humor when learning a foreign language is as its subject. It is surprisingly easy to say something insulting when simply trying to talk about the weather. A quick, sheepish smile, then a laugh from your audience lets you know that you must have made a wrong linguistic turn. There’s not much to do but laugh along with the others, cringe a little inside, and silently vow to avoid talking about the weather until you understand what you’re doing. The only way to survive with any dignity is to have a sense of humor about yourself and not take it too seriously.
Learning about wine has a lot in common with learning a new language. For instance, to say that a wine is “oxidative” condenses into one word a specific concept that requires a few sentences to explain. This is the crux of language. And to those starting to learn, the experience is largely the same, like when you told the sommelier that you liked how the wine was so sweet and fruity, to which he smiled and reported that the wine was bone dry. And the reaction tends to be similar: laugh it off, cringe a little, and try not to talk about wine until you know what you are doing. But with wine, this seems unnecessary. Sure, you may not understand the concept of “bone dry,” but there must be a better way to discuss it that doesn’t leave you feeling dismissed…right?
I recently sat for a Wine & Spirits Education Trust wine exam in London. The first portion entailed sitting in a large conference room with a few hundred other candidates tasting my way through 12 wines and furiously scribbling tasting notes. As I rushed to get all my notes down, with a stern proctor calling out the rapidly waning time, it became increasingly difficult to dispel the notion that the world of wine takes itself a mite too seriously. While there is much to learn about fermented grape juice, it is sometimes easy to overlook the more basic commonality that runs through any good experience with wine: human connection. That is the purpose of wine -- to share. If fixation on the language employed for that conversation undermines the human connection, then that language is failing in its purpose.
No one is a native speaker in “winese.” So, while learning to speak it as an adult, we are all on equal, five year-old footing. As a result, it may be difficult for there to be real humor when it comes to wine. However, five year-olds are really good at using their language to express two other things; infectious joy and silliness. Conversations in winese would be well served to incorporate a healthy dose of both to counteract all of that seriousness.
Wines That Cause Smiles
There are two kinds of wines that have almost never disappointed me. I’m not sure if it’s a coincidence, but both wines are generally not regarded as “serious,” so maybe it’s easier to enjoy them without having to search for some hidden sign of greatness. First is the Gamay (grape), particularly from Beaujolais-Villages, Morgon, Fleurie, or Brouilly. These wines are light and fruity, and a simple joy to drink, and I’ve always particularly enjoyed the wines of Jean Foillard. They are also usually reasonably priced, although the prices have been increasing in recent years. Second, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Lambrusco. This is a sparkling red wine from Italy, made from the Lambrusco grape. If you can find it in the wine store, ask for a drier (less sugar) style. Again, these are simple wines that should cost no more than $20, are great with charcuterie or pizza. And they definitely don’t take themselves too seriously.