The other night at a blind wine tasting session, someone described a wine to be feet-y.

It was true. Along with the sweetness of ripe strawberries, the bitterness of orange pith, and the tartness of rhubarb, the wine had an aroma that was evocative of feet. There was no other word more suitable.

At another tasting, someone said a wine had beef breath. It wasn’t the concentrated scent of beef broth or the mouth-watering aroma of roast beef just out of the oven to rest before serving, but a masticated smell of beef you might pick up from someone’s breath after they’ve had a beef sandwich. Others picked up aromas of barnyard or earth. The words all brought up sensations we could understand. They also represented how each of us felt about the aromas. Barnyard Guy apologized for using the word because it doesn’t sound very nice, and he liked that characteristic in wine. Beef Breath Guy simply didn’t like meaty characteristics anywhere near a wine that touched his lips.

We use the names of fruit, vegetables, and flowers to describe the evolving, alluring, and sometimes off-putting aromas of wine. Spices, herbs, and other foods and beverages too. What pleases one may disgust another. Our genetics, culture, and exposure to different foods and experiences determine our visceral reactions. They also determine our sensitivity to them.

All of these things make describing wine a difficult thing to do. More difficult is trying to understand wine descriptions with words that cannot be experienced or imagined.

Though words like feet and beef breath are not likely to be found in wine reviews, I like these descriptions because they are evocative words. They are smells we can relate to, smells we can imagine, smells we can test for ourselves to find out – regardless of how sensitive we are to them. Regardless of whether we like them or not.

These words aren’t beautiful. They’re definitely not romantic. But neither are wines if you break them down into their components to really know wine. Sweetness. Acidity. Tannins. Alcohol. Body. Aromas and flavours you may love or hate. But to know wine is to appreciate it. To know wine brings pleasure the way someone you know is a friendly presence to enjoy, while a stranger is ugly because they are not known.

And that’s why I love wine. They are beautiful and romantic and evocative of such powerful emotions, thoughts, and experiences. They are glasses of life.

* To learn or practice how to pick out aromas and flavours in wine using common words to describe wine, join one of our Sniff and Sip Wine Tasting Workshops. Our last one for the Fall/Winter 2014/5 season is Thursday, January 29th in Vancouver. We’ll be sniffing (and tasting if you like) herbs and spices to then pick them out in the delicious flight of wines for tasting. We’ll also go over sugar and sweetness levels in wine so you can make smarter wine-buying choices. As always, we’ll take pleasure in the wine glasses of life around a table. Tickets and Information: Sniff and Sip – Herbs, Sugar, and Spices