When it comes to restaurant lingo, nothing is more perplexing than somm-speak.
While overhearing an expediter yell at a line cook in the middle of service can sound foreign to the uninitiated, the world of "soigne" has nothing on the strange, poetic language that sommeliers—and, consequently, wine writers—have adopted when talking about wine.
Because descriptions like "loamy forest floor" can sound ridiculous to casual wine drinkers, Maryse Chevriere—sommelier at Dominique Crenn's Petit Crenn in San Francisco—decided to channel foofy wine slang into art. The result: Fresh Cut Garden Hose, an Instagram account that contains a series of cartoons inspired by the strangest of somm-speak.
I caught up with Chavrier to chat about the project and the worst that wine wording has to offer.
MUNCHIES: Hi, Maryse. How did you get into working with wine? Maryse Chevriere: Really reluctantly! [Laughs.]
I was working in food and beverage writing for the first four years after college, and was really into drinks. I loved writing about them but was kind of scared about the vast amount of knowledge that's required to hang on this side of the industry. But then I had a little nothing of an assignment to interview this bartender at Terroir in New York, and the way he was talking about wine and his life I just thought, That sounds awesome! You're having so much fun and you know so much. I want to do that.
We stayed in touch, and couple months later I ended up getting hired at one of [Terroir's] other locations. It's crazy—I never thought I would be able to retain all the knowledge you need, but I just had to take a step back and be like, "It's fun, we're drinking."
What was your inspiration for @freshcutgardenhose? I was studying for my certified somm test and procrastinating really bad. I was taking a break and flipping through my Instagram feed—and obviously it's all wine porn—and I started thinking about the Somm documentary and how that guy [Ian Cauble] says, "This smells like a fresh-cut garden hose," and how absolutely ridiculous that sounds. But at the same time, [I know] that I've said stuff just like that, you know? It happens. It was just such a visually evocative thing. Going through and looking at all the tasting notes that people post all the time, [I thought], Well, maybe I could just doodle for an hour with my glass of wine and not study. And it kind of just turned into a thing.
So why do somms speak like that? I feel like wine is a thing that has such a mystery and [creates] apprehension for people about it, but at the same time it's such a physical, visceral, emotional thing, and you kind of want to bring that in a way that feels real to people. I don't want you to feel super-intimidated if you're unfamiliar, so instead I will describe the experience of drinking this. And it can come off as sounding kind of insane, but at the same time I do think it is more fun than saying [in a mock snooty voice], "This has medium-plus acidity and high alcohol," because that's not what sells the wine or what makes the wine exciting. It's not the point of it—from where I'm coming from.
So what's the spectrum of somm-speak, from the tamer to the crazier? In a practical sense, when you're selling wine to somebody at dinner you don't have a ton of time, so you want to hit the beats and understand what they like or what they're looking for. So it's you're usually going to use words like "dry" versus "sweet," and then a body question and then a couple descriptors like, "Do you like more citrusy or"—and I hate to say this—"more like red fruits or black fruits?" And that kind of thing. In the middle, there's phrases like "screaming acid," "fatten up," "really tight and grippy." Those are words that are pretty common. I hate that I'm using that, but yeah. But I think when people are on Instagram or Delectable or it's a somm talking to another somm, they'll go nuts.
Do you think that type of more intense somm-speak be ostracizing to customers? Well, I've definitely had experiences where I'd rather say "raging acidity" or "electric acid" over saying "really high acidity," but people can look at you like, "What are you saying? That sounds crazy." And I'm like, "No, no, no—it means it's bright," and you kind of have to explain it. But it's definitely a fine line. It's something that I think needs to be gauged with each individual guest in the scenario, but it's something that can definitely be ostracizing if you're coming at it from the perspective of "I know so much, so I'm going to give this crazy description to you." But I also find that just listing off descriptors like cherry, raspberry, currant, or whatever can be [intimidating], too. Because they're like, "Oh, I'm smelling this and I'm not smelling those things you just said. Does that mean I'm a bad taster?" And it's like, no, it is what it is to you.
It seems like there can be a competitiveness between somms coming up with different and purposefully weirder descriptions. Would you say that's true? One hundred percent. When people are like that, it's like, you're not even tasting this, you're just trying to come up with the craziest sounding thing you can. It's like they're trying to out-weird the other person. That's the other thing about it. As much as I love being a part of it, there is a lot of snottiness, too.
What's one of the strangest that you've heard? There are some people who write really crazy ones. Morgan Harris has some of most crazy, long, novel-length descriptions I've ever read. In terms of a specific one, one of the ones my current boss did is: "Where Moroccan whorehouse meets a coastal redwood forest in the spring." Which was pretty random. Or like, "Arty, funky, intellectual, like a super hot-chick with hairy pits" to describe chenin blanc from Savennieres. It's just this ridiculous stuff. You kind of get it but also don't, but it makes you laugh. At the very least, it makes you want to know more about the wine.
What about the descriptors used in wine writing? I feel like you'll typically see more of the words like "grippy" or "screaming acid" and not like the big nerding-out stuff in an article. Wine writing is hard. It's hard not to re-use things like, "really juicy" or "fresh" or "bright" or whatever. It kind of gets limited if you don't wild-out on things that are personal to you and your taste experience.
Any last words of advice for the burgeoning wine enthusiasts and somms out there? The thing is, we're all drunk and having fun when we're saying this stuff. Like, who knows what's coming out? Approach it with lightheartedness, drink more, have fun with it, don't overthink it. That's my PSA.
Thanks for speaking with me.