Punch Line: A Glass of Wine is Not an Experience

Ken Friedenreich, Wine Editor

Knock, knock

There was a time in America not long ago when humor based on identity was acceptable and made everyone laugh except Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

Before the PC Police plunged its dagger into the heart of Americans’ congenital goodwill, we told ethnic jokes, a portmanteau for a virtual Ellis Island of fairly benign recognition of national or religious differences. People knew where they could pee without an attorney or some justice fanatic hectoring them or asking for reparations.

The trope usually comprised of one ladder, one light bulb and seven people in the room: “How many Aggies does it take to change the light bulb?” asks the Longhorn alumnus before the Big Game. Answer: One to change the bulb; six to turn the ladder. Or this variant:

“How many Mafiosi does it take... etc.?” Answer: One to whack the bulb and six people who didn’t see or hear anything. Then, this one from the Big Apple:

“How many New Yorkers, etc...?” “What’s it to you? and some bum stole my ladder.”

Bald or hairy, short or tall, gay or straight, there is always a ladder and a punch line.

The big joke comes from the Big Sur. How many Californians does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. And six to share in the experience.

“Experience,” however, in wine country is no laughing matter but a buzz word, a cliché, a default place holder for some unformed slogan.

Just by leaving my mailbox easily reached, I collected some examples of this E-word gone rogue. We are not playing Diction Detective here. Rather I wish to call attention to a term whose potential abuse can get in the way of one’s wine sense, whether one has started visiting bottle shops and tasting rooms or is an old hand at things grapey.

Fair play suggests that I source these examples. First because I like the wines and people, and also to let them know it’s OK to be direct and even savvy in what they post on line. Few industries are as susceptible to fogging the mother tongue than the wine industry’s effort to reach consumers. Adjective modifiers stick to “experience” like Velcro, so reader beware. These samples were distributed in February 2019.

Vinesse, an affinity marketing company acquires Touring and Tasting. From the news release, the gushy words flood the lowlands of our minds: “100 percent devoted to wine tourism and helping people discover the best experiences wine country has to offer. There’s never been a better time to be in the vibrant wine tourism industry which is growing on a global level.” Superlatives abound like “100%,” “best,” “vibrant,” and growth “on a global level.” Inflated? English as Viagra. “Experience,” herein and below, must exceed, i.e., “best.”

From Feb. 9 I received this note from Alexana Winery in the Dundee Hills, which legitimately boasts of its topography and well-made wines: “Dear Kenneth, We are pleased to announce our 2019 Calendar of Events for the year!

Whether you live locally or out of state, we have put together several exciting opportunities to join us for an unforgettable experience and we hope you will be able to make it.” The modifier here makes me think of Natalie Cole dubbing with long defunct dad. Nat, in a mellow pop chart topper. Experiences, by definition, are supposed to be unforgettable. That is the point.

When once transitive verbs dress like nouns, there begins a slide from clarity of thought to a kind of gruel. To slither away from one meaning, marketers’ and other promoters go to the inflated valueless terms like blue flies to merde. Then the overdressing becomes nutty, a parody of itself.

Willamette Valley Vineyards of Turner is an innovative and highly visible company to which loyalty club I nominally belong. Seven mentions of experience in one e-mail must be a record.

Good members in their respective communities and industries, one wonders how far afield they have wandered from the sense of a word introduced in Chaucer’s day in 1377, like a kid overly eager to use “experience” in a sentence. The yoga add-on suggests that drinking wine is not enough, and is a SOP to Millennial and Aged Boomers who need something to do when drinking wine, one because research says they bore easily and the other because they want a deal to narrate later on the links or over some box wine at dinner.

How post modern! How recherche.

Etymology studies word origins and their mutations or variants over time. It is akin to Jancia Robinson’s book on grapes, tracing migrations and redistributions of basic conditions of use. “Experience” is a good word to search online because we can better glean how it has changed. Etymology has its own website; it offers by backtracking the word and its roots what helps to make my case.

“14c., “observation as the source of knowledge; actual observation; an event which has affected one,” from Old French experience “experiment, proof, experience” (13c.), from Latin experientia “a trial, proof, experiment; knowledge gained by repeated trials,” from experientem (nominative experiens) “experienced, enterprising, active, industrious,” present participle of experiri “to try, test,” from ex- “out of” (see ex-) + peritus “experienced, tested,” from PIE *per-yo-, suffixed form of root *per- (3) “to try, risk.” Meaning “state of having done something and gotten handy at it” is from late 15c.”

Here is the proper use of the word as noun and verb. It describes the action of trying and the trial made, the source of the header on resumes if they’re not complete fictions. These actions and their account come from individuals as the observer or actor. Experience originates in the encounter or view of X by Y, the person. No marketing hype. No tour bus. No data dump; experience is always unforgettable. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be an experience that informs behavior and individual character. Nothing cited in the etymology argues that the “experience” is supplied by outside parties, or packaged for consumption. That would rig the game.

Rigged for what? To get you into the tasting room for an experience. And what about the wine? Well, that glass you’re swirling is just a little training on your way to a bike trail, or a waterfall, or a farmers’ market selling you crafted marmalade and local tribe leather holders for your iPhome – even a pad for your meditation. Paradoxically, an “E-package” bringing affinity groups together will short circuit the genuine sensual engagement of wines since the group response will likely overcome individual impressions. This is not your “getting to be handy,” but more like mind control.

Accumulated knowledge maps your experience; drinking wine is not shut out from this cycle of trying and responding. It’s always the inner game that natters. Tasting wine is convivial and social; these attributes do comprise aspects of entertainment rather than logging more experience mileage. Look at it this way, writes one philosopher of language, JL Austin, “We have here, in fact, a typical case of a word, which already has a very special use, being gradually stretched, without caution or definition or any limit, until it becomes, first perhaps obscurely metaphorical, but ultimately meaningless.”

Remember this when you uncork the next bottle of wine. It will provide a glass of wine, not an experience. And when you put the corkscrew into the top, remember to turn it and not turn the room.



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