Divine green silence: synaesthesia and its role in wine tasting

blake illustration dante inferno

Above: William Blake’s depiction of Dante and Virgil heading toward the “dark wood” where “the sun is silent.” Image via BlakeArchive.org.

When Paolo Cantele told me that he and his family planned to call iSensi, their new cooking and wine tasting school, a “synaesthesia laboratory,” I wrote him back telling him he was crazy.

After all, few wine lovers and even fewer consumers in general know what synaesthesia is: it’s a literary figure whereby one of human senses is described by using another.

There are many famous examples in Italian literature and anyone who’s attended school in Italy knows those from Dante:

    [the beast] drove me down to where the sun is silent
    (Inferno 1.60)

    I reached a place mute of all light
    (Inferno 5.28)

In each instance, the poet uses one sense to describe another (sound and sight): a silent sun and a place mute of light.

Here’s another example that I like better for idea I’m trying to convey here.

In nineteenth century poet and Nobel laureate Giosuè Carducci’s sonnet “Il Bove” (“The Ox”), he writes of “the divine green silence of the pasture.”

In all three examples, the use of synaesthesia gives the surface meaning of the text a richer and deeper meaning.

Dante’s inferno is so dark that the sun is silent and light is mute.

In Carducci’s pasture, silence is green.

If you’ve ever gazed out upon oxen grazing on a green Italian pasture, you know exactly what Carducci meant.

So what does this all have to do with wine, cooking, and tasting?

Few wine and food professionals realize it, but they use synaesthesia nearly every time they describe the aromas and flavors of wine (or food for that matter).

One of my favorite examples of this is Robert Parker, Jr.’s use of the descriptor “burning embers.”

When he says he tastes “burning embers” in a wine (a wine to which he conferred 100 points, by the way), he’s not implying that he’s actually put burning embers into his mouth or knows what they taste like. He’s trying, instead, to describe some of the smokiness in the wine he has before him in his glass. And he’s using synaesthesia, borrowing from his olfactory to describe a taste.

Beyond Robert Parker, Jr.’s unique style in wine writing, we use synaesthesia all the time.

Have you ever heard someone say that a wine tastes like a spring day?

Or have you every used cat piss to describe Sauvignon Blanc?

All of these descriptors are similes that rely on synaesthesia to convey their analogy.

But the most important thing to observe here is the fact that we really do not have a medium to describe wine. We never actually describe the wine itself. We describe the sensations that wine evokes. And in doing so, our wine writing (even the humblest tasting note) becomes poetry.

Poetry is a form of human creative expression whereby words and meter are combined (ideally) in a new and unique way, thus imparting a richer meaning to the very sounds we are accustomed to hearing in everyday life.

I believe that one of the elements that makes wine writing so alluring and one of the reasons that we find it so powerful in popular culture today is that we all become poets in the moment that we pick up a pen or sit down at a computer to compose a tasting note.

And in doing so, in however modest dimension, we attain what the great Latin poet Horace set out as the ultimate ideal of art and creativity in western civilization: ut pictura poesis, as in painting, so is poetry. The same way a painter combines images in such a way as to give them greater meaning than their latent meaning, we combine everyday words — e.g., boysenberry, earth, bacon fat — in new and unique ways to transcend their literal meaning and to convey what wine smells and tastes like.

So after much reflection and thought, I don’t think Paolo was so crazy after all. In fact, iSensi – a synaesthesia laboratory — strikes me as a truly brilliant and vibrantly original name for a cooking and wine tasting school.

And Paolo’s poetics is as much an expression of his deep passion for the wines of his beloved Salento as it is for his sensibility as a lover of the arts.

Chapeau bas, my friend!

Jeremy Parzen

One thought on “Divine green silence: synaesthesia and its role in wine tasting

  1. Jeremy, this is perhaps my favorite post you’ve written and I’ve loved so many. Thanks for writing this.

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