A new generation of sommeliers is rewriting the language of wine

Thursday, 23 May, 2024
Wine Enthusiast, Kate Dingwall
A new wave of forward-thinking sommeliers recognizes that changing the language around wine tasting is an essential part of making the industry more inclusive.

Alice Achayo, who is originally from East Africa and immigrated to the United States with her family, grew up eating mangoes, papaya, jackfruit, guava and passionfruit. Her meals often included meat that was smoked or dried, or sauteed in onions and fragrant oils, accented with ground sesame and peanuts. When Achayo started in wine in 2015, she was surprised to learn that her sensory memories didn’t fit into industry boxes: There weren’t established pairings for the foods and flavors she grew up with. Meanwhile, in tastings, jackfruit was simply described as an “exotic fruit.” Achayo wondered, “Who are these fruits exotic to?” If someone mentioned gooseberry as a flavor note, she’d laugh and think, “Who has actually eaten a gooseberry?”

Achayo is not alone in her experience. She is part of a new wave of forward-thinking sommeliers who recognizes that changing the language around tasting and pairing is an essential part of decolonizing wine and making the industry more inclusive.

Now, more than ever, this work is crucial. According to the Wine Marketing Council, 66% of wine drinkers are white; 11% identify as Black; 15% identify as Hispanic and 5% identify as Asian. Meanwhile, Gen Z—which is more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations—has yet to embrace wine, a major cause for concern. As it reckons with slowing sales, the industry is eager to bring more people into the fold. “Every news article says that Gen Z isn’t drinking wine,” Achayo says. “But maybe we aren’t using language that engages with them.”

Rebuilding the foundation of wine

Also known as The Wine Linguist, Achayo believes that the way industry insiders talk about wine—everything from the vocabulary around flavors to the way bottles are marketed and how wine is discussed culturally—needs to evolve. She takes a layered approach, teaching wine professionals how to adopt language that considers diverse listeners, consulting with restaurants who focus on foods of the global south as well as centering winemakers and their agricultural work to help showcase other facets of production to people who feel shut out from the industry.

To reconsider the future of wine language, Achayo is interrogating its roots starting with the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET), which has long been the gold standard of wine instruction. She notes it was established in the United Kingdom for British importers, distributors and retailers. Eighty years after its formation, the WSET is studied in over 70 countries and has been translated into 15 languages but hasn’t been adapted to each market. “It’s a colonial mentality,” Achayo says. “It’s the same all over the world.”

Certifications help standardize wine language, but Achayo says the execution is problematic. “There’s no acknowledgement of the sensory and cultural references of a place—the fruits, flowers and plants that grow there.” It’s like a bad translation of a book of poetry; you lose nuance and subtlety. She views certifications as important for establishing baseline knowledge before branching out into more approachable language.

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