Technical Writing and Wine

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Wine barrels at Chateau Montelena.

Okay, so I just got back from a week in Northern California, which included (oddly enough) some quality time in “wine country,” a.k.a. Napa Valley. Rather than tell you what I did on my summer vacation, I’ll share some thoughts on technical writing that I had while enjoying some of the fruits of the vine.

If you want to communicate with professionals in a particular field, you have to learn the language

There’s no way around it: if you want to appreciate wine on the level that professional winemakers (or sellers) do, you have to be able to “speak the language.” And just as aerospace engineering, medical writing, and computer documentation all have their own specialized vocabularies and acronyms, so too does oenology, (a.k.a., the art and science of winemaking).

In the case of wine, there are technical terms involved in the planting, harvesting, processing, aging, and selling of the product. For example, different types of grapes (“varietals”) are planted in specific types of terroir and climates (“microclimates” being a fancy term for “we got more/less rain/fog on these few acres than those down the street). They are planted in different ways to take advantage of the availability of sun, water, and other nutrients necessary for growth.

Likewise, on the sales end of wine, sommeliers (certified wine experts, usually found at high-end restaurants) go through an extensive education to be able to explain to the buying public the various aspects of wine tasting, from which flavors go best with which foods to what scents one is likely to encounter in a particular bottle to which year it’s best to buy, drink, or get rid of a particular bottle. Some folks spend their entire lives or careers around wine, and so it should not be surprising that…

Expertise is acquired through long exposure and experience

Expertise in wine, like any other discipline–including the fine art of technical writing–requires regular exposure and experience with performing the craft.

  • Novice: If you’re someone who drinks wine with food very rarely, your wine vocabulary might be limited to “give me something red/white/pink.”
  • Intermediate: If you’ve acquired some experience with tasting different wines, you might be able to differentiate between varietals (I prefer sauvignon blanc on the white side, cabernet sauvignon or zinfandel when it comes to red wine) you prefer. You also might be able to identify which specific scents/flavors you enjoy or dislike. You might prefer a “minerally” dry white as opposed to something “flowery” or exceptionally sweet. Or you might enjoy a bold, fruit-forward red wine as opposed to something with “earthy” flavors. And then, for extra points, you could explain why you like specific wines with particular types of foods.
  • Expert: Then there are the subject matter experts–some of my friends would could them “wine snobs”–who can differentiate between different vintages (years) of the same brand of wine on a single taste; can give you half a dozen adjectives to describe the flavor; and can rattle off which foods pair best with it. These folks have been to one or more classes to bring specificity to their wine expertise, which is necessary if you’re selling a great deal of wine.

These ranges of experience all have their advantages and disadvantages. While I’d like to learn a bit more about describing the various scents that I might encounter in my wine-drinking experiences, such knowledge is not necessary for me to enjoy a glass or two. Besides, I’m not in a position to throw away $200+ on a wine aroma kit to educate myself. Someday, maybe.

Your needs drive your knowledge

The levels of knowledge someone has about a given topic are driven by their needs. Someone who drinks wine once a year is fine with “red or white.” A sommelier selling $4,000 bottles of Chateau Margaux 2009 better have all the answers to satisfy a customer that they are making an excellent choice.

Once finished with formal schooling, human beings become autodidacts, learning information based on their specialized interests and needs. If you don’t plan to or rarely encounter a specific topic, you are unlikely to know much about it.

For instance, I’ve got huge blind spots in my personal knowledge store, for example, when it comes to things like obstetrics, child care, agriculture, cosmetology, waste processing, romantic comedies, or the personal lives of Hollywood or musical stars, because they’re unlikely to be immediate concerns of mine. Prior to actually working for the aerospace business, I could generally tell you that “the pointy end of the rocket goes up.” Once I was in the aerospace business, first as an advocate and later as a tech writing professional, I needed to get deeper into the works on turbopumps, gas generators, specific impulse, expansion ratios, and the rest. To understand things at a level necessary to communicate between SMEs, I needed to become a “rocket snob,” not necessarily an aerospace engineer. After all, I’m writing about rockets, not designing or building them. If I were, I would need the calculus, chemistry, and all the other language that goes with it.

The point is, you end up learning as much as you need to, whether you’re talking about rockets, wine, or any other profession, in order to get the job done. How much you learn depends on how deep you go or how deep you want to go.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Directior, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Technical Writing and Wine

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    Sounds like you had a good vacation. And now you’ve got me wondering: which one takes more specialized knowledge – rocket science or oenology?

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