We become attached to rules we have learned

It’s amazing how attached we become to rules that we’ve learned. Take the split infinitive. ‘To boldly go,’ is – to those who learned grammar in school – technically wrong, because the infinitive has been split. For many people, this is a big deal, and they are upset when they are told that even Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage doesn’t condemn it. (See the entry here.)

The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; (5) those who know and distinguish.

Then there’s the term ‘data’. As a science editor for 15 years I always insisted on the correct use of ‘data’. It is the plural of datum, so it is correct to say ‘data are’ or ‘the data show’ rather than ‘data is’ or ‘the data shows’. But so widespread has the misuse of this word, treating it as singular, that now it has become accepted as normal, and as this is the way most people use it, I’m joining it. Even though it rankles a bit. It’s amazing how attached we become to grammatical rules.

And what about the insanity of two spaces? Those who were trained to type at secretarial school always leave two spaces after a period. It used to drive me mad when I was an editor. There is no reason for it in the age of proportional fonts, and it’s wrong, but still people do it, and they won’t be told it is wrong. They are quite unable to change.

The same seems to be true with wine. When people have been through wine exams, or train as winemakers, they have a fixed notion of what wine should be. This is seen most clearly when it comes to discussions on natural wines, and their supposed faultiness. It’s understandable, in a way. If you are a winemaker, then it’s part of the job to be able to spot problems in a wine early on and then take appropriate action.

For example, a wine might be showing some signs of Brettanomyces. Left unchecked, this could spoil the wine: it’s something most winemakers are rightly afraid of. Or a wine may be developing some aldehydic characters that suggest it’s in danger of oxidation. It may have a bit volatile acidity, or some eggy reduction. In a young wine, all these issues are quite scary.

But in a finished wine, it’s all different. A slight hint of a flaw can be a positive thing, in the right context. Beauty isn’t the absence of flaws, and the tension that very low levels of, say, reductive elements can bring to a wine, is something that can be beneficial. Some wines are deliberately made in an oxidative style, and they can work well. A little volatile acidity – just a trace – can lift a wine. And low levels of Brettanomyces don’t instantly mean that a wine is a faulty one: it can add some interesting complexity. I find over-ripeness and excessive oak use to be much more of a problem. Perfectly clean, fruit bright wines can be boringly correct, too.

We are all different and we are all free to own our own preferences. But we should be cautious before we dismiss or criticize wines that fall outside of our normal parameters for what is ‘correct’, recognizing that we humans have a tendency to become staunch defenders of rules that we have learned.

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