Monday, September 8, 2008

Is "Tea Sommelier" a Misnomer?

The use of wine terms and allusions for tea has become more popular in the past few years. While I'm not a linguist, my guess is wine terms are increasingly adopted in tea talk because they have a higher likelihood of being understood by those uninitiated in tea but are more familiar with the wine culture (I'll refer to them as "wine-people" for the sake of brevity). Also, perhaps, wine terms lend to teas a certain charm that wine-people can relate to. Simply put, it's good marketing.

The word "terroir", for example, is brought up in conversations about teas, which like wines, are unique to the place where they were grown in. The French word terroir, after all, was coined by wine makers of old to convey a sense of origin and uniqueness of the grapes and the resulting wines. It is a concept with such universal application that it can be used for everything that grows and exists under the sun. So why not tea.

The most popular wine allusion, probably, is the claim by producers of Darjeeling teas that their products are the Champagne of Teas. I can see the intent, and again, it's marketing. Attaching one's identity with Champagne's venerated image is a good way to relate to a broad range of consumers. Beyond its marketing propaganda, however, I don't quite see any similarity between the two.

There is one wine term that I believe can not be adopted for tea, as it would create a misnomer. The word is sommelier. Tea sommelier just does not make any sense. A sommelier by itself means a "wine steward" or a person who is in charge of the wine provision and the service of it. Is a tea sommelier, then, a person who is highly knowledgeable in and serves both tea and wine? I think those who call themselves tea sommeliers in their profession should reconsider the word's meaning.

Consider the etymology of sommelier:

"Middle French. From somm(er)ier (one charged with transporting supplies), from somier (beast of burden), from somme (burden). From driving a pack animal to drafting wine lists, a sommelier has come a long way. A sommelier is to wine as a cicerone is to beer, though the latter has recently been introduced and is not widespread."

Another version says:

"French, from Middle French, court official charged with transportation of supplies, pack animal driver, from Old Provençal saumalier pack animal driver, from sauma pack animal, load of a pack animal, from Late Latin sagma packsaddle."

I think it's safe to say that a sommelier has got nothing to do with tea in the historical and etymological contexts. Are there any other misapplied wine terms used for tea, or vice versa?

[Edit] PS: In the back of my mind, while writing the post above I vaguely remembered having expressed the same opinion about the use of "sommelier" in conjunction with "tea". Searching for that comment made in the past, I found that Corax of Cha Dao had also expressed the same sentiment in his post "Flavor Hedonics: Pleasure and the Physiology of Taste" dated July 17, 2007. And my agreement to his sentiment was recorded under that post's comment section.


Brent said...

Tannic/tannins/etc. People commonly describe astringency in tea as "tannic" even though there are only trace amounts of tannins in tea, so I'm guessing this is another misapplied wine term.


~ Phyll said...

Yep, tannic has become a loosely used adjective to describe that puckering astringency.

toki said...

how about all the tea addicts commission you to do a title about this? I will design for you "Free of Charge!" : ) Toki

~ Phyll said...

Toki - that's an enticing offer... :)