Friday, December 17, 2010

Wine And Words, Parallel Universes

No big surprises yet, but I'm just learning how to play the game. As to what to make of the data popping up on my monitor, I won't even try to venture an interpretation. Yesterday, however, I ran across this article in the New York Times, about a massive book-based database assembled by Google.

This treasure chest amounts to something like 500 billion words published in books and periodicals in 10 styles of language between the years 1500 and 2008. You can go to this online tool, punch in up to five words or phrases within a defined period of time, and then see how the use of those words has increased or decreased. I'm just guessing here, but I figure the resulting frequency reflects public interest in reading about whatever thing or concept the word represents. In other words, if the frequency of a word or phrase increases, people are likely to be more interested in that topic, right?

OK, so let's see what happens when I punch in cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, zinfandel and merlot for the years between 1920 and 2008, the most recent year for which data was accumulated. The style of language I'm searching is "American English." Whoa, look at that: The frequency of all four varietals began to climb dramatically in 1978, which, amazingly, is the same year I started to write of wine for The Sacramento Bee, but I'm sure that's only coincidental. At any rate, the rise in the frequency of the terms pretty much parallels the sales of those varietals. That is, "chardonnay" shows the most dramatic increase in its appearance in books and the like published in "American English" over the past three decades, the same era in which it became the country's most popular varietal wine. Merlot pretty much keeps pace with chardonnay, though not as sharply. Cabernet sauvignon is third on the scale, overtaking zinfandel in about 1997. (Isn't that when alcohol levels in zinfandel began to go through the roof?)

Wait, it gets even better. At the bottom of the chart you can click on to one of five time frames (1920-1985, 2002-2007 and the like) to get to specific titles and references in the Google Books database for each of the words or phrases you've searched. Click on 1920-1985 for cabernet sauvignon, for example, and you are taken to hundreds and perhaps thousands of books, magazines and other publications that have had something to say of cabernet sauvignon. Sometimes the mention is brief - like in an ad - and sometimes it will be the entire topic of book or article. Google says you may be able to browse the entire book or article online, but by my early searches that's only rarely the case. Fair enough, given copyright laws. As Google suggests, look upon this database as you would a card catalog, then go to a public library to see if the full document is available. Or, there's always Google eBooks.

Let's try another search: Bordeaux wine, Burgundy wine, California wine. When I run the search under "American English," references to Bordeaux wine and Burgundy wine have been fairly steady and competitive over the past 90 years, though Bordeaux has picked up and held a comfortable lead over Burgundy wine since 1990. Mentions of California wine during the same span have fluctuated wildly, peaking about 1948, then plunging until the mid-1950s before starting a rocky climb back, not hitting the 1948 peak again until about 2005, after which there's been another sharp decline. When the search is repeated under "British English," Bordeaux wine, not surprisingly, given the United Kingdom's long affection for Bordeaux wines, holds a strong lead, while Burgundy wine and California wine are virtually tied in mentions.

OK, one more: Italian wine, Spanish wine, German wine, "American English," 1920-2008: In mentions, Italian wine outpaces both the others, with references climbing steadily and sharply since 1995. Curiously, references to Spanish wine were at their highest in the mid-1930s, then began a slide that bottomed out about 1994, after which they began to rise again. References to German wines hit a high about 2004, but since then have been declining, a surprise given the buzz generated by riesling these days; it's a buzz, but apparently more murmur than shout.

Why so many references to Spanish wines in the 1930s, when they far outpaced mentions of German and Italian wines? A cursory look at the Google database indicates that Americans at that time must have been infatuated with sherry. And then there's this intriguing tidbit from a 1933 edition of Time magazine, published on the eve of Repeal: "The Spanish Wine Institute has spent $700 for a set of U.S. telephone books, planning to mail to each & every one of 19,000,000 subscribers a guady pamphlet lauding the virtues of Spain's fine wines." Gaudy or not, it must have worked, fueling both interest in and sales of Spanish wines.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. Keep 'em coming Mike!