All of us have wandered into a hardware store, an auto garage, or a computer retailer and found ourselves unable to accurately explain just exactly what we need. Because we lack the requisite knowledge to help ourselves, we go to these specialty stores with the hope that they can recommend an appropriate course of action. Some of us are more than happy to admit that we know nothing about aluminum siding, exhaust pipes, or motherboards, while others can be hesitant to reveal their lack of expertise. In some instances, people can latch on to the one piece of information that they do know (or believe that they know) and use it to guide them through the entire process. For example, perhaps your friend who knows a bit about TVs told you to always get 1080p when shopping for the latest hi-def, or your mechanic brother-in-law said to only buy Japanese car parts. Such tidbits of information can be entirely helpful if used properly, but also hurtful if not discarded in the appropriate situation. Unless you're a techie you probably won't notice the quality difference between 720p and 1080p images, and unless you race cars for a living, you might be just as well off with the American-built fuel gauge. Nevertheless, if you're dead set on 1080p, then so be it, but unless you're 100% certain about what you're getting, you may be spending more for something you don't necessarily want or need.
When Iwas in college, I had a lot of friends who liked to get together and barbeque. They would always talk about how they had cooked up some tri-tip or were planning on doing so, much to the jealousy of the others. These guys literally were salivating over the idea of eating specifically tri-tip and always tri-tip. I never understood why everyone got so excited because tri-tip is far from a great cut of beef, plus, these guys didn't know how to grill and the meat was always overcooked. I later learned that they knew nothing about cuts of meat, someone told them tri-tip was what they should buy, they thought they were getting the inside info about what real connoisseurs ate when they fired up the grill, and they stuck with it because it was the only cut they were familiar with. I get the feeling that a similar phenomenon is happening on a larger scale with wine. There are people who need to buy a wine for a special dinner, have no idea what they should pick, ask a friend who tells them to get something dry (maybe because someone told him the same thing), and then head off to the wine shop armed with this one piece of information.
The ubiquitous descriptor "dry" seems to be what everyone is looking for in a wine these days. "As long as it's dry" is often the only condition that a bottle must meet before the final decision to purchase is made. Sometimes the bias against any touch of sweetness is so surprising, that I wonder if I've missed out on some new wine film where the protagonist reveals his distaste for moelleux. Lips are pursed, eyes are closed, and heads are shaken left to right when Riesling is suggested. If you even mention that a wine is "fruity," the countenances become immediately skeptical. To be clear about our definitions here, dry means only that the wine has little to no residual sugar, and has nothing to do with the flavors whatsoever. While I'm sure that a certain number of people do not care for residual sugar in their wine, the fact is that most wines are dry. However, because people seem so adamant on finding the driest wine possible, I'm beginning to believe that "dry" has somehow mutated into a more comprehensive adjective. The term itself has been thrown around and referenced to the point where I think some people believe dry wines are without fruity, floral, spicy, or earthy flavors, as well as without sweetness.
There seems to be this idea floating around that a nice dry white wine is clean, crisp, mild, and only slightly flavorful. However, just because the wine is juicy, fruity, plummy, soft, rich, coating, creamy, fat, or oaky does not mean that it isn't dry. I think that it's important to understand wine terminology because it helps you to better describe what you like, but in this case, it's more significant because I believe that misunderstanding and misusing the term "dry" unknowingly leads people towards wines that are less like something they would like. The irony of knowing that you like dry wine is that it doesn't narrow the playing field at all when selecting something from the store. All you've eliminated from the possible choices are desert wines, some German Rieslings, and a handful of Loire Valley Chenin Blancs. Telling someone that they should get a dry wine for dinner is like recommending that they get a bicycle with two wheels.
If someone tells me that they're looking for a dry white wine, I usually ask them what varietals they like because I want I them to elaborate just a bit more. Sometimes when I hear our customers talk about dryness in white wines, it's clear that what they really mean is the crisp, clean acidity. Other times people speak of the drying finish on a red wine, and what they mean is the astringency of the tannins. Because dry literally means the opposite of wet, one can understand how it could be misinterpreted regarding wine. Regardless of how the term is used, we are usually able to ascertain what our customers are looking for and what they mean. However, if someone is really pushing for dryness in the way that they understand it, then the odds are they're going to end up with a chalky Chablis or a mineral-driven Sancerre. While I would enjoy either of those options, I've found that, more so than sweetness, most casual wine drinkers have an aversion to sharp acidity and stony minerality.
I can recollect at least a dozen encounters over the last few weeks were customers have asked me about wines, which I proceeded to describe as having flavors of limestone, crushed rocks, or flint. Seven out of 10 times the reaction to these descriptors was not positive. When I asked what specifically they find pleasing in a wine, they responded with "dry." "So something fruitier then?" was my next suggestion, but this idea was also shot down as not corresponding to dry. In my mind I understood what was happening, but I wasn't out to embarrass anyone by explaining to them that these wines were equally dry, regardless of their flavor profiles. I simply found the mildest, most gentle Chardonnay I could think of and went in that direction.
As a wine merchant, our job is to help customers find exactly what they are looking for and we take pride in doing so. I love it when someone comes back and tells us that they opened a wine we recommended and really enjoyed it. The hyperextension of "dry," however, is a hindrance to both the customer and the clerk. Wine drinkers are somehow being given false terminology, using it to guide their selections, yet possibly still ending up with a bottle that doesn't speak to them.