How Proper is Your Pinot?
I am a fairly conservative individual and generally, a rule-follower. I stop at stop signs, am timely with federal and state taxes, abide by our neighborhood noise ordinance, and use commas with great care. As both a wine and grammar aficionado, I read the following tidbit with great interest, "Note that in general the names of grape varieties are capitalized," (excerpted from the UCD syllabus for the Introduction to Winemaking, Viticulture and Enology 3). Despite a college degree in English, this oeno-grammar rule is new to me. While Pinot noir (their caps, not mine) is fundamental to our business plan and central to our personal enjoyment, "Pinot noir" (again their grammar rule) pales in proximity to other legitimate, proper nouns. Mount Kilimanjaro, First Street, San Diego Padres - all caps to be sure. President Bush - even if you don't like him, he's still our leader. Burgundy, France. Yup, both places, caps all around. But Pinot noir? A true proper noun? This requires further evaluation. I can understand the capitalization of grape varietals when part of a bonafide title, as in The 2004 Robert Mondavi Carneros Chardonnay. But what about, "I prefer my chardonnay unoaked?" The difference is akin to capitalizing the word "mayor" when it precedes a gal's name versus its use in a general context. For instance, we capitalize here: "Mayor Jerry Sanders has a difficult job." But not here: "Kris Curran is so central to the evolution of cult, California Pinot noir that she is its unofficial mayor." But apparently, I am wrong.
Confused, I consulted the famed Little Brown Handbook. In no explanation did grape varietals conform to any criterion for proper nouns. While Bruliam Wines, a trade name, is, of course, capitalized, "wine's fall harvest" is not (unless it is the title of a book, unbeknownst to me). Pinot noir may be difficult, trying, tough, willful, and capricious, but these are actually descriptors of a rigorous viticultural process, not categories of the Playboy Girls Next Door. Although attributing human foibles to Pinot noir's notorious "personality" constitutes a goofy, oeno-lit tradition, it is a stretch to equivocate grape varietals with race or nationality (i.e. Caucasian, American Eskimo, or German). So is Pinot noir really a proper noun? How often is "in general" a means to a capitalized end?
I have since e-mailed the famed grammar girl for her explanation of this thorny grammatical dilemma and still eagerly await her response. Meanwhile, I solicit help from you, gentle readers.