Going down in history as a Variety versus Varietal old fart

Yup… I’m going down in history as a Variety versus Varietal old fart, and I don’t care.

I first wrote about his on May 11, 2007.

Then, I brought it up again on March 11, 2011.

My most recent post for this one was on July 3, 2012.

Now, it’s July 2014, and it’s circled back around again… Steve Heimoff asked the question on his Facebook page, and the answers are very revealing. Of course, I couldn’t help myself from weighing in:

“Variety is a noun,” and “varietal” is an adjective.

E.g., I love the varietal characteristics of this variety.”

That said, so many people have used it incorrectly for so long that dictionaries are now bending the rules. It will come as no surprise that those trained in viticulture (who were awake during that class), and those who prefer to be grammatically correct, will go with variety and varietal as you’ve used them. I was pretty much denounced on a women’s wine blogger group for being an old fart, not willing to get with the times. I’m okay with that… It is what it is, and those who use it incorrectly just don’t know – or care – about the difference. Still, I look at how people use it and then know how long they’ve not really been writing about wine. I’ve also noticed that it is from people who haven’t studied viticulture and enology… the primary experts on wine.

Fourteen people actually liked my comment. As my fellow Facebook people know, this is a good amount of likes on a simple response. One person wrote, “Hallelujah Jo Diaz! I feel like I’m a one woman variety vs varietal crusade!” Those weighing in did so with relief, and that makes me very happy, honestly.

So I wrote, “Now, if we spell things incorrectly, or use commas where there should be periods… Yeah, no one would like that…” and this is so true. We don’t want spelling to break down, nor do we want grammar to break down, but adjectives and nouns? Hum…

The pros – one would think – lead the way for writers

From Michael DeLoach of Hook & Ladder, which he shared on Steve Heimoff’s Facebook page…

With wine specifically (along with biological classifications) the word “varietal” has a legal definition, to wit: §4.23 Varietal (grape type) labeling.

(a) General. The names of one or more grape varieties may be used as the type designation of a grape wine only if the wine is also labeled with an appellation of origin as defined in §4.25.

(b) One variety. Except as provided in paragraph (c) of this section, the name of a single grape variety may be used as the type designation if not less than 75 percent of the wine is derived from grapes of that variety, the entire 75 percent of which was grown in the labeled appellation of origin area.

I believe if we’re wine writing, we should also lead through example, not from conforming to improper grammar… Just an honest opinion. My wine sales and marketing degree program… I worked so hard for those 60 units, that’s why I can’t simply bend, because it’s become fashionable. I think if you’ve worked hard for anything, and understand the differences between right and wrong, you’ll strive to be correct… I don’t care what profession or craft it’s in. (When I’d knit a sweater, if I realized 10 rows up that I had dropped a stitch, I’d tear it out to the mistakes and begin again; because, anyone looking at the finished product – most especially a fellow knitter – would see the flaw.)

Then, I noticed that Wilfred Wong, another of my writing buddies, has also taken off on the variety versus varietal debate, but it came through on Ron Rawlinson’s time line thanking Wilfred. Again, I couldn’t resist commenting:

One would think that if a person wanted to write about wine seriously, correct grammar would be part of the process. Then, there’s a whole new generation of writers about wine, who aren’t really wine writers… They’re slang hobbyists; so, they could give a poop. They like to call themselves artists, which gives them a get out of jail free card.

And so the debate rages on…

I’m a stickler for using the right word, and try very hard to get things write right. I’m not perfect, but if I know a rule, I’m going to use it to preserve the purity of our language. For instance, any time I use the word “ain’t”, I’m poking fun at not using the right word. In a conversation, I just don’t go there.

Someone once said to me, after I had said, “It is I.”

“‘It is I?’ …. Isn’t it, ‘It’s me?'”

No… sorry, you missed school the day that one was explained. “Is” is a copulative verb (the verb “to be”), and takes a subjective pronoun after any use of the verb “to be.” It is I, it is she, it is he, it is they, it is we… etc.)

When I came into the wine business, I learned most of what I did from others for the first few years. Then, I decided to take copious college units to catch up, which included viticulture, enology, sales, marketing, PR, Spanish I and II, wine components… the list goes on…

In all of that, I never came across which word is correct to use in which instance; “variety” and/or “varietal.” Then, on a wine blog I saw something that made me stop and take notice.

David Graves of Saintsbury Vineyard made reference to the misuse of the word “varietal.”

He certainly got my attention. I didn’t know I could be using the word incorrectly. I sent David an E-mail asking him to please explain… Because I have to write so much, and use the word as much as a mother uses the word “milk” with kids, I don’t want to be misusing either word.

Here’s his explanation, and we all need to take notice, if we’re responsible for copy writing…

“Variety is a noun, and varietal is an adjective, which I learned at UC Davis.”

Today, the word has been misused so often that dictionaries have simply given up and are now including the word “varietal” as a possible noun. It pains me to see that which is wrong become right simply because of misuse and abuse. It is I who will be sticking to its original forms. It perhaps doesn’t matter to most of the rest of us; but, there are a few diehards left out there, and I celebrate each one as I see the word used correctly. [Fingers on the chalk board, for those who don’t.]

I’m sure there are much bigger issues burning on everyone’s mind today; but I needed this slight diversion right now, as I write “variety” one more time and reflect on its abuse. I see it on a daily basis, and today I let the dogs out…

Both David Graves and Michael DeLoach have been in the wine business for a long time. When you’re in the business, you’ve learned protocol. I wish that the new breed of writers could respect protocol and educate people along a literate path, simply by what they say and do… One can only lead by example… For me, literacy rules over trendy…

22 Responses to “Going down in history as a Variety versus Varietal old fart”

  1. alexander saliby says:

    Language is a flexible tool; part of the flexibility is its ability to change function of nouns and verbs. You may detest such changing, but a language that accommodates change is a language that will survive. I personally hate the very common use by the media of the functional shift of the noun gift to the verb to gift…can’t you just read the sentence now: He gifted her a gift to last him a lifetime of giving. Yuck! But I assure you, someone, some where will have already writ such nonsense.

  2. If you really want to use the right word, horticulturally speaking, the grape types are actually cultivars and not varieties. Grapes are reproductively unstable. When you plant a merlot seed, you will most likely not get merlot grapes in the resulting vine. A variety is naturally reproductively stable. Cultivars (as in winegrapes) are propagated by cuttings. It is hard enough to get people people to use variety instead of varietal, so I doubt a change to cultivar is likely… 🙁

  3. alexander saliby says:

    The beauty of the English language is its flexibility to shift, to adapt and to adopt. It’s a rather common aspect of the tongue to shift purpose of both nouns and verbs. To the linguist the action is simply identified as a functional shift…a noun becomes a verb. Noun form: gift. Verb form: to gift. Some people I know absolutely detest that particular shift.

  4. Jim LaMar says:

    Bravo, Jo! Hear here! Sign me up for the “Old Farts Club”!

    Obviously many “wine writers” will dismiss the varietal/variety wisdom. THEY’RE thinking is flawed, but let’s not go THEIR. (I think the indulgence of TEXT messaging is a prime culprit in the degeneration of language.)

    “I’m a stickler for using the right word, and try very hard to get things write right.”
    — Was there a typo here, or am I not PUNderstanding your meaning? (…things I write right? …things writ right? …things written right?)

  5. Jo Diaz says:

    Any way you want it, Jim.

    When I wrote it, I intended to say it as it is… I wanted it to be write (written) right (correctly). I figured if they could do it, then they should have an example of how annoying it is, when things are written incorrectly. Writing something incorrectly does not make it correct, period. All of my “a’s” in English, and my 4.0 in business writing would have taken a dive, if I decided to make up my own rules, so I’m going down as a darned pleased old fart. And, now I have my first club member. Cool! Good to know I’m not alone.

  6. John Cesano says:

    I’m more of an old dog than an old fart, but this old dog just learned a new trick. I have been using varietal as a noun. I will be using variety as a noun in the future.

    Another writer I respect greatly, Ron Washam, also influenced my writing, when he shook his head sadly upon hearing me describe a wine as authentic. Of course all wines, however made, are authentic.

    I am grateful for the lessons that come my way.

    Thanks Jo.

  7. Jo Diaz says:

    Kyle, yes, horticulturally speaking, so I get that.

    This science is viticulturally speaking, so we’ve entered a more specific science, away from table grapes. At UC Davis, they talk in terms of vit and explain it as variety (noun), with varietal (adjective) characteristics, to this day.

    I wonder how Master Sommeliers – if they know the difference – would go? Inventing as they go along, or wanting to be as correct as they could possibly be? (I was with one last night, who worked really hard to understand, internalize it, so he could adapt, and then use the correct usage, because it’s his job to educate. (As a wine publicist/writer, it’s also my mission and calling.)

    Dr. Carole Meridith weighing in on Wilfred Wong’s Facebook page; remember, she used to head the vit and enology department at UCD.

    Carole Meredith: It’s really just a matter of simple grammar. ‘Variety’ is a noun. It refers to a thing, in this case a type of grape. ‘Varietal’ is an adjective. It modifies a thing. So a ‘varietal wine’ tells you what kind of wine — a wine made predominantly from a single grape variety. But the word ‘varietal’ has been totally corrupted in general usage, and is commonly used as a noun. Totally grates on the nerves of a purist like me. But I’m clearly fighting a losing battle. Language evolves, even if some of us don’t want to go along with it.
    July 22 at 10:27am · Like · 9


  8. Jo Diaz says:

    Yes, I’m the one who detests it, Alexander… Old Farts R’Us. Jim Mar is a member of the Old Farts R’Us society. We’re a growing breed.

  9. Jo Diaz says:

    John, that was the purpose of this blog posting. And as the saying goes, “If I can just teach or convince one person, it was worth the five and a half hours (yeah, seriously) it took me to thoughtfully write, edit, rewrite, edit, rewrite (etc.) this one.”

    Thanks for letting me know.

  10. Jo – As an English major, I am always pained when words are used incorrectly. However, language is a living thing, constantly in flux, so usage changes, slang becomes the norm, and ‘variety’ and ‘varietal’ are used interchangeably.

    I try to teach my students the difference (I have actually tried to explain ‘cultivars’ to glassy-eyed students), knowing that people generally defer to common usage. Frankly, there are other linguistic abominations that bother me far more than variety/varietal, such as “lay” for “lie”. I could go on!

  11. Amanda says:

    My name is Amanda and I am a (recovering) perfectionist, grammarian, and all-around know-it-all. I too am a (recovering) stickler for correct word-use, grammar, syntax, spelling, and punctuation. The misuse of the variety/varietal pair is a particular pet-peeve of mine, but I have realized (with time and therapy and a daily dose of wine) that I gain nothing by railing at the sky. All I can do is lead by example.

    When I write for public consumption, I edit and revise, and edit and revise again, to make sure my writing is correct. I spent an inordinate amount of time writing and revising this short post. However, I have learned – the hard way – not to edit other people’s writing, unless I am asked, even though I know that their writing would be better if I could just fix it. It has taken a lot of personal work to get me to this point, but I am here to tell you that it does get easier, Jo. When you are ready, I am willing to be your sponsor 🙂

  12. David Graves says:

    As the picture shows, I come by my old fart status the old-fashioned way–the passage of time. Anyway, to Alexander Saliby’s point, the usage “to gift” is an abomination. For Kyle Schlacter, I am curious that he characterizes sexual reproduction as reproductive instability. As for the names of cultivars/varieties, I believe I remember learning the Cabernet sauvignon (lower case “s”) is the proper name of the cultivar/variety and that wines made from the grapes of cultivar should have the “s” capitalized–Cabernet Sauvignon. And yes, Goddess of Wine, “lay” versus “lie”, the incorrect use of “myself”–the list is a very long one.

  13. Jo Diaz says:

    Excellent… Note to self: Next step, therapy.

  14. Jo Diaz says:

    So, you’re an admitted member. I was only referring to myself, David. But, if it means that our Society is supposed to grow, let’s just do it; three members and counting. (And, yes, the list is very long…)

  15. Deborah Gray says:

    You’re definitely a woman after my own heart. I still cannot end a sentence with a preposition and yet I know this is now perfectly acceptable in writing circles. I make a point of pronouncing Moet (of …and Chandon) as Mo-wette, aware that everyone else outside the wine world seems to think it should have a French pronunciation, despite the Dutch derivation of the name. I recently said the word in a wine class I was teaching and heard a student repeat it quietly to herself with a bit of a snicker.

    As for variety vs varietal, I seem to be swimming against an overwhelming tide, because I occasionally slip too, even in professional writing. However, I commend you for continuing to be a voice for the distinction. We may have a fluid, evolving language, but that doesn’t mean we need to accept the sloppily incorrect usage of words just because no one seems to know the difference. As others have said, there are words that bother me more, but it’s a subjective thing.

  16. Jo Diaz says:

    Yay… another champion of not getting sloppy. As my mother used to say to me, Deborah, “If one of your friends jumped off the bridge, would you simply go, too?”

    I always knew I wouldn’t.

  17. Richard says:


    Wonderful post… er… write up… er… excellent writing… And I must be a member of the aforementioned club(s), since I brook no dissent on English. And while the nature of English is changing, and with all due respect to the previous writers who say that English is flexible and changing; no, it isn’t… English is staid, stolid, and has affixed rules – and yet we continuously have change. For example: supposedly vs. “supposably” – in my lifetime, “supposably” was not a word – but I am told that it is coming into use and accepted as a synonym for supposedly… There is the word “supposable” generally used in legalese (oh! another non-word that shouldn’t be in the English language)…

    I’m not a grammarian (though I did teach English at one point), but more of an historian. And while I have no proof, I’m certain that the Romans, somewhere around 400BC said “oh, Latin is a flexible language and it’s always changing!” And look where it got them… I’m just saying… If we English sticklers don’t stick together, we’re doomed!

    All this based on the variety of varietals… oops…

  18. Joe too says:

    I commend you for actually caring about this distinction, unfortunately very well meaning people pick up terminology and repeat it, even when it is not correct. I support your position on the difference that you described, however it goes deeper than what has been discussed so far… Kyle actually has as close to correct as any response. This is a Plant Taxonomy issue that will not be resolved but is fun to talk about. Grapes (& all plants) have a name, in Latin, and once you get down to the ‘family’ in hierarchy of Family: Vitaceae; Genus: Vitis; Species: Vinifera, then Cultivar: Syrah, Grenache, Merlot…There are also a number of other species of grapes, think Vitis lambrusca ‘Concord’. This is the same as Sequoia sempervirens “Apotos blue’ is a cultivar of a Coast Redwood.
    This goes back to the middle 1700’s when Claud Linnaeus was out naming plants of all kinds. The scientific plant community has determined the structure and terminology naming plants that has guided the world for the last 250 years, but with grapes the terminology has taken a turn. This is a quote from Wikipedia: The term grape variety actually refers to cultivars rather than botanical varieties according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants, because they are propagated by cuttings and may have unstable reproductive properties. However, the term variety has become so entrenched in viticulture that any change to usage of the term cultivar is unlikely. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_grape_varieties, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/International_Code_of_Nomenclature_for_Cultivated_Plants

    If you read these links you can get a better idea of what goes into the description of a plant name. Returning to your original point…as a descriptor ‘ Variety’ does win out in all of the descriptions, varietal is not mentioned (unless I missed it)

    So, aside from therapy, a healthy perspective and a bottle of the good stuff will ease the pain of reading the writing of people who are trying hard to do the right thing, but are missing a beat when they use the wrong descriptor, even if they do get their message across.

    Great blog, always interesting! cheers.

  19. Jim LaMar says:

    I’m sorry your approach to evolution of the English is so passive, Alexander, since you seem to be a learned fellow. I agree that flexibility is definitely good in principle, but are ANY and ALL changes acceptable to you? Change can take forms of progression or regression.

    Are there NO rules worth supporting, promoting or disseminating, in spite of the odds that the masses will respond? Isn’t clear communication a basic principal of ANY language?

    How many of your neighbors leave their broken cars on blocks in their front yards before you wish you had complained about the first one? … or would “Oh, well; I’m flexible because change is inevitable,” be your recommended response?

    Volubility in the digital age should prompt MORE diligence, not less. I am unwilling to settle for a there-goes-the-neighborhood approach. We Old Farts may not win this battle, but I think it affirming that we keep fighting it.

  20. Jo,

    I am a lover of language as well; I studied creative writing at a Fine Arts High School, BA in English Literature and a Masters in Journalism. I have grown to love the fluidity of language and communication. Language is this living breathing part of human culture; just studying the way in which words changes is amazing. I think we can all agree that the whole function of words is to communicate concepts, correct? So if the receiver of the communication understands the meaning of the word, then the word is functioning properly. However, if the receiver doesn’t understand the newer “version” of the word, then no, it is not functioning. Correct?

    Although I will be honest, when Paul Mabray of Vintank corrected my usage of the word “varietal” I was so embarrassed and felt I should have known better. If you work in the industry or are even an amateur wine blogger, you should try and use the word correctly – it communicates your respect for wine industry. But let’s give them a break. Words change and evolve. It is the beauty of language.

  21. Jo Diaz says:

    Richard, I so enjoyed your comments! Welcome to the club. Remember when “ain’t” came into fashion? Where is that one today, besides the back woods of redneck country?

  22. Richard says:

    Jo, thanks for seeing my tongue planted firmly in cheek in partial seriousness! And, while ain’t ain’t in the language much today, we do have that little issue called “California Speak” that is firmly implanted not only in California, but all over the world seemingly… Watching some of the World Cup coverage and the interviews with tourists from all over Europe. They were, like, you know, like Oh, MIIII, Ga-had! like it’s like, you know, like, sooo coool to like, be at, you know, like, the Wa-horld Ca-uup! like dude, it is like, really rad! On the other hand, at least they speak (some form of) English, which gets into my other pet peeve of folks in the U.S. only speaking one language… purportedly English, of a sort…

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