Flight (wine samples)

Good for the goose, but the gander has to drive.

Dear Word Detective: I’m wondering what the origin of the word “flight” is when used in connection with sampling wines. Why do we say “wine flight” instead of something simpler like “samples?” When did this all start? So far my theory has been that it will become obvious once I have enough hands-on experience with wine flights themselves, so I’m am drinking myself smarter and waiting for my epiphany. But just in case this line of inquiry doesn’t pan out, would you be able to shine any light on the subject? — Wayne Walker.

Sounds like a great plan. Incidentally, it occurs to me, having been involved in publishing for longer than was good for me, that you’ve stumbled on a sure-fire bestselling book title. I guarantee that “Drink Yourself Smarter” would be an instant hit with both the self-improvement bores and the Duff Beer couch-dwelling crowd. You’d probably have to use larger type and shorter sentences towards the end of the book, but the good news is that you could fill the last hundred pages or so with long, rambling, pointless stories and no one would complain.

As usual when dealing with the general topic of alcohol, I should note that I missed school the day they explained the importance of booze, so I never developed a taste for the stuff. Thus I am neither an oenophile (wine lover or “wino,” from the Greek “oinos,” wine) nor an oenophobe, and you mustn’t be surprised if I flub some esoteric winey point in the course of this expedition. Wait, you folks don’t call yourselves “winos”? I’m dreadfully sorry.

There are actually two different “flight” nouns in English, with separate, unrelated origins. The older “flight,” meaning “the action or manner of flying through the air” (either literally or in myriad metaphorical senses), appeared in Old English as “flyht,” derived from the Germanic root “flukhtiz,” which was related to the same root that gave us the verb “to fly.”

You’d be justified in assuming that one of the derivatives of “flight” in this “up in the air” sense was “flight” meaning “the act of running away” (as in “flight to evade prosecution”), but that’s actually a completely different word. That “flight,” first found in print around 1200, came from the same root that gave us “flee.”

“Flight” meaning “sample of wine” is a specialized use of the first “flight,” the “fly through the air” one. This use of “flight” seems to be a relatively recent arrival, first appearing in print, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), in 1978 (“There were four flights of wines, as they say in the trade, four sp├Ątleses, four ausleses,..[etc.], N.Y. Times). The OED defines this “flight” as “A selection of small portions of a particular type of food or drink, especially wine, intended to be tasted together for the purpose of comparison,” and most uses of the term I have found online speak of “tasting flights,” consisting of at least three (and sometimes many more) small samples of various wines offered to participants in a wine tasting.

The OED is, unfortunately, silent on the logic of using “flight” for a range of wine samples, but there are some precedents in usage of the word that may provide a clue. “Flight” has been, since the 13th century, used to mean “a group of things or beings flying through the air together,” whether birds, airplanes or angels (“Good-night, sweet prince; And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest..,” Shakespeare, 1602). My guess is that “flight” in the wine tasting world was adopted to convey the sense of a gathering of varied small samples, like a flock of little birds, invoking a feeling of lightness and grace. From a public relations perspective, “flight” is probably better than “flock” and certainly beats “herd.” Flights sip lightly and gracefully, like sparrows at a fountain. Herds guzzle like yaks at a trough. But I’ll bet the yaks have more fun.

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