A new wine pronunciation app out this month didn’t start anywhere close to a computer. Its local developer, self-described “language junkie” Robert Aiudi, was three-fourths of the way into a glass of red wine at a bar, and had just encountered the kind of problem set he enjoys tackling.
Not far from him, a group of guys was struggling with the pronunciations of the wines they wanted to be drinking, pointing to the menu in a gesture that was immediately recognizable, and all too familiar.
“I’ll have that one,” one of them said haltingly, hesitant even as he pressed his fingernail into the name of a long, hard-to-pronounce Italian red.
Aiudi, who has had a facility with languages since “something just clicked” for him in high school French, decided he would help them. And then he would help others, across the country, with the pronunciation.
All with the click on a button, and the swipe of a finger.
That’s the idea behind SayWine, a new smartphone app developed by Aiudi and business partner Laura Strassman. For Aiudi, it’s a natural extension to The Language Chef, which advocates language learning through the pronunciation of a country’s foods. While that company promotes language learning through cuisine more broadly, SayWine zeros in on a single pronunciation hurdle, rooted in Aiudi’s own love for fermented grapes and the terrain from which they spring.
People who download the app — that’s anyone with a smartphone — will hear two pronunciations of the wine, from a native speaker and someone approximating it in English that they can feel comfortable with. They’ll also get a snippet on the region.
For the chef and linguist, who began drinking wine with his Italian grandparents when he was a child (much to his mother’s chagrin), the ability to pronounce a wine — any wine, and especially a tongue-twisting Italian, French, or Spanish one — is about confidence operating outside of the basic confines of our native tongues. At the most basic level, he said in an interview on WNHH radio’s “Kitchen Sync” earlier this summer, he wants to empower people who are genuinely curious and a little brave, have smartphones, and go to wine stores — which happens to be a pretty large chunk of the population.
“The goal of it is simply to be able to have people feel more comfortable pronouncing wine names,” he said, adding that language learning is essentially “about being completely fearless.”
“I’m afraid of falling off a tall building,” he said. “Beyond that, not much more. I think that what happens with language learning is after the age of seven or so, this sort of veil falls in front of us and we’re afraid to make a mistake. I always thought: well, you have to make mistakes ... but when you’re learning a foreign language, you think: ‘Oh my God, everyone in the room is looking at me.’ So what happens is, I just tell students to be fearless.”
In the past, that has meant conquering words like la rucola and chatting about farfalle and apizza at dinner parties at home and abroad. With the addition of SayWine, Aiudi said, students should feel comfortable pronouncing and discussing wines while buying, cooking with, consuming, and serving them. It’s not meant for aspiring sommeliers, or those WWOOFing on organic vineyards in Chianti. Instead, it’s inspired by something he’s seen and experienced in teaching and learning languages: A glass of wine or two can go a long way in helping people drop their defenses.
“It’s about trying to give up the fear of making a mistake. Very often I’ll tell students: have a couple glasses of wine before a class or when you’re learning, because as you relax, your subconscious will take over, and then you become really more spongey ... that veil seems to fade away.”
Eventually, Aiudi intends for SayWine to branch out from Italy to France, Spain, and maybe Germany — all countries where he has immersed himself in every facet of a given language. The first linguistic stop is personal, though: Tuscany, with which he associates deep, flavorful wines, big sunflowers, and sun-soaked afternoons with friends.
“Tuscany is just beautiful,” he said. “Brunellos are amazing wines.”
That’s just the beginning. Then he, Strassman, and several native speakers will take on the Piemonte, Veneto, and Friuli regions, adding other red wines and crisp whites to the mix. Afterward, they’ll move into Sicily and then the Bordeaux regions of France.
“When you make it seem like it’s some kind of haughty thing, it’s not welcoming,” Aiudi said. “I think wine is one of the most welcoming things in the world. I’m sure it [the app] will change, it’ll evolve, but I want people to feel comfortable.”
To listen to the full interview, click on or download the audio above, or check out the “WNHH Arts Mix” podcast on Soundcloud or iTunes.