In Defense of Tasting Notes

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Wine-NotesEvery summer, it seems, the wine blogosphere contracts a  case of morose self-reflection and finds some esoteric issue to endlessly fret about—the objectivity of wine scores, the marketing of “natural” wines, the demise of the wine critic, etc.  This summer the issue seems to be the literary status of tasting notes.

Wine science journalist and world traveller Jamie Goode doesn’t like them.

I don’t think my tasting notes are absolutely the worst of all. But I still dislike them, for several reasons.

First of all, most tasting notes are silly. This is largely because it is incredibly difficult to describe the sensations we experience as we taste wine in a verbal way….Second, tasting notes are opaque to normal people….Third, tasting notes are mostly over elaborate. As such, they intimidate normal people, who feel that they are clearly having a diminished experience of wine, because they just don’t get all those exotic flavour descriptors….Fourth, the language we have for wine is more of a learned code than it is an accurate description of what we experience as we taste wine. Fifth, tasting notes tend to be reductionist. We break down the wine into separate components as we describe it. This is a mistake, in that we forget that the wine is a whole.

Wine writer Charles Olken is having none of this: “I hope I am not insulting Mr. Goode, but these arguments only make sense to someone who is either tipsy or hates his own writing.” Oi. A vain hope there, no? Truth be told, it is an insult and it is deserved.

Jamie’s jeremiad seems to be channeling this tiresome article in the New Yorker which Steve Heimoff took apart recently. (Why can’t the mainstream media write intelligently about wine? That’s another story)

The New Yorker article complains about “extravagant tasting notes” that are “overwrought and unreliable” and then documents the many studies that show how wine drinkers are easily fooled when given misleading information about what they are tasting. For example:

Suckling extols this Montalcino as “delicious”; a drink with flavors of “graphite” mixed with “pâte de fruit, hoisin sauce, warm ganache, and well-roasted applewood” calls to mind a dinner party gone wrong, not a Wine Spectator Pick of the Year

And finally the Wine Curmudgeon weighed in arguing that computers can write better tasting notes than humans, another insult but in this case undeserved.

There are common features in all these complaints about tasting notes. All assert that wine is complex; the words we have available in the English language are not adequate to describe this complexity, causing wine writers to exaggerate or make stuff up, and as a result ordinary people lack the background and discernment to understand the tasting notes, which are written in a language only the initiated understand.

All of these claims are true. Wine is complex, our descriptive language limited, some tasting notes are overdone, which puts novices off.

But the proper response is–So what!

Try describing music, paintings, poetry, or the way film subtly influences perception using ordinary language. Wine sensations are not unique in being difficult to describe. In all the arts, in order to describe a work, a critic must rely on metaphor or revert to a technical language that only its practitioners understand. And metaphors if they are living and not clichéd often require leaps of the imagination in order to make sense. That a metaphor taxes the imagination is a feature not a bug. Of course, some metaphors miss their mark; they create associations that lack precision. But, really, consider another example from the New Yorker article:

And how can one know whether a bottle that the bimonthly newsletter Wine Advocate dubbed “liquefied Viagra” pairs better with salmon or pork?

Does anyone above the age of 15 not know what is being said about the wine? The problem is not the opacity of the metaphor; apparently some people object to the very use of metaphor to describe wine. But why make wine an exception when metaphors in all other forms of discourse are ubiquitous?

As to the endless lists of fruit and aroma descriptors that non-experts cannot detect, how else is one to describe the taste of a wine? Wine contains flavor precursors that resemble chemically the flavors of other fruits. If you detect apple and pear in a Chardonnay, what precisely is the problem with pointing that out. There is nothing inherently silly about it, contra Jamie Goode’s diatribe. No doubt, some wine writers get carried away with esoteric descriptors that obscure rather than clarify the impression of the wine, but over-interpretation is not unique to wine criticism. Literary, film, and music criticism can also manufacture meaning if the critic is not disciplined enough to stick to what she observes. Fruit and other flavor notes are not the only relevant features of a wine—texture and overall quality are more important. But the flavor notes are still essential in an accurate description.  The problem is not the tasting note but the occasional out-of-control critic.

There is a pernicious ideology that supports these complaints about tasting notes, and it is a shame good wine writers are taken in by it. Note first of all that the standard for what defines a proper tasting note is apparently the ordinary person–untrained, inexperienced, and baffled by the barrage of sensations these critics find in a glass of wine that to the uninitiated smells like, well, grapes. But why should the sensibility of the uninformed be the standard for a good tasting note? As everyone agrees, wine is complex and the sensations caused by the wine very subtle. In fact, the more subtle the better—that is what we mean by finesse which all great wines have. It takes concentration, practice and some good old fashioned “book learning” to appreciate the subtleties that give wine its extraordinary appeal. The fact that some of these aromas and flavors are inaccessible to novices is, again, a feature not a bug. If they were not inaccessible to the untrained, wine would not have the subtlety and complexity that make it interesting.

We can discover the sinister intent of this pernicious anti-tasting note ideology by looking at some of the suggestions contained in the New Yorker article for how we might improve tasting notes.

In April, the Guild of Sommeliers, a nonprofit association of fine-wine specialists, created a cheat sheet encouraging wine professionals to name the chemical compounds that are responsible for the odors in a glass. When discussing wines with other experts, the guild suggests identifying hints of raspberry and strawberry as “esters,” peppercorn or rosemary aromas as “rotundones,” and gooseberry or grapefruit notes as “thiols.”

Do we want to live in a wine world in which the wealth of personal experience with wine is reduced to generic causal mechanisms? Or consider this complaint:

Last fall, Ballester dispatched a doctoral candidate to ask Chablis’s winemakers and consumers what “minerality” calls to mind. (According to a 2009 paper presented to the Geological Society of America, grape vines do absorb inorganic nutrients from the land, but the notion of granite or schist seasoning wine in any detectable way is “scientifically untenable.”) The researcher collected hundreds of answers, from “salty” and “gunflint” to “chalky” and “mineral water.” “We never found a consensual definition of minerality,” Ballester told me. “So how can we communicate like this?”

We communicate this way because “minerality” is a useful term that can take many more specific forms such as salty, gunflint, chalk, and mineral water. It doesn’t matter whether the odors are caused by actual minerals or not. It is a metaphor, a way to imaginatively characterize the unique aromas found in wine. We don’t need a consensus about a single “correct” term. There isn’t one.

With these quotes we begin to get clarity on what these critics of winespeak are really aiming at. They want standardization–a regimented language that uniquely and sharply distinguishes each feature of the wine so there can be no doubt about what is referred to. Aside from such language giving the reader no clue about what it is like to experience “thiols” or “rotundones”, there is a deeper problem at work in these suggestions. If you standardize wine descriptors, guess what—you will have standardized the taste of wine itself. If a few simple words referring to chemical compounds are sufficient to describe a wine, then aren’t we saying that the wine we drink is simple and unimaginative as well. The words we use to describe wine, after all, create expectations. I suspect in the end that some critics of wine writers are seeking to do just that. In their view, all wine should be simple, cheap, and interchangeable, marketed via price competition and labeling—a commodity like orange juice that can be cheaply made and thoughtlessly consumed.

To be fair to Jamie Goode, he raised this issue with the aim of improving the tasting note. That is certainly a worthy cause. No doubt we can get better at developing a vocabulary for describing wine. The problem is not with the desire to improve but with the underlying value system that views complexity, difficulty and imagination as disposable aspects of the wine experience.

I don’t know what the future of the tasting note is but I’m sure it will continue to include flavor descriptors and metaphor. In the end even Bianca Bosker, the author of the New Yorker article admits as much:

Those of us who enjoy wine apparently appreciate a little mystery along with our fermented grape juice. As Geoff Kruth, the master sommelier, told me, “At the end of the day, we’re selling poetry.”

Indeed, but the 5 minutes it took to get to that conclusion is 5 minutes I’ll never get back.

Budget Wine: Le Jade Viognier Pays D’OC IGP 2013

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le jade viognierFrench Viognier is not exactly on the average wine consumer’s radar. The good ones from the Northern Rhone are very expensive and the less pricey alternatives are often inconsistent. This Viognier hails from Languedoc, a region long dedicated to producing cheap, bulk wine and still trying to find its way in the premium wine sector. So the price is right. Happily, so is the quality in its price range.

This is a representative Viognier—very aromatic with heady floral and peach aromas shading into tropical melon notes. Lush and viscous on the palate with perhaps a little residual sugar, it evolves from fruit to cream, and then to a chalky finish that shows too much bitterness. A little short on acidity so the acid-heads won’t be pleased but if you prefer full-bodied whites that leave a fleshy, sensuous impression this is good quality for the price. There is no evidence of oak.

It overwhelmed the salmon I served it with, but nicely picked up the floral notes of the basil pesto and was a stellar match for the grilled potatoes.

The wine is produced by the Cave Coopérative, the larege Pomérols co-op in operation since 1932.

A tropical vibe with hints of bitterness and redemption, a perfect Bob Marley pairing:

Score: 87

Price: $9

Alc: 13%

In Taste Is There No Argument?

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arguments about tasteIt’s a cliché to point out that taste is subjective, not only because people have different preferences but because our ability to taste various substances in food and drink differs from person to person. But the crucial question is to what degree these abilities are trainable. Can we learn to taste better and thus potentially overcome these subjective differences?

Science has discovered that some of the variance in our sensitivity to bitter compounds is genetic, and that suggests that some of these taste thresholds may be fixed—we can’t do much to change them. But that would be too hasty a conclusion according to some new research.  A team of scientists headed by Danielle Reed an the Monel Chemical Senses Center recently did a study of the perception of sweetness in twins compared to non-twin siblings and unpaired twins and found that about 30% of the variance could be explained by genetic factors:

The researchers gave the twins and the other subjects two natural sugars (glucose and fructose) and two artificial sweeteners (aspartame and NHDC) and then asked them to rate the perceived intensity of the solution.

They found that genetic factors account for about 30 percent of the variance in sweet taste perception between people for both the natural and artificial sugars.

This suggests that 70% of the variance is not genetically hard-wired leaving some significant room for other factors such as history and culture to influence taste.

Reed cautions,

The finding doesn’t mean that the people who have a weaker ability to taste sweet necessarily dislike sugar. And just because you don’t get a big high from a little sugar doesn’t mean you eat more of it. “How you perceive [sweet] may influence what you like in the extreme, but it’s more like shades of gray,” she says. “And we still need to see whether this has any implications for people’s food behavior.

If taste is largely a matter of enculturation and personal history, then at least in theory, tastes are up to a point educable and can be changed, suggesting that disagreements about taste are not always intractable. (Which is not to say the process of educating taste is easy)

The slogan de gustibus non est disputandum itself may be subject to dispute.

Farm to Fable

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farm to tableIt was bound to happen but it is no less disappointing for being inevitable:

Like any good movement, farm-to-table has now been severely co-opted. The stories of restaurants deceiving their customers—or flat-out lying to them—have increased. Multiple San Diego restaurants claim to serve Respected Local, Organic, Sustainable Farm X when in fact they’re serving nameless commodity produce that could be from Chile, for all they know.

Call it farm-to-fable

I doubt this practice is restricted to San Diego. For years, since Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse in the early 1970’s, “farm-to-table” meant you were getting the freshest ingredients bursting with flavor, locally-sourced from people who cared about the livestock and chickens they raised and who depended on other members of their community for their livelihood. It was an acknowledgement that food is linked to the seasons and comes from the labor of actual human beings who are dedicated to providing sustenance for their community, a marriage of aesthetic refinement and moral commitment.

Today, the language of “farm-to-table” has been tarnished by hucksters. It’s the equivalent of “green-washing”, a deceptive marketing ploy that defrauds customers who pay a premium price for ordinary produce, rips-off local farmers and farmworkers by using their brand name without purchasing their product, and harms those restaurants and chefs who really are providing an honest, local product to their customers.

Like the word “natural”, the phrase farm-to-table is so open to interpretation in can be endlessly abused. After all, isn’t all food sourced from a farm?

Even McDonald’s has gotten into the act with their “What We’re Made Of” and “farm to fork” campaigns in an attempt to convince customers of the high quality of their ingredients.

It is probably time to retire the phrase. There are many restaurants who do it right but it is increasingly difficult to know who is legit and who isn’t.

The genius of contemporary capitalism at work.

Ponzi Pinot Gris Willamette Valley 2014

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ponzi pinot grisI don’t hate any of the major wine varieties; there is a time and place for all of them. But it is a very bad wine day when I’m forced to drink Pinot Grigio. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just innocuous, lacking flavor, texture or any other aspect of wine that might hold your attention. If I had to give a gift of wine to someone who doesn’t like wine, I would choose Pinot Grigio.

This lack of flavor is intentional. In most regions of Italy where Pinot Grigio is grown they harvest the grape early to preserve acidity. It’s role is to wash down food, not to be savored, and so flavor development is of secondary importance.  But that is a stylistic decision, not an intrinsic feature of the grape because in Alsace, where the very same grape is called “Pinot Gris” the wines can be rich, full-bodied, and full of flavor.

Since returning from Germany many years ago, where I consumed several delicious Alsatian and German Pinot Gris, I’ve been rooting for Oregon to begin making American Pinot Gris in the Alsatian style.  But most fall somewhere in between the insipid Italian version and the succulent Alsatian style—crisp and lively but not remarkable, a good summer sipper on a hot day but nothing very serious. Happily, while sampling 15-20 versions of the grape while exploring the Willamette Valley these last three weeks, I’ve found a few that stand out, especially this one from Ponzi Vineyards.

A lovely, intensely perfumed nose unfolds to reveal tangerine, melon, and hints of honeysuckle and fresh cream. On the palate, these ephemeral top notes are freighted with a the slight creaminess that gives it weight, with the flavors bound together by a resonant acidity that gives an underlying edgy quality to the wine. Its like one of those light summer novels you take to the beach that turns out to have a memorable character that really gets under your skin.

A modicum of residual sugar is barely perceptible, overwhelmed by the long, lime-inflected mouthwatering finish.

If you’ve been bored to tears with Pinot Grigio, this Pinot Gris will revive your interest in this grape.

Ponzi Vineyards is an historic Oregon winery, with long experience making Pinot Gris, offering their first vintage in 1981. And with 17,000 cases produced it should be easy to find.

For summertime tunes with a edgy undercurrent, of course the Jaws theme would seem obvious. But this wine is not that edgy. Some summery irony is more appropriate:

Score: 89

Price: $17

Alc: 13.1

Budget Wine: Two Vines Shiraz Washington State 2009

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two vines shirazTwo Vines is Columbia Crest’s entry level wine. This one is a bit of a curiosity.   A wine under current release for less than ten dollars that is 6 years past its vintage date. Most wineries don’t incur the expense of holding back budget wines to give them more bottle age. I’m not sure when this was released but if it was held back to give it more time to come together in the bottle, Columbia Crest is to be commended for caring about wine quality. It also puts a lie to the the claim that cheap wines don’t improve with age. True, most do not but this one is showing no signs of decrepitude and has come together nicely.

The nose is not particularly expressive—black cherry, cassis and tobacco provide some interest but it is neither complex nor intense. There are still hints of wood but given the time in the bottle the oak is well integrated. On the palate, it is rich and intense, dry, flavorful and satisfying with black cherry giving way to very dark chocolate midpalate, leading to a peppery finish. The tannins have presence but are soft and fall away quickly, and with relatively low acidity, the wine lacks some structure.

In summary, a pleasant wine with sturdy, mid-palate flavors and a sincere aspect—it doesn’t try to be lush or overtly charming. Excellent value for the price.

With age, the rough edges are sanded without going sweet. Like Mick Jaggar and band. I respect that.

Score: 85

Price: $7

Alc: 13.5

A Defense of Eating Meat

meat eaterEarlier in the week, Grist’s food writer Nathaniel Johnson published an article in which he claims philosophers have failed to even take up, let alone defeat, Peter Singer’s influential arguments against eating meat in Singer’s 1975 book Animal Liberation.

My enquiries didn’t turn up any sophisticated defense of meat. Certainly there are a few people here and there making arguments around the edges, but nothing that looked to me like a serious challenge to Singer.

I continue to be unimpressed with journalists’ ability to do basic research. (No. A Google search isn’t research) Singer’s arguments in that book are based on utilitarian premises which have been subject to a host of substantive objections raised in the philosophical literature. I don’t have current figures at hand but I doubt that even a majority of moral philosophers today are utilitarian. Thus, most moral philosophers  would reject the foundations of Singer’s argument; and indeed his argument is profoundly mistaken.

I don’t want to get to deep in the philosophical weeds here, but essentially Singer argues that any being that suffers has full moral status. And since non-human animals suffer, their interest in not suffering should receive equal consideration to the interests of humans. To fail to give animals equal consideration is to be guilty of speciesism, which according to Singer is as indefensible as racism or sexism. There are many refinements that can be made to this argument but that is the basic idea.

There are all sorts of problems with this argument which I’ll take up in more detail in my 3 Quarks essay next month. But for now I just want to indicate what one argument for eating meat would look like.

Singer’s argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using “rights” talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust.  The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings.

We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don’t eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals. Of course, over the last several decades we have discovered that human flourishing depends on taking care of our environment. It might behoove us to confer some moral status on ecological systems. Perhaps it is not too much of a conceptual stretch to argue we should cultivate relationships of trust (or at least non-exploitation) with the environments in which we live. But that does not entail refraining from killing individual animals. There may be environmental reasons to refrain from eating meat but no moral reasons based on the interests of animals.

This is not to say we should be cruel to animals, lack empathy for them, or ignore their welfare, but the reason is not that they have rights but because cruelty is a vice, a character flaw that we should strive to overcome. Note that this is not a speciesist argument. If somehow we became dependent on relations of trust with say dolphins then dolphins would have moral status. It is not being human that matters, but rather being the sort of organism with certain specific needs that requires we live in a moral community.

There is certainly more to be said but that is the basic outline of one defense of eating animals.

The Most Interesting Man in the Wine World

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randle grahmDos Equis’ “The most interesting man in the world” may have won the lifetime achievement award twice, but in the wine world no one is quite as interesting as Randle Grahm, owner of Bonny Doon Vineyard. From pioneering Rhone varietals to using screw caps to farming bio-dynamically, he has been on the cutting edge of wine innovation for 30 years.

But his newest project may have the greatest impact on the future of wine.

We aim to create a truly unique, superior and nuanced wine, a “Grahm Cru,” an expression of the unique terroirs of our Popelouchum Estate in San Juan Bautista.  We plan to do this by adopting a very unusual methodology – the breeding of 10,000 new grape varieties, each genetically distinctive from one another – and blending them into a unique cuvée that the world has not tasted heretofore. In so doing, we might also discover individual vines that are more congruent to our site as well as those that might have greater global utility – disease or drought tolerance – in a changing climate. We plan to employ biodynamic practice and use other techniques – some new-fangled (the use of biochar), some old-fangled (dry-farming), to grow grapes in a more deeply and truly sustainable fashion.

Breeding 10,000 new grape varieties that would actually make good wine is a massive undertaking.

Most of the over 1400  grape varieties used to make wine have existed for hundreds of years. Viticulturists in recent years have been introducing diversity by using cuttings from established vines to propagate new plants, which remain the same sub-species but occasionally mutate in ways that are useful to winemakers. The result is a clone, a version of the same sub-species but with slightly different characteristics. If, instead of cloning, the vines were allowed to propagate sexually, each new plant would be a new varietal, i.e. a new sub-species that will most likely not be suitable for making wine. So creating a new variety is easy—just allow grapes to self-pollinate. But that would not be useful to the wine industry

Grahm’s idea, building on work done at UC Davis, is to allow vines with promising characteristics to cross pollinate thus creating a new variety, and then carefully selecting for further propagation, only those new varieties that have improved flavor as well as the drought and disease-resistant characteristics they are looking for. The hope is that after many generations of crossing and selecting, some of these new varieties will show increased ability to adapt to the conditions of the vineyard and provide winemakers with better fruit to work with. Presumably, each vineyard created through these techniques would produce utterly original wines, the perfect expression of terroir.

It is a time-consuming, expensive proposition that may not pay off for years, but one that might be extraordinarily useful in helping the wine industry confront climate change while improving their product.

Grahm has launched a crowd-funding campaign to help pay for the project.

Wine Review: David Bruce Zinfandel Central Coast 2011

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david bruceI never review wines based on a winery visit. It is hard to be objective when talking to a winemaker, struggling with palate fatigue, or gazing at picturesque vineyards on a lazy Sunday afternoon. But I often purchase a wine and open it weeks later when I can give an individual wine the attention it deserves. I visited the highly regarded Santa Cruz Pinot Noir producer David Bruce last month and tasted through much of their lineup. It was all quite impressive but this wine stood out from the crowd. After opening it at home and sitting with it for a couple hours, that original judgment is confirmed. This wine is delicious.

Mocha sits pertly atop dried plum and cherry, gently shading off into thyme. Freshly turned earth tones develop with some aeration. Lush and silky on the palate, rich, soothing chocolate notes cosset the bright acidity that creeps up and announces itself on the finish leaving a clean, fresh impression in the mouth. Tannins are wispy and shy. Nothing too ponderous or profound here, just shapely and tasty, exquisite fruit/acid balance with no taint of excessive oak or over-ripe fruit.

Score: 91

Price: $35

Alc:14.8%

Sensuous and a little frivolous, this is a Marilyn Monroe in “Some Like it Hot” wine:

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