Tasting with Imagination

mad housewife Complaints about tasting notes are ubiquitous in the wine blogosphere. The most common complaints are that lists of flavor notes are uninformative, excessively obscure, or over-the-top, floridly-written balderdash.

Rob McMillan has a different worry—they aren’t effective at selling wine. His complaint, which I blogged about earlier in the week,  is that lists of flavor components or the details of winemaking don’t grab the customer’s emotions—a violation of the principles of Marketing 101. And so he wonders why wine producers still rely on the tasting note to sell wine instead of building their brand image.

There is no subject I know less about than marketing, so I’m not sure I can be much help on that issue. But as a blogger who regularly writes about wine, I do have a concern that overlaps with that of the marketer. How do you capture in words what is distinctive about a wine? I think McMillan is right that tasting notes and (most) stories about the origins of the winery or their viticultural practices don’t do it.

The problem with tasting notes is that they usually fail to capture one fundamental way we engage with wine—via the imagination. In fact, our emotional response to wine depends on the imagination. Wines have personality and character, they evoke memories and emotions, are redolent of place and culture, and are often intriguing and mysterious. Generations have loved wine for these reasons, not for the presence of particular fruits and nuts.

But to recognize these features you have to drink imaginatively and to capture it in a tasting note you have to write imaginatively. An analogy with music listening might clarify what I mean.

Consider the symphonic sketches entitled  La Mer (The Sea) by Debussy. Without the title we might think this work consists of some lovely sounds and sound structures with no inherent meaning. But the title helps us assign meaning to it—the swelling and swaying musical passages suggest the movement of waves, the glittering splashes of tone colors represent the play of light on the sea’s surface, the unexpected shifts of direction call to mind the stormy unpredictability of oceanic forces, etc.

Musical passages are not at all like oceans but we can nevertheless use our imaginations to assign such oceanic meanings to the sounds. Furthermore, if we were to ignore these meanings and attend to only the scales, modes, timbres, and rhythms at work in the music—in other words if we were to listen only analytically—we would miss a crucial element of what the music has to offer.

The sensory characteristics of wine can provide us with similar imaginative experiences if we are receptive to them, and the presence of alcohol as a stimulant to the imagination helps the process along. Philosopher John Dilworth has called such an approach to tasting “imaginative improvisatory theatre” and compares it to the kind of improvisations jazz musicians undertake in deviating from a standard score.

You can find any number of examples of tasting notes that take this approach here on this blog. (For instance here and here.)

Throughout its history, wine has been metaphorically described by using words drawn from the semantic domains of personality and character traits, body types, clothing, the development of organisms, architecture, etc. Wines can be bold, muscular, silky, feminine, sturdy, exuberant, senile, or brooding. Imaginative tasting is simply an extension of this traditional practice of metaphorical description. The sounds and timbres of music bear no greater similarity to the sea than the flavors and textures of wine to a personality or the structure of a building. If such metaphorical extensions are permitted in music appreciation and criticism, why not in wine?

In fact, this richness of imaginative meaning makes wine a distinctive kind of sensory experience. Although  coffee, chocolate and beer aficionados have taken to describing their experiences using flavor descriptors after the fashion of wine tasting notes, these consumables lack wine’s capacity for imaginative, metaphorical projection.

The sensory properties of individual wines enable our enjoyment of them; but its the imaginative experience that grips the taster and provokes an emotional response. Of course, some wines lack the complexity and expressiveness to launch imaginative improvisations. They are dull and vacant, perhaps with plenty of flavor, but no soul.

Will descriptions of these imaginative experiences be subjective? Well of course. But so are the images of the sea evoked by La Mer. When I imagine the sea as a response to the Debussy’s music, it is my own experience that gives rise to the images, but there is enough inter-subjective agreement regarding sea experiences to make descriptions of them accessible to others. The experience of wine is no different; individual differences but with a common core that makes communication about them meaningful.

What does matter for tasting notes is that the “imaginative improvisation” is rooted in the sensory qualities of the wine, because it is these qualities that are accessible to others. Private, idiosyncratic imaginings with no foundation in  publicly available properties of the wine have no place in a tasting note, however interesting they might be to the taster.

So have I cast any light on Rob McMillan’s advice to wineries to brand rather than taste? Well, probably not. Branding that has little to do with the sensory properties of the wine will not make the wine distinctive. But for the vast majority of wine consumers who drink wine to accompany meals or to relax with friends and  who give little thought to sensory properties let alone imaginative play, that may not matter at all.

So we can probably expect more labels with cute animals, mad housewives, and clever puns.

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