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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.