Tasting Notes and the Debate about Subjectivity

wine tasting note takingThis article by Chris Losh in Decanter describes well the difficulty of writing good tasting notes. As he notes, part of the difficulty is that tasting notes serve a variety of purposes and a tasting note suitable for one audience may be gibberish to another. For many people in the wine trade, the tasting note is a memory aid. At a competition a tasting note must justify a score. A tasting note on the wine list of a fine dining establishment must differ from that of a casual restaurant.

One of the wine professionals quoted in the article gets at something essential. Rebecca Palmer, wine buyer for Corney and Barrow  reports:

What I’m trying to do with a tasting note is find the thing that makes that wine “that wine”, and then amplify it.’

If you’ve been drinking wine for awhile, you know what Chianti tastes like. The best tasting notes aimed at knowledgeable drinkers will describe what makes a particular Chianti distinctive. That is quite difficult. Reaching for that descriptor that may not be on a list of standard aromas or textures requires imagination, which is precisely what critics of tasting notes complain about.

But nowhere in the article is there a mention of the main function of tasting notes. This is because the article focuses on wine as a commercial transaction and the role tasting notes play among people in the trade. But there is a larger context that the article misses.

The wine community as a whole needs some way of tracking what wines taste like and how they are being perceived through time. Any aesthetic community must be able to communicate about the object of its affections. That communication is, in part, what makes it a community. It would be peculiar to talk about wine and leave out any discussion of what wine tastes like, just as it would be peculiar for the art community to leave out of their discussions what paintings look like.

But if we must talk about what wine tastes like, then how else other than the tasting note? As difficult as they are to write well and as problematic and tedious as they often are to read, we can’t do without them. They are just as important as the stories about producers and regions that fascinate wine writers and their readers.

In thinking about the proper approach to writing tasting notes, we need to think about what sort of tasting note best serves this purpose of keeping a public record that facilitates communication about tastes. Thus, the debate about whether tasting notes should be objective, as suggested by WSET’s tasting grid, or subjective as reflected in the more poetic approaches to tasting notes, is relevant.

The answer is clearly both. Wine is both an object that exists in the external world independently of how any individual perceives it and a beverage that we consume and is therefore subject to all the variations and influences that we know are associated with individual tastes. To focus on one at the exclusion of the other is to mis-describe the phenomenon we’re trying to capture. A good tasting note much capture what is there to be tasted and that will include both widely shared properties but also properties that only some people are able to sense.

A good film or music review must tell us about the film or musical work but also must capture the writer’s personal response. It’s her unique perspective that we want. Wine reviews are no different.

This shouldn’t be controversial. It’s perceived as controversial because it is too often assumed that the purpose of tasting notes is only to facilitate a commercial transaction.

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