That perennially momentous issue, the value of tasting notes, popped up again last week among luminaries of the wine writing guild. Keith Levenberg started the discussion with an over-the-top complaint about over-the-top wine descriptions. Comparing tasting notes to winners in the annual Bulwer-Lytton contest for worse fiction writing, Levenberg laments:
But I’m not sure that Bulwer-Lytton or any of the illustrious winners of the contest bearing his name ever strung together anything quite as self-indulgently prolix, pretentious, and riddled with clichés as the typical wine tasting note.
Wine writer Mike Steinberger essentially agreed but with a reservation or two. Andrew Jeffords weighed in, praising Robert Parker for the kind of tasting notes everyone else was panning.
What is a humble wine writer to do about tasting notes?
There is indeed an inherent problem with wine tasting notes. Wine, like music, is hard to describe. The language we have developed for talking about emotions, dangerous animals, or quantum fields doesn’t lend itself to sensory descriptions, especially those of taste and smell. Yet wine reviews must inform both sophisticated and unsophisticated palates, while being short and to the point. Moreover, professional wine critics must pump them out like bottles of Barefoot since they often taste dozens of wines per day and their publications must provide comprehensive coverage of the best wines among the thousands produced each year.
Thus, wine tasting notes are a genre of writing caught between the need to give consumers advice and the desire to give the beauty of wine its due.
Most of the complaints, in the aforementioned discussions, were directed at the endless lists of fruits critics sense in a wine. Granted, they can be quite tedious, but I agree with Steinberger, that fruit descriptions are not necessarily a problem. One thing a good tasting note must do is locate a wine within the framework of various wine styles or wine regions. Basic fruit descriptors help with that. A pinot tasting of black cherry is in a different style than one tasting of strawberry; if spice is dominant that indicates something else about style.
But identifying the style is not sufficient for a good tasting note. The writer must say something about what makes the wine distinctive (if it is distinctive). For this purpose, I agree, going on about more fruits, separated by commas, without explaining how those flavors contribute to a distinctive flavor profile is useless and excessive, especially if the flavor descriptors are so obscure no one has a clue what they mean. What precisely is lemon-balm, how is it distinct from lemon verbena, and how do they both differ from, well, lemon?
Fruit descriptors aside, my pet peeve about tasting notes is the lack of sufficient focus on texture. Enjoyment of a wine will depend much more on balance, structure, and mouthfeel than on whether peach or pear is the dominant aroma. But adding discussions of balance, structure, and texture just makes for longer tasting notes.
So what is the solution? As Mike Steinberger said in the comments section to his post, one solution is to write fewer notes of higher quality, but that isn’t going to happen given the need for wine publications to cover the vast amount of wine produced every year.
The solution, it seems to me, is to view tasting notes as serving distinctly different functions. If you’re writing to sell wine or to give consumers efficient, handy advice about what to buy, then short descriptions of style along with a score are adequate. This is the kind of note to expect from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and the Wine Advocate.
But if you’re writing to capture the poetry of wine, if you’re writing to articulate something that can’t easily be put into words (or numbers) in order to enable the reader to more fully engage with the wine—that is, if you take wine criticism to be an endeavor akin to music or art criticism—then short notes and numerical scores will not suffice. This is where most tasting notes fail. They focus so much on analytical description but ignore the way wine plays on the imagination. Wines have personality and character, they evoke memories and emotion, are redolent of place and culture. More importantly, wines are intriguing, mysterious, and often seem beyond our comprehension and powers of description. People who love wine love it for these reasons; not for the presence of apricot or blueberry.
If wine critics are trying to capture this imaginative dimension of wine, they must take a page from what other writers do when analysis fails—find a metaphor or simile that can sum up meanings that a mere list of flavor notes will miss. Will such writing be sometimes pretentious and obscure. Well of course. It is hard to find the right metaphor and many will fall flat. But writing that never takes risks is worth neither paper nor bandwidth.
To be sure, the people that think of wine as only a beverage won’t appreciate this more imaginative approach to tasting notes. But one has to choose one’s audience carefully.
Where can you find such writing? Probably not in major wine publications that are in the business of making wine recommendations. By contrast, wine bloggers are well positioned to do this sort of writing. They need not promise comprehensive coverage, are not under space constraints, and need not feel excessively constrained by the business of selling wine. They are free to engage with the wine as they see fit. Much has been written about the role of wine bloggers—the imaginative tasting note would seem to be a natural fit.
Will such writing be prone to excessive subjectivity? Probably. But there is a difference between imaginative writing and imaginative tasting, and telling the difference is no harder than distinguishing lemon verbena from lemon balm.