On Tasting Notes
Looking back through some tasting notes i took over the past few years i have found several i wrote about the wines of Collete Ferret (specifically the Les Menetrieres), who, until her death was one of my favorite winemakers in the world. There is fruit in the notes (meyer lemon), floral (honeysuckle), esoteric (balance, minerality), but i don’t get the sense from my notes that i really enjoyed the wine. My memory, bless its heart, tells me differently. the first time i tasted the wine i was shocked at how it sent my head spinning. It was one of the first wines i was ever inclined to spend more than fifty dollars on (hell, even thirty dollars). Even if i were to write my notes down, i would never have a clue how enamored i still am of the wines, of how saddened i was to learn that there will never be anymore Ferret wines.
If i have one blog related New Year’s resolution it is that i am no longer going to subject you to these tasting notes. When i say “tasting notes” i mean the shelf talker kind that breaks the wine down into a list of aromas and flavors that i may or may not have detected in a glass of wine. i don’t like writing them, reading them, and i don’t think they are useful in any way.
This whole idea began several months ago when Eric Asimov gave a presentation at the fifth annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers where he railed on the “the overly specific, even esoteric language of the tasting note.” He went on to discuss how he believes that the tasting note, with its overly technical, precise language proves a barrier to the average person trying to enjoy wine. Now while i agree with him that the language used is too much, i don’t really care for the notion of democratizing “fine” wine because it’s a bullshit notion to begin with, because there will always exist degrees of enjoyment of anything, and i hate to see discourse dumbed down for populist notions. Just as I’ll never appreciate cars in the same way as someone who restores ’57 Chevys, or care for Jazz like crate digging fans do, I don’t expect everybody to enjoy wine the same way i do.
But here’s the rub (for me at least, feel free to argue). Tasting notes are dumbed down. They convey, for the most part, a language that is meant to appeal to everyone (even if it doesn’t). “Redolent of plums” isn’t exactly Diaphane/Adiaphane now is it? It tells you exactly what the taster is trying to say, that there is a lot of plum notes in the wine. Even the more esoteric descriptors (barnyard, etc.) are trying to convey simplicity and specificity to the reader in the most literal sense. Furthermore the even more ridiculous linguistic backflips present in wine writing are still trying to convey a sense of exactly what the wine is like. But what exactly does this accomplish?
This week I’m finally getting around to reading Jonathon Nossiter’s Liquid Memory (i won’t get into my full opinion on it in this post). Nossiter, as you know, is the director of Mondovino and he is very much in love with wine, but not so much in love with wine critics. A good part of the book is dedicating to discussing the language used to discuss wine which, somewhat like Asimov, he believes is a tool to “exclude, bully, and belittle.” In his (damning) review of the book, Mike Steinberger writes that Nossiter “denounces contemporary wine jargon as elitist—even smells a conspiracy behind it—yet how does he talk about wine? Mostly through historical, cinematographic, and literary allusions, a descriptive style that is vastly more inaccessible than all this chatter about cherries and berries. Of Burgundies, Nossiter writes that they are ‘closer to the experience of poetry, particularly as practiced by the ancient Greeks and, say, the classical Chinese or, not coincidentally, by the modernist poets since the turn of the twentieth century who’ve sought inspiration in the staccato lyricism of the Greeks and in the mellifluous indecipherability of the Chinese.’ Now, there’s a tasting note for the Everyman!” However, earlier on Nossiter lays out what he believes to be the height of banal, technical tasting notes. he gives us the Wine Spectator’s Harvey Steiman’s review of a Washington State Cabernet: “richly aromatic and brims with dark berry and currant aromas and flavors, shaded with espresso and dark chocolate overtones set against somewhat gritty tannins. A meaty note adds extra depth as the finish lingers on and on against the tannins.” Sure, Nossiter’s sentences maybe impenetrable to some, but no one would get the impression that he isn’t quite smitten, on several different levels, with burgundies, whereas i have no idea what Steiman though of the wine.
Furthermore (is it ok to start a paragraph with furthermore?) Nossiter’s language, for all its overwrought structure, still has some value stylistically. it offers something in the way of enjoyment trying to peel it apart. Steiman’s is fucking boring (how’s that for a review). In fact trying to read more than a few of the hundreds of terse notes in any major wine publication is the closest you’ll ever get to understanding the heat death of the universe. Where is the passion? The experience? The love for wine? Should wine writing rely on language so banal that it fails to convey emotion? i’ve dedicated a lot of time to this blog and i would hate it if someone got the impression that wine for me was a dissection of flavors and aromas. For one i would prefer a simple “it’s good” if you don’t have a foundation in classical poetry to a description f the fruit aisle.
So this is the death of any sort of tasting notes on this blog. i will instead try and do better about telling you why i enjoyed what i drank (and hopefully why you should be interested in what i drink) instead of trying to figure out what i drank.
Cheers, and Happy New Year