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


~ by Cory Cartwright on January 8, 2010.

39 Responses to “On Tasting Notes”

  1. Nice post. Who says tasting notes “by definition” are banal and unable to convey emotion? Sure, I’d rather chew off my own finger than read every tasting note in a single issue of wine spectator, but some wine tasting notes can be great. Ever heard of a guy named Luca Turin? Here’s one of his:

    The fragrance was, and still is, a radical surprise. A perfume, like the timbre of a voice, can say something quite independent of the words actually spoken. What Nombre Noir said, was ‘flower.’ But the way it said it was an epiphany. The flower at the core of Nombre Noir was halfway between a rose and a violet, but without a trace of the sweetness of either, set instead against an austere, almost saintly background of cigar-box cedar notes. At the same time, it wasn’t dry, and seemed to be glistening with a liquid freshness that made its deep colours glow like a stained glass window. The voice of Nombre Noir was that of a child older than its years, at once fresh, husky, modulated, and faintly capricious. There was a knowing naivety about it which made me think of Colette’s writing style in her Claudine books. It brought to mind a purple ink to write love letters with, and that wonderful French word farouche, which can mean either shy or fierce or a bit of both.

    Now tell me that doesn’t convey emotion, caprice, and the momentary sensation of perceiving something extraordinary.

    Condemning tasting notes is like condemning the novel. A rather silly thing to do in response to reading a lot of bad ones.

  2. Alder, I agree that is very well written, but it still doesn’t do it for me. Something about the precise descriptions gets to me and interferes with the joy. I’m not saying that people should agree with me, or even that i’m right because this is merely my opinion on the tasting note.

  3. Hear Here!

  4. 100 points.

  5. This is a fascinating issue and debate. I wonder a few things:

    1. Is abstract expression in words a more appropriate or expressive vessel through which to convey something ultimately inexpressible in words? Why? You seem to argue it is because it conveys the emotional state of the drinker more effectively. That may be true, but if the form of expression chosen does not resonate with someone else it won’t work either. Maybe some people read “led pencil and chocolate” and get more excited than reading “mellifluous indecipherability of the Chinese”? Either could be ineffective, right?

    2. Do we really want to revive an old-school “lit-crit” style of writing wine notes – Nossiter’s intellectual bravado reminds me of Eliot or Trilling in his metaphoric excess and breadth of academic references.

    3. Is there anything good about scientific precision in a tasting note? Does it provide a useful purpose at times? If so, why? I’m not decided on this. On the one hand I think it’s useful to have flavour descriptors that, I would argue, have a tingue of objectivity and are able to convey some stylistic differences that others can understand. On the other hand, as you point out, it is incredibly tedious to read endless lists of descriptors. Maybe the issue is figuring out what a tasting note or discussion of a bottle of wine should tell us about that bottle. What do we want to know about it through reading words that discuss it (other than deciding what to buy). Is there even a purpose to the tasting note beyond consumer selection? I’m not entirely sure.


  6. How about restaurant reviews? Would you be happy if the reviewer said it was like reclining next to a Chinese pagoda with Greek poets chanting Homer? Or would you prefer if she said she loved the steaks grilled over mesquite and served with hand-cut potatoes fried in duck fat? I might enjoy reading the former review, but I would find the second more useful when it came to deciding whether or not to eat in the restaurant. I take pretty much the same position when it comes to wine tasting notes. But, of course, to each his own.

    Thomas Matthews

  7. Thomas,

    I have no problem with that restaurant review because that is merely a menu. If a wine review forgot to mention what kind of wine they were drinking, I wouldn’t pay it any mind. However if a restaurant critic felt it necessary to dissect a dish for a paragraph (hints of cilantro and lime) or the details of the decor (walls somewhere between white and sky blue) I would be bored to tears.


  8. One word tasting notes: I think it was Michael Broadbent who wrote that you should attempt to capture something about the wines you taste, even if it is just a single word. He did not then say that anyone else could possibly be interested in your notes, or that they belong in a publication, though Broadbent does regularly publish fragments of his notes—and I don’t mind reading his notes about a bunch of antique Madeiras that he tasted (in contrast reading Steiman’s note is like listening to a dullard relate an acid trip they took back in ’72). At trade tastings I try to take notes about at least some of the wines I taste, if only as an aide memoire to help remember something, one single thing about them later on–e.g., “Guttarolo regular = OK anfora = fuck!”

    Now that vulgar and sloppy note does not mean anything to anyone else (but I bet you know what I am talking about and possibly agree with this note–though to be honest, that wine probably didn’t need a note to help me remember it), but to me, “fuck” is a rarely-used emphatic shorthand for “buy this wine, now.” You’re right, notes are boring, even Nossiter’s fanciful note is boring and has information content that approaches zero, but unless you have an eidetic memory tasting notes are boring, albeit essential parts of doing a non-half-assed job of working in the wine trade.

  9. “Fuck” is usually the first word out of my mouth when something really hits me, Lou. One word tasting notes are usually an attempt to sum up emotion, rather than a sensory impression. “Cherries” would be boring, “fuck” is not.

  10. Is this a good example of expressive rather measured wine notes?
    I hope so because the current wine project this is part of has some many old notes that memories of feelings are just as crucial as what appears in many cases to be chickenscratch.


  11. Alder’s example is not a good one. He begins by noting “one of” Luca’s notes, as if he chose it out of a hat. Instead, it’s a description of a wine that is undoubtedly extraordinary. The problem is that few wines are. Most are boring. And while Luca’s note is wonderfully written, sensations beautifully conveyed, it’s much more important to discuss ways to describe the good wines, the common wines, the banal wines. Grabbing something great is easier to do.

    I don’t entirely agree with you, Cory, but I wholeheartedly agree with the spirit of this post. I’m almost obsessively focused on a wine’s sense of place, and I’m constantly amazed at how few tasting notes impart any sense of place. Wine is a story – even the boring ones. They deserve to be told. Cheers for a provocative post.

    • The example Alder gave was from a note on perfume. Luca Turin is considered one of the greats in that biz. I find his perfume notes to be wonderful reading, and surely at the top of that game, like you said, Evan, extraordinary.

  12. Evan,

    I like that approach. It’s true you rarely get a sense of place in tasting notes – not that one can truly convey that in words, but it’s a worthwhile endeavor. And I think you capture it well when you say “wine is a story” – this part of wine is completely eviscerated by clinical tasting notes. Maybe a diversity of styles is the best approach?

  13. Agreed with you on this one. Wine writing and descriptions can be too descriptive of too many adjectives without conveying whether it was a good wine or not.
    The other thing I hate is when at wine tastings the pourer starts rabbiting on with descriptions of the wines characters as your tasting (Cigar Box, Vanilla, Cocoa Beans). Or telling me its won lots of Medals.. Medals as well as Wine Spectator 90 Point stickers mean nothing to me.

  14. I agree with Alder. It isn’t the genre that’s the problem, it’s the practitioners of the genre. Some tasting notes are evocative (see Josh Greene and Andrew Jefford), some are dull and all-but-useless (the sommelier-speak of “notes of cherry and cassis”), and some (many of Bob Parker’s, though I respect his accomplishments) are ridiculous. Tasting notes are a form of writing, and — no surprise — writers who taste are better at them than wine professionals who happen to be writing. That doesn’t mean their palates are better, merely that the means of expression at their disposal are greater. I happen to find Jonathan Nossiter’s argument and writing absurd, and strongly agree with Mike Steinberger. But then, Nossiter isn’t really a wine professional or a writer, but a filmmaker. It’s a different medium entirely.

  15. Due to the overwhelming daily use of descriptive tasting notes, I find myself falling into the trap of writing them sometimes. Luckily, I’m not very motivated and don’t try very hard, not that I’m even good at it.
    To a very large extent tasting notes been perpetuated and promoted by the trade and related media for commercial purposes. The internet has made it much worse. The impulse to share experiences is understandable, but as you are pointing out mostly futile.
    What I want to know is where it’s from and who made it, what they’re aiming to do
    and the opinion of the writer on the extent of success.

  16. Thank you.

  17. “Furthermore (is it ok to start a paragraph with furthermore?)”

    Definitely not okay. Also, it’s either OK or okay – never ok.

    Excellent post, btw!

    As for TNs, I most want to know: 1) How good was the wine. (A Margaret Cho impression works.) 2) Tell me if it’s not ready now. 3) If it excited or disappointed – state why but not too long in length. (Unless Angelina Jolie is in the TN, I don’t want a long one.) 4) No, I think that’s it. Note, how this isn’t really a TN, but more of a concise report as to the state of the wine when it was tasted.

  18. Nice post Cory.

    Lots of good points in the article and in various responses here.

    The thing I don’t like about most notes is that emotion is lost, sense of place is lost, history or other informational data about the vineyard/producer/experience is omitted, style is not there (and this IS important to me), context of the tasting is lost, etc…

    I want to know if the wine is over-oaked or acidless or flabby or manipulated, etc. I do like acid/tannin/sweetness/astringency/body/alcohol – the descriptors that may help me to pair the wine in the future, for instance…that’s useful. I actually think the WSET/MW methods are not too bad but I dislike flavors or relationships to fruit because that changes with time…tell me it’s primary and fruit driven or developing some secondary and beasty or something…that’s enough.

    Ultimately, what matters is whether I liked it today and whether I think I’ll like it in some number of years. I’m writing the notes for myself.

    Don’t get me started on the motivations for the style of the notes we commonly see…lots of notes are just people bragging about some trophy they drank…whatever…it doesn’t impress me…

  19. Great post. Tasting notes are generally very dull. The best wine writing, to me, tells a story. Reading about how the wine makes you feel, how it touches you and, yes, why it brings you joy is much more insightful than cedar, plums, blah, blah…portrayals of the vigneron/winemaker also tell us more than a tasting note of their wine. Looking forward to reading your future posts.

  20. If you can find anything on what Mr Jean Pierre Kauffmann thinks about of how to describe a wine and post it that will be terrific!!!

  21. NIce post. I find reading tasting notes just about as boring as reading about music.

  22. First comment from a hitherto stealth reader, so why not make it about this great post?

    Lots of great points about a subject that’s troubled me in the past. The rise to dominance of the grocery-list tasting note is one of the great evils of the past twenty years. Jonathan Nossiter tends to carry things a bit too far with his “Masonic-mafioso conspiracy” idea, but I’d say there’s plenty to worry about regarding this empty, utterly banal manner of wine non-description.

    Actually, what’s most worrisome to me is the idea that, given that this type of tasting note is lingua franca in the wine industry nowadays, a lot of wine may be reverse-engineered from such language. To put it another way, these lists of non-descriptors could serve as blueprints of pseudodesirability for enoproducers of a certain spoofulistic bent.

    I’m reminded of the launch of a certain luxury joint-venture by a Bordeaux château and a Chilean megawinery. Pascal Delbeck was the star enological consultant. He was asked by a veteran consultant in the audience what he thought Carmenère’s hallmark, its unique aromatic signature, should be. He said “raspberries and cherries”. In my head I exclaimed an elongated “Fuuuuuuuuujuuuuuuuuuuuck…”

    Go to the website of any lab marketing designer yeasts and you’ll see strains offering to “enhance aromas of pineapple” in your Chardonnay. Makes one wonder.

    Just two tentative pesos.



  23. I’ll drink to that.

  24. Manuel, just wondering how Pascal Delbeck is supposed to reply to a question asking about a grape variety’s unique aromatic signature? What terminology or types of descriptors would you have him use to describe a smell, beyond comparisons with other familiar smells? I’m not saying that a wine should be defined that way — that’s for you to decide — but given that question, what is the range of possible answers?

  25. […] mi atención. Pero hoy la cosa fue distinta. Tomando el cafelito de media mañana leí en mi iPhone la más reciente entrada de Cory Cartwright en su excelentísimo blog Saignée. Cory aborda un tortuoso tema que ya yo he tocado muchas veces aquí y sobre el cual nunca he […]

  26. Well, Bruce, for starters, Carmenère at its best can offer up some very particular aromatics on the pyrazinic side of the spectrum, even fully ripe (that bell-peppery thing is really tough to strip away). I don’t object to the fruit analogy. I’ve used this anecdote quite a bit in the past to illustrate the reduction of the range of language for the description of wine in certain quarters. The aroma of raspberries is fine and dandy to find in a glass of wine, but somehow I’m suspicious when “raspberry” becomes a mere cliché…


  27. So your problem isn’t that he made a comparison to a fruit, it’s that he compared it to that specific fruit?

  28. In the sense that that fruit analogy is insufficient and a bit of a cop-out, yes. He could just as well have been talking about Gamay, or pinot noir, or, for that matter, Merlot from certain places and the smug one-word description would have been equally unsatisfactory in terms of conveying character.


  29. […] seems all the more a propos today in the light of Cory’s excellent post from the other day On Tasting Notes. I’ve long maintained, borrowing a phrase from the great Italian twentieth-century writer […]

  30. Well said indeed.

    One thing that I noticed – no one who commented here writes the kind of tasting notes you are objecting to, you don’t either. Sure, everyone throws in an adjective here and there, but nothing that even resembles the Steinman note.

    There are more venues now than ever before for intelligent wine writing. Some folks like the Steinman style note, and many of those people probably aren’t reading this or any of our blogs. I don’t like that kind of note, and so I read this and other sources that work for me.

    Damning the Steinman note or the people who like that kind of note is kind of unnecessary though, in my opinion. There’s not one right way to do a creative thing, and describing a wine with words is in the end, a creative exercise.

    Do it the way you like to do it. Who cares how other people like to do it?

  31. An interesting point from Brooklynguy. But maybe one reason for caring how other people write notes is the opposition to turning wine into something akin to a shopping list, with no discussion of origins, process, etc. It’s somewhat like opposing discussions of food that care only about the end product, and that parse that end product into neatly identified elements of pleasure. Chocolate? check. Raspberry? check. I like both those things so I guess I’ll like this wine kind of thinking stilts what wine is.

    So, while I do agree in some ways that there is no reason to care what other people are doing, in terms of sharing what I (and probably others) am passionate about in wine, writers who take a shopping list approach seem counterproductive to me. They make it necessary to put tremendous effort into helping people trust their own palate and develop their own passion and treat wine as an agricultural product w/ incredibly complex human process rather than simply a vessel of immediate flavour-pleasure.


  32. great post.

    Tasting notes don’t teach new drinkers to think (and drink) for themselves, giving critics false relevance.

    If you’re truly a critic you advance the art by getting the information out there. Not confusing them with a load of subjective adjectives that don’t mean shit.

    It’s pretty simple.

  33. Cory,

    I read your blog because I like to read your writing. Your unapologetic approach, your humor and the way you make wine appreciation more than snobbery. You are also more than capable of precise language. You don’t need to prove that to anyone. My opinion? Write what makes you happy. Say Fuck if you want to. Keep in mind that some of your readers do like cilantro and lime and capitalize your pronouns you lazy bum!


  34. […] tasting notes? Cory Cartwright thinks so. Over on his excellent blog, saignée, Cory takes up a crusade against tasting notes, calling them “esoteric,” “linguistic blackflips,” and…well, the epithets go on from […]

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