12 January 2010

Elephant talk

[windows]Would we be better off without 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 there. It’s a powerful broadside, and well worth the time to read.

Cory’s not the first to gaze longingly over this horizon. Contrarian importer Joe Dressner has been there before, and Eric Asimov has peeked through these trees at what might otherwise be, and a fair number of very intense wine dorks of my acquaintance have long practiced a quieter form of protest by not issuing their own tasting notes.

Or so they say.

The thing is, I’m going to disagree with Cory. First in a nitpicky, superficial way, and second because despite his seemingly heartfelt promise to “no longer subject [us] to these tasting notes,” by the end of his thoughtful essay he has in fact come right back to promising to continue to subject us to them.

Before too many paragraphs have passed, it becomes clear that the target of Cory’s particular ire is the grocery list note: fruits, vegetables, rocks, some structural check offs…and then, should the writer be so inclined, a rating of some sort. I would be tempted to agree that these notes are the least useful sort, which is why I’m trying not to write them anymore, but I also have a firmly-stated belief that people should write the notes they want to write to which I still hold. And the fact is, whether Cory or I like them, these notes are pretty popular, judging by their ubiquity amongst the most consumed critics. An alternative to them might be more popular, but until a critical mass of the latter exists, there’s no way to know.

So, that micro-nit aside, let’s question the general contention that Cory’s making. A fair number of paragraphs after his solemn promise to eschew tasting notes, this is how he ends his piece (I have done some cosmetic editing; Cory is less enthralled by capitalized pronouns than I am):

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.

That’s a worthy sentiment, and a strong philosophy. As a goal, it’s going to be harder than Cory thinks. Somewhat ironically, he identifies one key concern earlier in his essay:

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.

So when Cory says that he hopes to communicate “why you should be interested in what I drink,” he’s just reversing this problematic lens: rather than asking readers to figure out just exactly what it is that he likes or how he thinks, he’s now putting himself in a position whereby he must try to figure out what they like and how they think. Since Cory is unlikely to know any single person better than himself, this is already a monumental task. Apply that to the masses of potential readers, each with their own needs and desires, and it seems an unscalable monument.

But whether or not Cory is up to this task isn’t really the issue. Earlier in his essay, he narrowly defines the tasting note as the fruit-salad form identified above

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.

But that’s an unduly narrow conception of the tasting note, and Cory must certainly know better. We’ve had structural or hierarchical notes, notes-as-points, notes-as-graphic-art, Wine X-style pop culture references, and since Cory and I participate in some of the same wine fora, I know he’s also familiar with the long-form, “walk with the farmer” style of which I and others are particularly enamored. Even my short notes are, increasingly, an attempt to give up the banality of direct organoleptics in favor of a “what it was like to drink the wine” approach (which I detail at some length here), and that style was borrowed from much better practitioners, not invented by me.

Rather than restate my definition of a tasting note, let me just quote myself (edited for brevity and applicability to this post):

A tasting note is an impression frozen in time. It is fleeting and ephemeral. It is one person’s opinion at one particular moment. It is not a communal judgment, and does not represent some Zagat-like conventional wisdom. It is not a poll. It is not “wrong.” It may or may not be an invitation to dialogue. The note itself may be all the dialogue its author intends. Alternatively, the note may instead represent only the author’s dialogue with the wine itself.

And then:

Notes may be structural, as exemplified by the methods taught to candidates for the Master of Wine examination, wherein the components of wine are systematically broken down to aid in analysis and identification. Notes may be organoleptically iterative, in the manner of modern North American wine writing – “laundry lists” of fruits, vegetables, flowers, rocks, etc. – or they may be as austere and ungenerous as the wine they describe. Notes may be metaphorical, comparing the experience of the wine to just about anything in the realm of experience, including anthropomorphism. Notes may be fanciful, reflecting the joy inherent in the beverage. Notes may be contextual, comparing one experience to another or giving the wine an active role in a real world narrative. Notes may be educational or informative, carrying the weight of experience and the power of data collection with every word. Notes may be a ranking and a justification thereof.

So whatever Cory’s going to try next, unless he’s going to try silence, it will – sorry to be the bearer of bad news – still be a tasting note. A better tasting note? A more useful tasting note? A more interesting tasting note? Perhaps, perhaps not…and that’s not just up to Cory, but also to his readers. That said, it’s still an attempt to communicate something about a wine to someone or something external to the taster. That, by definition, is a tasting note.

The tasting note is dead. Long live the tasting note!


saignee said...

Thanks for this. I do realize that every wine review is going to be some manner of tasting note no matter what the position is. It is going to be hard to try and reformulate how I discuss wine, and it is very likely that I will fail, but as I was going to abandon my blog anyway because I was becoming less interested in writing about wine, I figured I would give it a shot.

- Cory

thor iverson said...

I hate to see so many people giving up their blogs of late (or in Lyle's case, repeatedly threatening to do so while posting more than ever ;-) ). If you need to reformulate, then please do so, if that's the price of continuing. Because if this keeps up, pretty soon it's going to be just me and Nat Decants.

saignee said...

Yikes. (And not Yikes at you...)

Anonymous said...

It’s a lot to ask of a humble little tasting note. Is it a broadcast to the world at large, a reminder to oneself, an attempt to build an income stream? Is it an MW-style analysis, does it just capture the moment? – there are so many possibilities; or rather, so many ways to get it wrong.

I’ve just spent some time over the last few months loading 2000-odd of my own modest TNs to Cellartracker. It’s hard to write a memorable note – an entertaining, informative note – about a dull wine, that’s one thing I’ve re-discovered. I suspect I try subconsciously to match the scale of the note to the wine; a $15 commercial drop might get a 3fruits+structure formula, I might try and wax a bit more lyrical about a 67 Yquem. Essentially the notes are for me, I suppose, as I’m not obliged to make a living from wine writing*, so they’re mostly a bastard cross between trying to analyse more modest wines, and perhaps somehow commemorating those I may not have the privilege of tasting again.

There are plenty of folks somewhere on the net who write notes worth reading; Coad when he stirs, Levenberg on CT and elsewhere, even novak for sheer entertainment sometimes. Broadbent in Vintage Wine manages to convey the gist of a wine in a few sentences quite well. Jancis is ever-polished. Your own notes are eminently readable without being formulaic; you have captured the essence of a wine quite frequently with a few words; “this wine should come with its own pimp” has stayed with me, as has “this wine has nothing to say, but says it very loudly”. Trying to avoid an obvious formula certainly helps with readability. (Say goodbye to most of the WA writers, then!)

I did think attempting to abandon the TN entirely was a bridge too far, myself. An ambitious, even worthy goal, but ultimately beyond the power of anyone writing about wine.

*Did have a moment of glory back in 2009. Will send e-mail…

luc said...

trend...trend...trend....that matter has been discussed a long time ago by European drinkers and intellectuals.
The best thing will be to find anything Mr J.P Kauffmann has to say about it.
And bla bla bla..... Next trend .....stop drinkin'????

thor iverson said...

It’s a lot to ask of a humble little tasting note.

Yes, which is why -- per your comment -- I feel that tasting notes are, fundamentally, for the writer much more than they're for the reader.

that matter has been discussed a long time ago by European drinkers and intellectuals

Yes, and we all know how conclusive that was. ;-)

Lisa Mattson lmattson@jordanwinery.com said...

Hi Thor -- hope all is well with you. Great post. Did you receive my invitation for next Friday, January 29?

thor iverson said...

Hi, Lisa. Yes, I did, and I answered (late) last night. On the road, can't make it. Sorry.

luc said...

I am very happy.....to see that people are becoming more humble...when you visit growers they don't pretend to be art critics.

thor iverson said...

Maybe not, but I've certainly visited growers who style themselves as messiahs. I'm not sure if that's better or worse. Depends on the grower, I guess.

Which makes what I do the transcription of prophetic vision rather than the writing of tasting notes. ;-)