03 March 2009

Just say note

[wine tasting]The poor tasting note. Beloved and loathed, essential and useless. And now, finding its very purpose questioned. It’s enough to give a laundry list of anthropomorphized fruits and vegetables a complex.

Via Vinography…itself via Eric Asimov (don’t you just love the self-referential, navel-sucking blogosphere?)…there are some interesting musings on the benefits and/or dangers of the form out there. (For example: here and here.) Since tasting notes are, by far, the most common form of written expression on the subject of wine, this is a matter of some import. And, of course, as a generator of seemingly endless iterations of the genre, I’ve some thoughts on the matter.

It’s sometimes said by the jaded online wine literati that tasting notes are the least interesting form of wine commentary. That’s not true. Ratings and scores are. This is not the forum for well-worn arguments about the utility or sensibility of scoring wines against each other, except to note that in the end, ratings provide only two potentially useful bits of knowledge: 1) the scorer’s personal hierarchy of preference, and 2) a demonstration of something well-known before the widespread use of scores…that, in the main, there’s fairly widespread agreement on the qualities and identities of the world’s best wines.

Since the latter – a long-held, “establishment” view of wine – is one of the things many of scoring’s most ardent advocates claim to be subverting with their rating systems, there’s a particular irony involved in this result. And in any case, it’s where that general and congenial agreement collapses that a discussion of wine quality becomes truly interesting.

But we’re already off-topic. It’s probably true that, after ratings, tasting notes are the next least-interesting form of wine commentary. However, the gap between the gold and silver medals (or, I guess, their opposites) is rather larger than one might first suspect. For tasting notes can delve directly and succinctly into the areas of interest I just mentioned: the measures of quality and difference that bring actual diversity of opinion to the worlds of wine production and appreciation.

That’s can, not do. Naturally, this is a standard few tasting notes actually attain. Why? Lack of skill, sure – wine writing’s no more overwhelmed with brilliance than any other pursuit – but that’s not the key reason. Many with demonstrable skill still produce tasting notes that fall short of this standard. The reason is that tasting notes of depth and literacy, that enlighten as much as they reveal, that contextualize while they characterize, are difficult and time-consuming to research and write. And the simple fact of the matter is that most people don’t want to spend that much effort, especially when notes aren’t that well-compensated (from top critics, on a per-note basis) or, as most are, produced simply for the love of it.

Should they? No. Not because I wouldn’t like to see it reflected in the collective body of tasting notes, but because I don’t care for the concept of “should” here. It’s not up to me or anyone else to dictate to people the whys and hows of their notes. They’re as personal as expression gets from the appreciation (rather than production) side. It takes great depth of knowledge to write longer-form notes that enlighten, and it takes even greater skill to distill that enlightenment back into short-form notes. But there’s no way to develop that skill without exploring the form in a sort of personal apprenticeship; wine writers, even the best of them, are not produced from whole cloth, they’re created by a long process of self-development and collaborative feedback. To insist on formalization before that development is to narrow the wonderful diversity of voices and modes of expression, and while this might have surface appeal for the bewildered consumer overwhelmed with competing and contradictory authorities, it’s ultimately bad for both wine writing and wine itself.

A better approach to the problem identified by Asimov – that tasting notes, as currently conceived, confuse rather than educate the consumer – might be to suggest ways in which the form might be improved without stunting that essential development, and from which interested writers may select those techniques that work for them, and reject those that don’t.

One caveat, though: I reject the notion that the seeming impenetrability of tasting notes to the novice is evidence of their lack of utility. All fields of specialized knowledge have their subject-specific nomenclatures. For some reason I’ve never understood, wine aficionados are unusually sensitive to the existence of theirs, either clinging to it out of misplaced snobbery or, more often, deliberately subverting it to the point of true disutility. Why? Look, if all a consumer wants is for someone with the mantle of authority to point to a tasty bottle of wine, then they don’t need to learn the lingo, and there’s no need to infantilize the jargon in a vain attempt to cradle these people within the fraternity. They’re not interested, because what they want is a shopping list. And if another consumer wants a deeper and more specialized experience, they’ll make the effort to learn what they need to learn, just as an enthusiast of cars, or baseball, or stamp collecting will. Wine folk need to stop apologizing for their grammatical flights of fancy in a misguided attempt to entice the uninterested, and instead concentrate their efforts on those that care enough to play along.

So how can tasting notes be made more useful? An obvious first answer is to lengthen them, bringing background, history, context, and food pairings into play. Many excellent writers do exactly this. But, as I noted, it’s a laborious process. And not just for the writer; there are readers who don’t want all that background, who just want to know about the wine, and will find deeper and more verbose explorations no less off-putting than the jargon they were designed to supplant.

There may not be one solution that pleases all audiences. But there are improvements that can be made. Whether in long- or short-form notes, the essential points of “difference” are worth more emphasis than they currently receive. A tasting of fifty chardonnays from the same region will result in a lot of mostly-identical notes. As with a mathematical equation, one could go through each note striking out the constants and leaving the variables intact. I don’t mean that commonalities should actually be excised (though it’s an intriguing idea), but that a note can, and perhaps should, speak more to the question: why this one rather than that one? And in what situations? That, certainly, is of more interest than noting the presence of tropical fruit aromas for the twentieth consecutive time.

Another technique, and one that I’ve been working on myself, is to make the note less about what the wine tastes like, and more about the experience of drinking the wine. That’s not a distinction that makes sense to everyone, so let me expand on that point a bit.

In a typical tasting note, there are two components: the organoleptic assessment (I tasted these fruits, I found these structural elements, and so forth) and the qualitative assessment (I liked it, the previous vintage was better, it probably won’t age, etc.). The latter is sometimes turned into a score, and sometimes not. It is commonly assumed that the latter is also the full representation of the taster’s personal reaction to the wine. It may be, but I suspect that in most cases, it’s not. And this is the verbiage that’s missing in most notes.

Why restrict the grammar of wine notation to plants, rocks, and chemicals? Why not talk about mood? A wine might remind one of a sunny day in a golden field (a white Southern Rhône), or a chilly drawing room in an old European estate (a German riesling). Or of the wine’s character as if it were a living thing? An Austrian weissburgunder may stand stiff and Teutonically rigid, like a soldier guarding palace gates, while a Santa Barbara pinot blanc might be as relaxed and easygoing as any “dude”-uttering Californian.

People express discomfort with this sort of language, but they shouldn’t. In the latter pair of examples, all the descriptors are doing is standing in for a set of characterizations that could be done with the standard grammar, but in a far less interesting way. A “stiff, Teutonic” pinot blanc could be ungenerous with its fruit, high-acid, and with a significant mineral component that reminds one of Germanic wines, especially riesling. Its qualities would seem to be held in reserve, perhaps to be teased out with age. The wine would be the opposite of “showy” or “easy.” And its “relaxed, easygoing” Santa Barbara counterpart would have more forward fruit that’s immediately accessible on first sip, lower acidity and less structure in general, and an approachability that suggests against careful study in search of something more purely emotional. The first wine encourages the taster towards analytical exploration, the latter encourages the taster to stop thinking so much and enjoy the experience. These are common reactions to wines; why are they so infrequently reflected in the language we use to describe those same wines?

There’s so much more that can be said. Wines may transport one to a place, or a memory. An old red Burgundy may recall a sunset, a young Madiran the blackest midnight, a Kumeu chardonnay the first rays of dawn. A Sardinian vermentino may transport one to the docks, a saline breeze from the sea filling the air, as the first fishing boats return with the morning’s catch. A Zidarich vitovska may be so iconoclastic and difficult to grasp that it becomes an intellectual task to drink, while a young zinfandel may make one laugh out loud at the sheer fruity joy of it. And all these responses will be informed by, but also depend on, context…a notion I’ll explore in a moment.

[note-taking]Overly serious tasters reject this sort of verbiage for several reasons. First, there’s simple repression; these are more personal reactions that the coldly clinical forms in common use, and not everyone is comfortable with that level of revelation. Second, there’s the fear that such descriptors are less useful because they’re overly personal; that a wine described as “cold” means nothing to a reader unless the issue under consideration is something scientifically measurable, like temperature.

But this is silly. Unless we move to fully chemical tasting notes, wherein quantities of the various esters, structural elements, and so forth are given in numerical form, there will always be an inherent individualism to wine description. One person’s freshly-picked Granny Smith apple is another’s elevated malic acid. Different tasters use gooseberry, boxwood, or cat pee for what is essentially the same character, found so frequently in sauvignon blanc. And not everyone knows what a Makrut lime leaf smells like, even though it may be the best way to express what a taster is experiencing; what meaning does that term have to the uninitiated? If the answer is “none,” then how can its use be justified? Yet if it’s the right descriptor, how can it not be used? Even structural elements cannot be pinned down so easily; for example, we may find agreement that a wine is acidic (given sufficient experience identifying acid in isolation from other components), but its balance in relation to other elements will be a personal assessment, not a scientific one, and so moving from “acidic” to “too acidic” is fraught with the uncertainties of personal judgment.

Further, consider the utility of tasting notes from a more objective, less enthusiast-oriented perspective. Does anyone head to their store in search of a wine that “tastes of apricots and gravel?” Ever? No, of course not. But they might want a fun crowd-pleaser for a party. Or something that’s going to impress their oenophilic boss at a formal event. They might desire a wine that will satisfy rather than make intellectual or emotional demands after a difficult day at work. One that provides a revelatory moment wherein they finally understand the appeal of nebbiolo. Something that reminds them of their honeymoon on Santorini, or a wine that will challenge every assumption they have about Italian whites. Grocery list notes cannot respond to these desires – they lack the vocabulary – but more personal, emotional notes can.

Next, it’s important to render an opinion. But remember that an opinion doesn’t have to be a rating, or a simple binary expression of approval/disapproval. If a wine is confusing, say so. If a wine is enthralling despite its objective flaws or imbalances, say so. If a wine is compelling at first taste but a chore to drink, say so. Though some do indeed drink (and thus notate) in a rigidly binary way, sorting all wines into yes/no categories, I suspect most don’t. Wines and the potential contexts in which they can be experienced are far more varied than such a simplistic, neo-Neanderthal response. A deeper, broader, and more nuanced way of talking about wine embraces this diversity.

Finally, remember that there are as many different ways to express thoughts on wine as there are wines. There’s not just one style, and those who find (say) the list-and-score method wanting can turn to commentators who possess a more personally appealing style. And there’s power in that. For while it’s important that individual expression be preserved in all its diverse forms, the corpus of that expression is also worthy of consideration. Each commentator brings their own colors and styles to the weave, and though it’s not true that a collective perspective is inherently superior to the personal kind, it’s hard to deny the mind- and palate-broadening potential of all those individual pieces knitted together in a vast tapestry of knowledge, emotion, and thought.

No, the tasting note is definitely not dead. It rises again, but unlike the Phoenix it must sometimes change forms to be reborn.

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