27 January 2010

Driving into the past

[misty larrau gorge]Contradiction. Confusion. Clarity. I’m in search of all three, and expect to find them where I’m headed. Yet another disputed region in which conflict catalyzes creativity, and where traditions elsewhere preserved in amber and writ are not yet done being made. Where one’s geographical location depends on who one asks, where language is who one is rather than what one speaks, and where home is what one is called rather than where one lives. Where the streets have neither no nor one name, but two. And where the beef on one’s plate might actually be watermelon.

…continued here.

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!

07 January 2010

The donkey show

[sagrada familia]Commenters who ask good questions are so irritating.

For example, here’s “The Wine Mule” in response to my plea for a little more mystery in our wine:

If the didactic is off limits, and we know that tasting notes are useful only to that portion of the population who experience aroma and flavor the same way we do, what's left?

First up: I don’t believe that tasting notes are only useful to those with identical sensory and associative tools. I do think that assigning external authority (or worse, objectivity) to tasting notes is the first step on a very slippery slope to nowhere. But as part of a growing body of collaborative communication on the subject of wine, an adjective-ridden fruit salad of collective knowledge and emergent consensus (or, just as frequently, its opposite), I think they have a value that transcends the merely personal.

Second: the didactic is not off-limits, but it cannot define the limits. There’s a lot more to wine than the rote acquisition of knowledge. Even the most rigorous non-university wine education examinations in the world – those required for the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier – don’t limit themselves to multiple-choice tests, but require both tasting and the proven ability to communicate wine knowledge in something more than bullet point form. (In fact, it turns out that a major reason that many fail the former is that, despite breathtaking knowledge and supreme tasting skills, they cannot do this.) When I ask for more mystery and less Wine Talk for People Too Dumb for Wine for Dummies, I don’t mean that we should abandon the helpful factlet or the mnemonic primer, merely that we’re reducing wine to its least interesting elements. Nothing that’s compelling about wine is told in a fatigued “match the grape to its appellation” rehash, much less the annual “sparkling wines (not from Champagne) for New Year’s Eve” article and its increasingly tiresome brethren.

So when our sterile donkey commenter worries:

It's true that not long ago I compared a bottle of freisa to Caterina Sforza, and while I may have felt inspired, I also felt a bit ridiculous, because anyone would think I was being both precious and pretentious, and not providing much practical information about the wine.

…I’m moved to ask two questions.

First, who’s the audience? If it’s the sort that will voluntarily read a wine blog with paragraphs and multi-syllabic words, the kind that will understand that Sherry doesn’t mean the stuff from New York, then I suspect that it’s adult and inquisitive enough to satiate its wonder either through independent research, the magic of emailing the author, or via consultation with The Great Oracle of All Knowledge. If the Mule is still worried, and seeks to provide guidance while preserving narrative flow…well, that’s why Gore God Ted Nelson invented the hyperlink.

And second, what’s the alternative? Because it has to be said: to the hypothetical blank-slated reader about which the Mule is worried, I doubt “freisa” is much more evocative than “Caterina Sforza,” and thus the best way to avoid all possible confusion is to mention neither. Shall we never rise above chardonnay and Paula Abdul comparisons in the future, then? I think not, and I doubt the Mule wishes so either.

Finally, his comment finishes with a gentle remonstrance:

And anyway, I'm not sold on the idea that a lot of people really do know that Beaujolais is gamay.

I’m quite sure most potential buyers of Beaujolais don’t know it’s gamay. A good portion of them probably don’t even know it’s from France, much less that it comes in other colors, or that there’s a difference between Nouveau and Chiroubles, or who the “Gang of Four” is, or why they should care about the divergent influences of Jules Chauvet and Georges Dubœuf. But many an article on Beaujolais will slog through some percentage of those answers, thinking it has done something useful for the advancement of wine knowledge. That article will be mistaken. Albeit intriguingly anthropomorphized.