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Wine Writing Day Two

Today marked the second day of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, which I am attending for a peek into the world of respectable wine journalism, whose fringes I skirt around without knowing the real score, so to speak.

The morning began with a panel instruction on writing tasting notes, hosted by Harvey Steiman of The Wine Spectator, Frank Prial of The New York Times, and author and educator Karen MacNeil.

Steiman began with a presentation on what he felt were the appropriate components of a tasting note:

- What does it look like?
- What does it smell like?
- What does it taste like?
- What is your overall impression?
- What is the wine's most telling characteristic?

The presenters offered some interesting comments about different forms of tasting notes, which I was surprised to hear everyone in support of, including the most wacky of notes such as those used by Wine X Magazine or Red Wine Haiku.

In the midst of this initial, somewhat remedial instruction on tasting notes, Karen MacNeil said something that struck me as both at once very logical but also very profound.

"Thinking about writing tasting notes always brings up something that has troubled me for many years. This thing needs to be grappled with if you're going to write about wine," said Karen. "There is a muddily complex relationship between wine and language. Wine is not its own language in the same way that food is its own language. For instance, we can put a piece of bell pepper in our mouth and say that it tastes, well, bell peppery. The thing itself is enough explanation."

"But it's obviously not enough," Karen went on to say, "to tell people that Barolo tastes like Barolo. When we write tasting notes we are applying other languages to the task of communicating about wine."

She then tied this back to the discussion of different styles of tasting notes, saying that since the exercise of applying different languages was always an approximation, there really is no right or wrong way to do it (though later she was quick to point out some examples from the class that might alienate common readers because of their extremely technical terms).

The more I hear Karen talk about wine the more I like her approach to it. I found her a nice counterpoint to Steiman and Prial, and especially enjoyed it when she skewered one of the students in the class for mentioning the wine's legs in their tasting note.

"As with women," she said sharply, "the legs tells you nothing of real importance about the quality or complexity of a wine."

This session, especially in the Q&A throughout it, danced around some interesting topics that I wish we had an opportunity to explore in depth, especially when we got into (and quickly moved out of) discussions about scoring wines and what the real definition of "great" was.

Steiman's closing tips about writing tasting notes were apropos: "It's a note, not an essay. Put what distinguishes the wine first. Use active verbs. Formality can be boring. Paint a picture."

I don't think he likes my style of tasting note.

The day's second session featured a short course by author Andrea Immer Robinson on the art of the interview, complete with guinea pig guest interviewees, Joel and Amy Aiken, husband and wife winemakers (he of Beaulieu Vineyards, she of Meander Cellars). Robinson was an engaging and energetic teacher, but I didn't think the session was structured well. We watched her interview the couple, and then got the chance to ask them our own questions (with the predictable results of some people monopolizing the floor). And then without warning we were asked to write up the interview and share it with the room. This proved frustrating on a number of fronts, including the fact that I hadn't taken notes, nor was there any coherence to the interview questions. I was surprised though, that a couple of my colleagues managed to begin promising sounding pieces in just a few minutes.

We ended the day with a very odd, half lecture, half discussion on writing about terroir, which wasn't as much instructive as it was entreating. Writer Rod Smith, whose writing I have come to very much admire in the two short days I have been exposed to it, basically laid out the case for an approach to wine writing that left behind scoring and quantitative evaluation and focused instead on writing based on actual experiential knowledge of where the grapes are grown and observations of wines based on this knowledge.

Of course, the usual discussion about terroir's definition ensued, which was fun, and provided the opportunity to ask some pointed questions of the panelists about various aspects of the many accepted uses for the term. Ultimately though it seemed that Smith was simply pleading with writers to get out into the vineyards and stop just tasting what was in the bottle and writing pithy notes.

The discussion prompted me to observe that if terroir is a "thing" at all, it is a narrative -- a story of everything that happened leading up to the moment when a wine goes into the bottle, and maybe a bit afterwards as well. I took Smith's entreaty to really be about returning to the story of a wine -- the who, the what, the where, and the when of its creation.

Perhaps I'm trying to shoehorn his point into my own perspective on the topic, but I nonetheless thought that he was asking us all to tell more stories, and most importantly from the first person experience of a wine and its place.

Comments (15)

The Corkdork wrote:
03.08.06 at 9:38 PM

Hi Alder,
Sounds like an amazing experience. I suspect you're referring to Rod Smith, who writes for Wine and Spirits. I think he's one of the most profound and under appredciated wine writers around. And each time I go to Zap and taste at the Fife table, I keep asking for Karen, but she's sadly never around. I think her Wine Bible is probably the reference I go to first more times than not when I'm experiencing my first Blaufrankisch, for instance.

Keep up the great work! - Corkdork

The Corkdork wrote:
03.08.06 at 9:39 PM

Er. um. I had a typo too...that's under appreciated...CD

Tyler wrote:
03.09.06 at 6:43 AM

FYI In his book, Kevin Zraly makes the same point about food aromas being described as foods while wines are not often described as wines.

Glad you are having fun! Thanks for the updates since I couldn't make it this year. Hopefully Rod Smith will convince you to ditch numbers! ;-)

Steve-o wrote:
03.09.06 at 8:35 AM

I'm not sure I agree with Karen about the difference between wine and language and food and language, at least not completely. For example, I wouldn't say a bell pepper taste "bell peppery" - my first thought when given, say, a piece of green pepper would be "grassy." The aroma of teleggio cheese isn't "teleggio-like," it's "dirty socks."

At most, all her statement really does is point out the obvious fact that most people have eaten common foods on numerous occasions, hence they know what they generally will taste like under controlled conditions.

That said, I think a point that she didn't make, but might have meant to, is that we haven't really developed a lexicon for odors beyond making comparisons to other odors. THAT is the tricky part of wine tasting, really - it's primarily an olfactory experience, and we don't have words to use to describe those sensations like we do for, say, colors. As such, we're left to do what she describes.

In other words, I think her conclusion is right (that, "When we write tasting notes we are applying other languages to the taste of communicating about wine"), but she's approaching it from the wrong direction.

Tyler T wrote:
03.09.06 at 11:19 AM

The comment about language and wine seems to highlight the importance of defining terms. I deal with this frequently when speaking about a wine with people less versed in discussing a wine than just drinking it. The author of Basic Juice has a great wine review that emphasizes the comedy of defining terms: http://basicjuice.blogs.com/basicjuice/2005/04/wallace_on_wine.html

Courtney wrote:
03.09.06 at 7:12 PM

I agree about the olfactory thing being at the root of wine discussion problems.

I led a tasting recently where I talked about the ole olfactory bulb and how that's really what's processing what we think are "flavors", and everyone still seemed confused until I made a comparison to an experience we've all had - that of biting into ice cream quickly and getting "brain freeze".

After that everyone seemed to have an "ah-hah" moment and we moved on. It's really powerful to bring people back to experiences they've already had - which is what Karen is obviously doing.

Incidentally, the "brain freeze" comparison was made by Tom Stevenson in The New Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia.

Cheers, Courtney

Ben wrote:
03.09.06 at 9:46 PM

Brain freeze? I'm not following that comparison.

In other comparisons:

While legs on a wine may be of little importance, legs on a person are a very important part of their physical appearance. Since we don't get to sniff and hold a person in our mouth quite as much as we'd like, I'd say physical appearance is relatively important in the enjoyment of a person. Along with intelligence and personality, of course.

And when we do sniff them, they should prolly smell good, too.

03.10.06 at 1:34 AM

So, what is the attitude from the "respectable wine journalist" towards bloggers & what are their preconceived notions?
Just curios.
Collin C.

Alder wrote:
03.11.06 at 5:09 PM


They were curious, and certainly had the preconceived notion (based, I would admit, on reality) that a lot of what goes up on blogs is crap, and that even more is badly written. Some were interested enough to ask me how they might start their own.

Alder wrote:
03.11.06 at 5:13 PM


Karen's point was not that legs don't matter in terms of appearance, but that they don't matter in terms of the overall _quality_ of the woman. While they may be nice to look at, they don’t tell you anything about whether she's any good.

Legs on a wine tell you generally about the alcohol and glycerine levels of the wine, as I'm sure you know, which tell you very little, if anything, about whether the wine is any good.

Alder wrote:
03.11.06 at 6:06 PM


Thanks for the comments. OK. Maybe bell pepper was the wrong example, but her point is sound enough in my opinion. What does a strawberry taste like? A cherry? At the end of the day there are some (many I think) foods which are, in fact, their own definition when it comes to taste.

03.12.06 at 6:35 AM

Yes, but some have said Kerouac was crap & badly written too. ;)

Ben wrote:
03.12.06 at 9:48 AM

Hey Alder,

I understand her point and the attempt at metaphor.

I'm just saying legs do matter in the overall judgement of a person. More than they do for wine anyway. Everyone has their preference for shape and length, some people might like the absense of them, but legs are an important part of the person. They may not speak for the entire quality of the person, but I ain't saying that. It is a blind person without sense of touch that does not use physical apperance to judge the overall value of a person.

I'm being picky, but since she's a wine writer her metaphor probably shouldn't be imperfect. Especially since it is being used to make fun of someone.

By the way, I think my new calling is to be a wine writer critic. I give Parker 86 points.

rajiv wrote:
08.28.08 at 11:37 AM

Telling a story of the wine from dirt to glass (and sometimes even before the dirt stage!) is what I look for from Vinography. After the story, I like your consistent tasting note framework much better than the fanciful descriptions that infest the rest of the web.

Mark wrote:
09.16.08 at 5:07 PM

Can anyone tell me how to contact Rod Smith directly?

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