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08.24.2007

Stop Telling Us What to Taste

It will be very easy for you to take this the wrong way. I certainly won't be surprised at reactions to this short rant that end up suggesting that I'm a spoiled brat. But hear me out. This isn't about my personal pettiness, it's about a philosophy of how we all think about and relate to wine.

As most of you know, I go to a lot of trade wine tastings. These are tastings where winemakers pour their wines for sommeliers, restaurant wine buyers, and representatives from distributors, as well as the media. Most recently, I was at the Family Winemakers event in San Francisco, where for five hours, I joined hundreds of other wine professionals in tasting hundreds of California wines from smaller, family producers.

These trade tastings are great. They are much mellower than the crush of the public wine tastings, and the folks pouring the wine are much more relaxed, generally with the awareness that they're pouring for people "in the know."

But then sometimes, I find myself standing in front of a table, a newly poured glass of wine in my hand, and as I raise it to my lips, the person with the bottle in their hand, leans forward and says:

"It has great blackberry and cassis notes with herbal undertones and a fantastic finish."

It's at moments like this that I remember a poster I saw in an office once that read: Stress: the conflict created when resisting the urge to choke the living shit out of some asshole that desperately needs it.

Let me just tell you right now, no one, and I mean NO ONE, really should be told what they are tasting when they have a glass in their hand.

The idea of telling a sommelier what they are tasting as you pour a glass of your wine for them is frankly ridiculous -- so ridiculous that I'm not going to spend any time complaining about it. But the compulsion to do this is very understandable, and is hardly the fault of winemakers or winery staff. Anyone who has worked or spent any time in a relatively popular public tasting room knows that visitors quite often come in and literally demand that the staff tell them what the wine tastes like.

There's nothing wrong with this behavior. It's just people wanting to learn about something about which they don't have the confidence to trust their own unpracticed senses. But that doesn't mean that they should be accommodated.

Yes, that's right, I'm here to tell you that no one should EVER tell someone what they are tasting in a wine. Tasting room staff, stop the madness. Winemakers, knock it the hell off.

Our goal -- that is, the collective group of us who aim to evangelize wine -- should be to help wine drinkers gain the experience and knowledge that breeds confidence in themselves as wine drinkers.

And in my opinion, telling people "what to taste" when they've got a glass in their hand is not only an insult to their intelligence, but counterproductive to the entire purpose of wine tasting in the first place.

We all need to improve our own sensibilities and sensitivities to wine, to learn to rely on our own intuitions and senses in the moment, and to form judgments that begin to shape our own personal tastes.

So I'm putting all you winemakers and winery staff on notice. Resist the temptation. And when people ask you what the wine tastes like, tell them that they're only ones who can say.

And for the next person who rattles off a whole string of tasting notes on a wine while they can clearly see me making my own notes on the wine, I'm going to try not to strangle you on the spot. I've got a lot of self control, so it's unlikely anyone's going to get hurt. But I can't make any promises.

Comments (50)

08.25.07 at 12:35 AM

Ha, ask Melissa how much this behavior annoys me.

Part of it is the great boon to interviewers: A person's need to fill the silence. (A great technique in interviews, though I don't use it as often as I should is to ask a question, let the person answer, and then not say anything. Nine times out of ten they'll start expanding on it.) In a quiet tasting, if you start to talk to them and then take a moment to really ponder the wine (especially if you're me, a slow taster), they'll just start chattering.

The other part of it is a natural marketing impulse. Tell people what they're going to taste, and they'll agree with you. That's why in my classes, I don't let people start describing the wine for a good 15-20 seconds.

But it drives me barmy, nonetheless.

TexaCali Ali wrote:
08.25.07 at 5:40 AM

I so agree! I almost choked on my coffee laughing this morning. I am often stuck in a position of "tasting others" and try my best to hold back as much as possible about the flavor profile. Often I'll say "so have you heard of so and so vineyard or winery", trying my best to bring up facts and techniques about the producer.

I was mortified last week when I was nervously hosting a massive wine dinner for over 30 Master Sommeliers - I was introducing our wine for the 4th course and found myself telling this group what flavor profile to look for in a good malbec from Mendoza. Jackass. I'm still shaking my head over that one. Maybe I should blog for therapy about it today...ha!

Raghav wrote:
08.25.07 at 7:21 AM

This falls into category of what I call the 'curse of knowledge'. The sommeliers and winemakers forget to put themselves in the shoes of the novice or "leisure" wine drinker.

Jack wrote:
08.25.07 at 7:57 AM

Amen, Brother Alder.

And, the Second most annoying thing - and this happened to me at Family Winemakers a week ago - is to tell me while I have the wine in my mouth, that the Wine Spectator gave this wine a 91 (or whatever). I resisted spewing the wine at this guy, but I'm not holding myself responsible when it does happen in the future. After I spit, I did inform this person that that knowledge doesn't make his wine taste any better.

CatherineM. wrote:
08.25.07 at 9:40 AM

Excellent post! I'm glad someone finally said something about it...

Steve wrote:
08.25.07 at 11:03 AM

Right on Alder!! Unfortunately, trying to stop this exasperating behavior is like trying to stop the tides. It is evil, but inevitable. I get it all the time. I just ignore the person. Usually they get tired of wasting their time and eventually shut up. This is just one of the more tedious aspects of our otherwise fabulous, fascinating jobs!

Joanne wrote:
08.25.07 at 11:24 AM

I totally agree as well. It *really* is annoying to be tipping a wineglass on your lips getting a definite impression of something. Meanwhile someone quoting like a trained parrot tells you what it is (or isn't) and they don't even have a glass in their hand.

Quothe the raven... "Nevermore"

But it reminds me to be more considerate what I say to friends at tastings as well :) Or at least to get my timing right. Great Post Alder!!!

Arthur wrote:
08.25.07 at 2:34 PM

I wonder how much of the pourer telling you what the taste profile is or what score the wine received is a symptom of the small winery striving to validate its product.

Raghav has a very valid point and we should not forget that the beginner/'leisure' drinker may actually benefit from the guidance offered by the pourer so long as the wine being poured actually HAS the cassis, cherry and licorice components the pourer suggests. In that situation, this can be helpful and educational.

A wine I recently tasted opened up to reveal stunning, honest-to-God black currant aromas so close to the real thing that I had to go to my fridge and pour a glass of Hortex Black Currant juice from a local Polish deli and show my friend how close they were. An on-line review (copied on a number of websites!) said the wine: "offers luscious deep aromas of cabernet grape and oak". Maybe if the author who wrote that review, at some point in the past, had black currant flavor in wine pointed out, they would have recognized the aroma/flavor and described the wine better.

Steve wrote:
08.25.07 at 2:57 PM

Usually I impute more sinister motives to pourers who tell me what I'm tasting. They seem to be trying to subconsciously influence my impressions. I'm talking about people who pour for me as a critic/reviewer -- mainly owners, winemakers and PR people. Sommeliers fall into a different category. Besides, usually a sommelier won't tell you about a wine unless you ask.

Pamela wrote:
08.25.07 at 7:12 PM

Right on Alder...well said!

lumbarpuncture wrote:
08.25.07 at 8:30 PM

As a decided novice at the whole wine business, I can definitely agree with the idea of the pourer keeping his or her mouth shut while I do my own take on the wine.

However, I have learned a lot by reading tasting notes and talking to winemakers about their wines and the aromas and tastes involved. I am sure many viewing this site have developed palates and can identify tastes and smells much better than I can. I'm still building up the "vocabulary", if you will. I can identify a Bordeaux blend from a Zinfandel much easier now, and if typical wines are true to style, I can often tell a Chardonnay from a Sauvignon Blanc without reading the label.

But I still like to have an idea of what other people are tasting and smelling. And I would be pretty irritated if I ASKED for advice/tasting/impressions from someone who knew more than me and they just gave me a BS answer like "well, it's whatever you taste." If I want help identifying a particular taste, then in an unobtrusive way, say "when I taste this wine, I taste cassis/blackberry/toast/etc." Without reading and studying tasting notes and talking to folks up to this point, I would be much more of a novice than I already am.

Absolutism is never a good thing.

I do agree that it is stupid to lecture someone taking notes on a wine about what they should and should not be tasting. I think tasting room staff should restrain themselves if possible from divulging information without being asked. But I think that's unrealistic - the point of having a tasting room and staffing it is to sell wine - and people are influenced by this. I'm surprised, Alder, at your rant - given your "whatever it takes to sell, wine isn't special" attitude.

Arthur wrote:
08.25.07 at 8:42 PM

LP - your comments demonstrate exactly the point I was making: if you are unfamiliar with wine, a guiding hand can be helpful.

However, I am not sure what you mean when you say: "Absolutism is never a good thing."

In the context of wine aromas and flavors black currant is always and absolutley black currcant, just as TCA is always and absolutely TCA and nothing else -irrespective if the person smelling the wine is not able to identify it owing to lack of familiarity with what black currant, TCA, pyrazine or any other compound smells like.

Jack wrote:
08.25.07 at 9:01 PM

Arthur said, "that the beginner/'leisure' drinker may actually benefit from the guidance offered by the pourer so long as the wine being poured actually HAS the cassis, cherry and licorice components the pourer suggests."

lumbar says, "And I would be pretty irritated if I ASKED for advice/tasting/impressions from someone who knew more than me and they just gave me a BS answer like "well, it's whatever you taste."

But isn't it presumptuous of well, anyone, to know how something is going to taste in your mouth? Sure, some wines scream something particular (such as OAK), and industrial wines tend toward a more uniform tasting profile (which is their goal), but every person gets different things from each wine they smell and taste - if you think about it, how could it be any other way?

Just look at practically any one wine reviewed by the major wine critics - their descriptions are usually so different you'd never guess they were all talking about the same wine.

Arthur wrote:
08.25.07 at 9:51 PM

Jack:

"but every person gets different things from each wine they smell and taste - if you think about it, how could it be any other way?"

What you refer to is the result you get when none of those people have actually trained their noses and palates. It's like 10 people walking into a room full of people speaking a language none of them know. Until you learn the language being spoken, you will all get different tings. That is the main cause of the discrepancy between reviewers.

There ARE absolutes and there are absolute reference points.

A specific molecule will always trigger the same smell/taste receptors in everyone across the globe. But how that person interprets/categorizes/names the aroma/flavor will depend on their past experience and familiarity with said molecule. (I had to seek out Lychee nuts to know what they taste like and suddenly the flavor profile of many wines gained in resolution.

It's like language. "Strzebel w drabinie" will only be a recognizable phrase to those who know the language in which it’s written. Others, who have never seen this language will interpret it based on their past experiences - Foucault's grid of interpretation at play.

Let’s say I poured you a glass of black currant juice and a glass of aronia (chokeberry) juice. If you never had either, you would try to explain and categorize each of them in terms of your past experiences but you would not be likely to identify/name them correctly. You would only use terms familiar to you. That is where all that variation in wine reviews comes in.

I bet you that if you got all those differing wine critics together and trained their palates to a standardized set of aromas and flavors, they would be a lot more consistent. Better yet, take 10 wine critics, let them pick white and red gooseberries from the bush and white, red and black currants from the juice and try juice from each and then ask them to independently identify white goose berry, red and black currant aromas and flavors in a line up of wines and you’ll see them get really consistent.

Il Destino wrote:
08.26.07 at 12:03 AM

Being a Professional Cook, I really have to wonder... People's palates are so varied; how can one presume to understand automatically that one is even going to taste cassis!!! Blackberry to me might be currant to someone else, right? I have tried to understand that on tasting lists descriptions are simply guidelines... but are perhaps what the winemakers are going for... but when an SB is described as having notes of melon (I have to wonder which one... honeydew, canteloupe, cassava, etc?) and all I am tasting is grapefruit, I really have to wonder. I hear you loud and clear, Alder!!!

lumbarpuncture wrote:
08.26.07 at 8:50 AM

"Yes, that's right, I'm here to tell you that no one should EVER tell someone what they are tasting in a wine."

I was being snarky with my comment about absolutism vis-a-vis that particular part of the rant. The language of taste and aroma can be a difficult one to learn especially when there are so many competing tastes and aromas in a particular glass of wine.

Different people do have different palates, with what are probably genetically determined sensitivities to certain tastes and I'm sure the same glass of wine tastes slightly different to many folks. But no one describes a true to type Cabernet as having aromas of guava and mango. There are reference standards that descriptors tend to narrow towards. I'm sure a lot of it is suggestion, and until I've got enough confidence in my taste buds I don't mind someone telling me what the tasting notes are - upon request.

08.26.07 at 9:15 AM

What makes a better professor, one who tells you what to think, or one who teaches how to think own your own?

Well, I think that the answer most people would give would support your argument.

But having said that, I think that sometimes it's helpful to be told what "you are tasting" so that you learn and most important ARGUE BACK.

What needs to be changed is peoples attitudes about giving and sharing tasting notes. We shouldn't do away with tasting options all together!

Arthur wrote:
08.26.07 at 10:21 AM

Il Destino:

"Blackberry to me might be currant to someone else, right?"

That discrepancy indicates that the two people who differ have not learned to discriminate or distinguish these two smells/flavors. The flavor/aroma comes from one molecule. That molecule is constant and unchanging. Your logic suggests that the molecule responsible for the black currant aroma/flavor somehow changes between the two tasters’ mouths. In truth that molecule triggers the same receptors in the nose and on the tongue in BOTH people. The difference comes about when the information makes it to the brain which interprets that data as "black currant". That correct interpretation hinges on the taster having been exposed to black currant in the past and having made note to categorize it as such. One can train their senses like one learns a language, and instrument or chemistry or cooking. (Separate from that is the judgment element which decides if this black currant is good/pleasing/desirable).

bluescientist’s post points to the fact that any subject or discipline requires a set of fundamentals and a framework which must be learned before one is able to function independently and make opinions and arguments.

Steve wrote:
08.26.07 at 10:52 AM

The issue has nothing to do with "blackberries" or "currants" or any other flavor descriptor. It has to do with quality. Do you think any of these pourers ever say, "I think you'll find the wine tastes of currants, but despite that, it's not very balanced. The alcohol is too high and the tannins are green."? No, they invariably talk the wine up, as if it was the greatest thing since 1947 Cheval Blanc. That's my problem with the talking pourers. I've experimented many times by listening to winemakers talk up how great a wine is, then asking them about a certain flaw in it that's obvious. At that point, they admit the flaw. But if I hadn't pointed it out, they would have gotten away with their characterization of the wine as perfect.

Arthur wrote:
08.26.07 at 11:26 AM

Steve, I agree with you that the pourer's comments are aimed as much at suggesting to the taster that the wine is a quality wine as they are at guiding the novice.

My initial argument was that an experienced and confident taster should be able to asses the wine accurately without any suggestions and in spite of what the pourer says and speak up if they are so inclined – as you report doing.

However, many people posting to this story seem to have taken this relativist approach, saying that everyone's impression are valid - no matter how discrepant and that everyone can perceive different things in a wine.

That mentality misses the point that in order to know what you are tasting and to make a quality judgment on it, you have to learn the smells and flavors found in wine for yourself so that you can recognize them consistently and reliably. Furthermore, with experience, once you identify those components correctly you will know so much more about the wine: Was it made of over-ripe grapes, and how does that influence its quality? Will it age well? Can this wine go with a dish I am planning? Is that aroma I am detecting acetone and does it suggest volatile acidity pointing to a production problem?

There is a popular trend in the wine world today to say: “whatever you smell and taste is right and whatever you like makes the wine good”. It is why some 2005 cool climate California Pinot noirs taste like flat cola and Cabernets are drinkable within 2 to 3 years of harvest. People like these wines, yes. Well, liking the wine has nothing to do with its quality. Perhaps there is something to be said for absolute standards where quality is concerned. If we (as people who write about wine) do not offer our readers the tools to learn what makes for quality wine (and in the process follow some stringent standards for assessing wines ourselves) then the weekend wine taster will not know when to call the pourer on BS and they will be going home with $200-$300 if poorly made, low quality wine.

el jefe wrote:
08.26.07 at 1:34 PM

When I'm pouring for someone and they ask what they should be tasting, I reply "I don't know. Let's find out together what it is tasting like today." Then I let them give me their impressions and have a dialog about it. It's such a great opportunity to create a positive experience for them, which leaves a positive impression about your winery.

Steve wrote:
08.26.07 at 1:55 PM

Arthur, can you elaborate on your statement, "It is why some 2005 cool climate California Pinot noirs taste like flat cola..."? I have rather liked the '05s for not being as high alcohol and extracted and heavy as some previous warmer vintages. More elegant, if you will.

El Jefe: I love your method of tasting. I wish more winemakers did the same thing.

Arthur wrote:
08.26.07 at 2:37 PM

Steve,

I am happy to discuss my opinions about specific wines I did not like in a private setting. I do not publicly single out a wine that I do not like. I just don't write about them.

Besides, that would really highjack this discussion.

Geoff Smith wrote:
08.27.07 at 11:21 AM

Right on! You are absolutely right about this, Alder. Having worked at wineries in both Sonoma and Napa, you would be amazed at how many times a taster will request: "Tell me what I'm tasting"! I can also remember many winery visitors being absolutely confused if no written information was available on the tasting counter, information which in part would let the reader know 'what he or she is tasting.'

Let me say this: in virtually all my winery visits in France, however, never did this occur. On the contrary, a competent taster is encouraged to give his impression of the wine----and this exchange would frequently create wonderful discussions.

Geoff

Chuck wrote:
08.27.07 at 3:43 PM

Agreed on the flavors! Personally, I would change the critique slightly, because in another way, I do like knowing "what" I am tasting -- you know, appellation, vintage, barrel styles, varietal composition, the nitty gritty from the winemaker's notes.

As a no-longer-amateur but by-no-means-professional wino, what's interesting to me is how the components and techniques of winemaking manifest themselves in the characteristics of the wines. Maybe to put it differently, I want to know what in the process I'm tasting, not what flavors. Make sense?

And as for "whatever makes you like the wine is good": BS. A wine is good if it makes me smile. :)

Anonymous wrote:
08.27.07 at 4:08 PM

You know Arthur, I think that quote from one of your earlier posts in this thread is actually quite a perfect description: "offers luscious deep aromas of cabernet grape and oak". (I'm assuming, of course, that it describes an oaked Cab). Other than to name the yeast, what other factual information could a tasting room barrista or winery pr gal give? Beyond that bare bones description, one hazards the land of subjectivity and all the other problems listed above.

08.27.07 at 5:16 PM

Great topic! I find that often when I'm tasting with novices (sommelliers are another thing entirely), they're too nervous to offer their own opinions as to what they taste, so they'll turn to me and ask, "what do you think?"

But I don't like to let them off so easily. I turn the question back on them and encourage them to express the sensations they're getting off the nose . . . the different areas of the palate . . . the finish. In the end, they've connected much more deeply to the wine than they ever would have if I'd just blurted out, "blackberry on the nose with cigar on the finish."

And . . . isn't that ultimately what winemakers want from those on the other side of the table? For them to connect with their wine?

All this to say, I think a lot more could be gained by asking than telling.

Cheers,
Lia

nowino wrote:
08.27.07 at 5:34 PM

My wife thinks I'm insecure because after I taste a wine I look it up in Parker or Spectator to see if I really liked it. Should I get therapy?

Steve wrote:
08.27.07 at 5:37 PM

Dear nowino,

Yes. Immediately.

Arthur wrote:
08.27.07 at 5:55 PM

"I think that quote from one of your earlier posts in this thread is actually quite a perfect description: "offers luscious deep aromas of cabernet grape and oak". (I'm assuming, of course, that it describes an oaked Cab)".

I disagree and stand by my earlier assertions. Here is why:

Cabernet sauvignon – like any variety - smells/tastes differently depending on farming methods, location, vintage, time picked vinification methods and the age of the wine - just to name a few conditions.

People like a particular wine variety for different reasons. In general, that means that people have a preference for different aroma/flavor characters or profiles.

Those characters/profiles, in turn, are the result of the components in a finished wine. A number of conditions (as listed above) in the wine’s development determine which compounds will be present or dominant - they control the expression of these components in the finished product. Correct identification of these component molecules (by their aroma or flavor) is the key here. When you know what these elements are, and you can correctly identify them, you can better describe the wine to a reader and, ultimately, better assess a wine and make a more accurate recommendation - if you are a writer.

If you are a casual wine lover, it still is to your advantage to really know what you are tasting. This will help you pick your wines, and disagree with a pourer, or a critic/writer.
Hey, you might even not give a rat’s ass about what the pourer is saying because you’ll actually know better.

Craig Camp wrote:
08.27.07 at 9:23 PM

Alder,

Give them a break! Try standing behind a table for eight hours pouring samples for hundreds of people and come up with the perfect thing to say each time.

Also, most consumers want exactly this type of guidance. Just because you don't need or want such suggestions does not mean other, less experienced tasters don't and to expect the people behind the difference every time is just not fair.

malcolm wrote:
08.28.07 at 9:38 AM

Craig,
But this was not a consumer tasting - it was a trade tasting, and presumably the people there had some knowledge of wine.

Alder,
I am with you totally - last May I was sandwiched for three days between a Frenchman who kept wittering on about "the champagne expressing the essential femininity of the grape varieties" (to the point where I was ready to commit physical violence) and a Kiwi who just did not shut up (except funnily enough when someone was tasting the wine).

As someone standing and talking to people all day while they taste our wines I am with El Jefe - it much nicer to have a conversation about the wine after someone has tried it rather than just giving the same rote "spiel" dozens of times.

Malcolm

Danz wrote:
08.28.07 at 9:58 AM

My take on this is simple. To me tasting notes are like going out on a blind date. You have someone describing another person to you, you go out on the date, and the description is not even close to what they told you, so you go back to your friend saying what in the ---- were you doing setting me up with that person.

To me one word can desribe a wine. Awesome, Yummy, Terrific. Let the consumer decide what he or she likes not us.

This is the great thing about life, we have choices about what we eat, drink , or anything else. Why be told what to do. The other beverage companies do not tell you what flavors are in there product. There comment is enjoy it, with family friends, or whom ever you want. The wine business should be getting back to the basics of this, as more and more consumers are getting to the point that wine is only for the knowledgeable and rich, not for the average Joe or Jill.

Alder wrote:
08.28.07 at 10:14 AM

Danz,

I just want to clarify, this rant is not against tasting notes. That would be pretty hypocritical of me, as I produce a heck of a lot of them myself. Tasting notes -- written ones -- can be a useful tool.

No, this rant is about a very specific situation -- when you're sipping a wine in a tasting room or at a tasting event, and the person pouring the wine proceeds to tell you the flavors and aromas of the wine. As if that wasn't what you were there to figure out yourself.

But after clarifying that, I want to say I'm 100% in agreement with you. The basic message of: Drink, Enjoy, Repeat, makes a lot of sense to me!

Amy Gardner wrote:
08.28.07 at 10:23 AM

Alder:
You brought up a great point. I do side with you that in an industry tasting, a pourer should understand that you know your way around a tasting and not to blurt out tasting notes. Too often this completely kills a wine for me--not allowing me to discover the nuances myself.

At a recent winetasting the pourer said it has the classic blueberry notes. Well of course after that all I could taste was blueberries--really killed it for me.

I love el jefe's approach for people tasting his wines. Starting out in wine tasting, I couldn't pick up a lot of scents and tastes. Having someone who was willing to taste with me and have an open exchange about what that wine tasted like allowed me to really expand my palate.

Building my repertoire I often wrote down my tasting notes, and then referred to other's impressions of the wine. My note of tropical fruit could be interpreted as pineapple, guava, lychee or something else. Going back to that wine, I was able to pull apart those tropical flavors and see what perhaps pineapple tasted like in a wine. So tasting notes are quite helpful to wine drinkers--but I advise using them as information and not the calling card of the wine.

And when I really get mad at a pourer who has killed it for me, I think back to a fun tasting room staffer who helped give some palate killer descriptors: Smells just like a whiff of a Noxzema jar, ah, the taste of pennies, a slight old band-aid aroma, and tastes like biting on tin foil. That Noxzema smell brings me back every time--and lets me move on to the next winery with a fresh, clean palate--only to hope that they let me take my time, and enjoy the wine I'm tasting.

Let's have more winery professionals like el jefe who help people along on the journey of great wine tasting. And unless we're asking for descriptors, here's to the pourers who keep it to themselves.

Geoff Smith wrote:
08.28.07 at 12:31 PM

Look, the 'bottom line' is that nobody can tell you what you are tasting! They can tell you what they taste in the wine, but it is absolutely physically impossible for them to taste a wine with your palate. Cf. 'Wines --- Their Sensory Evaluation' by Maynard Amerine, where-in the proposition is put forth that if a diverse group of tasters taste wine for a long enough time together, and evaluate the wines using a similar grid, or criteria, that they will all 'taste' the wine in an identical manner! Absolutely impossible, in my opinion, due to the physiological and other factors which make each individual unique.

Geoff

malcolm wrote:
08.29.07 at 3:22 AM

I think my normal approach (whether consumer or trade) is to introduce the wine (low cropping, hand picked cool climate etc), pour it and then wait for the reaction. Any discussion after that I would tailor to the situation (my comments to a consumer might be very different to an MW in the trade) and, to be honest, what my company was there to achieve.

But as an individual, I do not think it would be honest of me to lie about a wine (we have wines in our portfolio which are super examples of their style - but that style is one that I personally dislike). I thus count myself out of shows where I'm asked to show our Manzanilla (it would be embarassing to open a new bottle, taste it, screw up my face, say "yuck" and then tell the person on the other side of the counter that it was was "a perfect example of it's style" - which it is!).

Of course many people in the trade do not have that luxury, and that combined with the need to "sell" the wine leads to these encounters.

As a beginner I was pleased to get the "tasting notes" because it was a help to me in determining what people meant when talking about peppery shiraz etc. Most consumers have not had training in tasting (giving them the basic info on sight, smell and taste while they are trying your wine I find to be a way filling that gap while pouring the wine), something that one would hope was not the case at a trade tasting (although inevitably someone will turn up to the stand drunk at some point).

Jerry D. Murray wrote:
08.29.07 at 2:40 PM

It seems to me that most of you want the winemaker to be your monkey and do the tricks you want done. Get over it, stay home if you don't want to hear what we have to say.
Don't get me wrong, I don't tell people what they should be tasting but I will comment on things in hopes of getting into a discussion! Do you have any idea what it is like to stand for 8 hours pouring wine for people that don't ask questions?
Several posters spoke about arguing with people pouring wine. Your average tasting room employee is not a Master of Wine. Does it make you feel better to pick on someone? I come across tasters all the time that just want thier ego stroked. If you want to discuss a wine then great, be willing to listen as much as you talk.
My main point, however, would be what does a FLAVOR descriptor really tell us anyway? Does cherry, blackberry or plum really tell me anything about the wines quality? Flavor profiles are emphasized because they are easy and someone with a bit of knowledge can seem like a pro if they learn a few words. Wanna show me you know a damn thing about wine? Talk to me about texture and movement, it is the hardest thing to get your head around and the thing that truely defines a wines quality.

Alder wrote:
08.29.07 at 4:20 PM

Jerry,

Thanks for the comments. I love it when you get riled up. Just to make my position clear, I'm happy to chat with the people behind the table as I'm tasting, about anything OTHER than what the wine actually tastes like. The folks behind these tables are there to sell their wines, and they should sell them, but not by reeling off tasting notes before you've had a chance to spit.

cd wrote:
08.29.07 at 7:46 PM

I completely agree. let me taste first...

I was helping a friend pour on Monday and saw you walking around, but you just passed us by. c'est la vie. But really, I was actuall surprised at how many distributors/retailers asked my friend (winemaker) how HE would describe the wines. or what flavors he likes in them. he didn't pull what you're talking about, I just never noticed the other direction before.

Confused by Arthur wrote:
08.29.07 at 9:38 PM

Arthur, you have me confused. I think maybe you are a scientist/wine writer, but I am confused about your "molecules in wine affect the receptors" theory. I don't think that the molecules affect everyone's receptors the same. What if I have 14 half-assed receptors, and you have 457 really freaking good receptors. Would that really create the same signal sent to the brain? Think of it in terms of sight. If I wear glasses, and I take them off, I am not receiving the same information as someone who has 20/20 vision. Yes, the same info may hit my eyes, but after that all bets are off. Our eyes are very different and therefore interpret the info differently, and therefore send a different signal.

If your argument is that we just need to get a basic language for all information and train everyone to apply that language to their perception of that information so we all call a duck a duck, I agree. Please let me know when you are able to accomplish that. Then I will know that everyone understands everyone else, and I will have my dream of world peace. That will also render graduate school unnecessary and save trillions of dollars for 20 somethings.

To my perception there is no universal language of aroma/flavor. My nose may be more sensitive to a part of an apple aroma that you don't even detect because your receptors are different. If that piece is in another fruit like a peach, I will call the two similar, while you will say I am crazy.

Am I crazy?

I hope that you did not skim my post.

Arthur wrote:
08.29.07 at 11:43 PM

Dear Confused,

I am a physician with training in Neurology and functional brain imaging. In earning my daily bread, I deal with neurobehavioral medicine – clinical and research. Before medical school I studied Biology and Psychology. Along the way I got into wine.

Nothing I have posted here is a theory. It is a proven fact of medicine, biology, physiology and behavioral science.

Yes, molecules - aroma, flavor, neurotransmitter, pharmaceuticals and toxins etc with their predetermined structure and properties affect everyone's receptors in the same predetermined way. That is FACT.

If we were all as different as so many people in this thread are inclined to think, medicines would not work and some foods would be poisonous to a large population of people. Look, we share over 95% of our genome with a Chimpanzee and 99.5% (or something astounding like that) with a complete stranger. We like to think we are unique and individuals. We really are not and our physiologies are quite identical.

We all have the same receptors for all our senses. It is a fact. Densities vary but that does not limit detection ability or the possibility to discriminate. That is truly an issue of experience - much like learning a foreign language.

So this “I get aroma/flavor A and you get aroma/flavor X:” has nothing to do with some nonexistent physiological variation and everything to do with experience and familiarity with a given subject. People have truly misinterpreted this concept of sensory sensitivity and perception thresholds and ‘super tasters’. It’s overblown and overdone. It’s not receptors in the tongue or in the nose that matter but how observant one is and how much they pay attention to their sensory stimuli. Those always feed the same information to the brain – mo matter whose they are.

As for creating a universal language: That is what comes with training your palate. Sommeliers do it. That means exposing yourself to different aromas and flavors (although, a potato and an apple can taste very similar when your nose is really congested) and being able to recognize them again. We can all identify the smell of skunk, garlic, onion, bananas (ripe and not) oranges, etc. There are smells unique to melons as there are to apples and currants and to bramble and to all other categories of aromas and fruit and whatever. More important is the familiarity and understanding of things like “barnyard” or “rubber” or “acetone” and “band aid” – these are flaws (in almost all cases) and indicate badly made wines with production problems as much as TCA indicates a bad cork and a spoiled bottle of wine. These things may be intriguing to some - I acknowledge that, after all, some people enjoy the faint smell of skunk in the evening air – but they indicate a problem with the wine. Some problems can be solved, others can’t. Additionally, some problems are unique to a single bottle and others to the whole bottling. And if you can’t tell the difference, you might be buying a crappy wine or missing on a great one that had just one bad bottle. My point, all along, has been that with increasing experience people are able to detect the distinguishing nuances of all those aromas. With that, they don’t need scores, or reviews or tasting notes or pourers telling them what the wine tastes like. At that stage you can identify ‘peach”, “apple” or ”melon” and maybe event qualify them as “ripe”, green” “red” and “golden delicious” etc. But if I stick a peach under your nose and you say it’s a granny smith, I won’t call you crazy but I’ll tell you that you are incorrect. Now extrapolate that to wine flaws.

The best known and most respected wine writers and critics (who do not publish or write for periodicals whose names begin with “Wine”) know these aromas and wine components down pat and cold. When Dan Berger identifies a flaw, he is able to tell you were in the production process it comes from. That is testimony to the reproducibility of sensory assessment. He was not born with it. He did not conduct experiments in the cellar late into the night. He trained himself to recognize aromas. And those aromas and components come from singular molecules or specific combination of molecules. When these people write about wines, they do not tell you how much they like the wines, or how hedonistic they were or how much pleasure they gave them. They describe them in quite specific terms with real, tangible reference points and in a commonly shared terminology. Very much the way I do when I describe a brain scan or a kidney function scan or the clinical history of a patient.

There is a common language. I don’t have to create or define it. I just spent the time and learned.it.

This is last post on this subject.

Tish wrote:
08.30.07 at 6:14 AM

Fantastic thread, proving vinography readers are among the most highly evolved wine drinkers anywhere. The only thing I would add is that the issue of how to discuss wine is always going to return to CONTEXT. A pourer at a large walkaround is in a tough spot because some people undoubtedly could use a little guidance, while others are speed-tasting and are perfectly capable of forming their own impressions quickly and independently, but may then wnat to dig a bit deeper. It's all about empathy in the end, as in gauging where in the wine universe that person on the receiving end of the pour resides, and where the sample at hand might take them.

(Still) Confused by Arthur wrote:
08.30.07 at 7:44 AM

"This is last post on this subject." I assume you mean your last post.

First, I would like to say that I do not worship scientists or doctors, and I don't take their word as gospel. I would like to point out that over the past 3000 or so years many of the 'facts' presented by the scientific and medical communities have either been wrong or flawed. Don't get me wrong, we know a lot more than we used to, and these folks have done a great deal for modern times. I do not, however, accept a statement as truth simply because a physician says it is "fact." Instead I rely on a rational, thoughtful explanation.

I apologize for using the word theory. That seems to have struck a nerve. I will say, that I don't think you addressed some of my arguments in your stating of the "facts." I understand your point that molecules hit receptors the same way (though you haven't presented any evidence), but that does not account for density. People are similar yes, but if they receive and transmit different info to their brains, they have a different experience. If you want to sit everyone down and make them experience a stimulus, then define that stimulus, then make sure they remember that stimulus, and therefore streamline communication, I say people don't have time for that. Yes, wine professionals tend to have a more similar language, but it is no way precise, and since we aren't taking chemical readings of each wine, there will always be different perceptions. I have seen two equally "professional" tasters find completely different aromas/flavors in the same wine tasted by both under the same circumstances.

What is this chimpanzee argument? We've all heard it before, it seems irrelevant, and it takes away from your argument. I'd like to see you get a chimp in the same room as a sommelier so that they can communicate the aroma of black currant in any wine that we know for a "fact" has black currant aroma in it. To me the amazing thing is the fact that while we are so similar genetically, we are very different. So what if we all breathe oxygen? We definitely look very different, some of us can hear when we sing off key, some of us can't digest lactose, and some of us are completely blind. While I agree you can train your senses, there are some things that no matter how much you work at them, you're not going to change them. I'd say we are different people who sometimes interpret the environment differently because of differences in physiology. Also, I don't know this for fact, but I would guess that the different grape varieties are very close in their genetic makeup yet they produce physiologically different fruit.

I get your point that people should train their palates/noses, and I agree with that statement, I just don't buy your arguments.

I think that reviews (not necessarily points) are for those who do speak the language of wine. They are intended to explain the style of the wine. We can't all travel the world and taste every vintage in every region, so that's where wine writers step in. Sure, some are better than others.

Doesn't Dan Berger write for the Wine Spectator? Or are you saying that "the" is the first name of the publication.

"There is a common language. I don’t have to create or define it. I just spent the time and learned.it."

I guess you would also say that English is a common language that allows for perfect communication of thought and understanding? I think that one can point to your posts and mine as evidence against that.

08.30.07 at 7:51 AM

"Resist the temptation"
Nice mantra, but what temptation?
The one you feel when they tell you the "notes of the wine" you don't want to hear?
Or from the person near to you that prefer to shout out loud his notes instead of just write it?
Regards,

malcolm wrote:
08.31.07 at 3:51 AM

Still Confused - I love the idea of putting a chimp in the same room as a sommelier (largely because here in London there are a few sommeliers where it might be difficult to tell which was which!).

Seriously I have very much enjoyed this thread. And think my own take is that training encourages a common "language" between tasters - coloured by one's own perceptions.

So when you say "cassis" I know what I am expecting to taste but what I personally taste may be nothing like what you are physically tasting (or perceiving if you like). And vice versa when I taste what is generally described as "cassis" I can describe that to someone else.

Consumers who have had no formal training obviously are not "in with the in-crowd" when it comes to flavour descriptors and wine professionals need to be a bit more imaginative.

A few years ago here in the UK there was a weekly programme called Food & Drink which included a weekly spot by two wine professionals who would taste some wines and launch into the most florid descriptions (for anything they liked sales would rocket). I remember being slightly sniffy about these tastings (cheap wines, over the top descriptions etc). Anyway one of them was a chap called Oz Clarke who had sung the praises of Australia years before most other people still regarded it as a country to send convicts to.

If you read his books you will find they are lucid, well written and informative - completely different to his screen persona (I've also had some super evenings with him after tastings).

I guess what I am saying is that you tailor your comments at these things to both your audience and the requirements of your job on the day.

CHATr Box wrote:
09.01.07 at 1:36 PM

I hate to be the voice of decent, especially since the backlash has caused such a long spewing of comments over this post, but come on – what’s the big deal? Who cares if someone shares what they believe to be the flavor profile of a wine. Isn’t that just their opinion, educated or not?
On a general level I don’t see much difference between that and someone telling you if they like a wine or not, but just in more detail. After all it’s still just their opinion – take it or leave it.
I for one believe that sharing flavor profiles in wine is a valuable way to communicate and learn about that specific wine as well as wine in general. For some tasting notes, weather they are shared in a magazine or over the counter, can be a helpful guide to discovering what the flavors are. As mentioned in an earlier comment, things do taste as they are, that doesn’t really change. But if I am having trouble pinning down that one flavor such as cassis, which I may not be as familiar with as say blackberry, then it’s helpful to have someone else share their own flavor breakdown.
It’s that information which helps people communicate more effectively about wine, including what they like and don’t like. If I go into a wine store where tasting the wine before purchasing is not an option then I find it helpful for the clerk to let me know the flavors of a wine that I haven’t tried before. Because if there is a dominant flavor that I don’t care for it’s good to know ahead of time so that I don’t purchase a bottle that I wouldn’t enjoy.
So again I ask – what’s the big deal? If you’re at a tasting and don’t care what other people/professionals have to say about a wine, can’t you just disagree or better yet disregard their comments in favor of you own. No skin off your back, so why get so worked up about it?

Alder wrote:
09.01.07 at 2:05 PM

There are several subtle problems.

At a trade and press tasting sommeliers, wine buyers, and media are there to make decisions about what THEY think a wine tastes like, whether it is any good, and whether to recommend or buy it. The people pouring the wine know this, or should know this.

Problem #1: It's slightly offensive to tell someone who knows what they are doing what they should be perceiving in the wine, when pretty much their entire job is to make that judgement themselves.

Problem #2: It's particularly obnoxious to do this when the person has the wine in their mouth or is about to put it in their mouth. Firstly, it makes the pourer seem like they are trying to influence the person who is doing the tasting (whether they actually are trying or not), and it actually MAY influence the taster because our taste and odor perceptions are very suggestible.

In short, this sort of behavior is just slightly rude and unprofessional IN THE CONTEXT OF A TRADE TASTING, where everyone is supposed to know what they are doing. It's like if I were invited into a restaurant kitchen and then stood over the shoulder of the chef and said "Hey chef, those green beans look done to me. And by the way, they'd taste really good with a little kosher salt and splash of balsamic."

If this were some wine bar on the street or a tasting room in Napa, while it would still annoy me personally, but it would be a completely different story.

09.02.07 at 8:47 AM

Great post, I completely agree. I just passed my certified sommelier exam with the Court of MS and one of the most important parts of me being able to pass the test was developing my own tastes, etc. How are people ever going to learn if what they know is only through power of suggestion?? Nice work!

CHATr Box wrote:
09.02.07 at 10:23 AM

Yes, a trade tasting is indeed a different story, but the same principals apply. For wine is much more than just the appearance of environmental flavors or aromas.
As wine professionals, people within the industry should be able to make up their own minds about a wine’s overall quality. Because who cares what the flavors are, unless it's something rotten like cat piss or spoiled meat, the true quality of a wine is found in it’s overall make-up.
Again, I say no skin off my back. Let people chatter away about a wine, for they are just trying to sell their product, but in the end make up your own opinion and just disregard the rest.

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