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02.22.2009

Eric Asimov and the Tyranny of the Tasting Note in American Wine Culture

As many of you know, I spent the last week as a speaker and attendee at the fifth annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. The conference is a wonderful break from my day job, and an opportunity to fully exercise a region of my brain and a personal passion that only squeezes out in dribs and drabs here every day.

One of the best sessions at this year's conference was a talk given by my friend Eric Asimov, the chief wine critic for the New York Times, entitled The Tyranny of The Tasting Note. Over the course of about 45 minutes, interrupted only by occasional heckling from myself and others in the audience, Eric articulated an argument for the elimination of the tasting note in wine journalism.

I'm going to attempt to summarize his argument here and then respond with my own thoughts, if only to carry on a conversation that the schedule of the symposium made difficult to extend.

The biggest barrier to increased wine appreciation amongst the general public, Eric began, lies in a chronic anxiety that marks most novice's relationship to wine. This anxiety arises from most people's assumption that to enjoy wine they need to know something about it, and manifests most obviously in the conversations that they have with wine critics and writers whenever they meet them, e.g.:

"I know I should know something more about wine, and I really would like to learn. I've been meaning to take a class...or is there one book that you really recommend?"

In short, most people assume that the key to enjoying wine lies in the path towards connoissuership, rather than simply drinking wine with a meal as if it is just another food group. Most people, it seems, wrongly put wine on a pedestal, according it some status that is not reserved for anything else.

This is strange, Eric noted, as people don't make this sort of assumption about anything else in their lives, be it air conditioners, football, or cheese. But when it comes to loving and enjoying wine, somehow everyone thinks that you really, truly need to know a lot about it.

The reality of this pervasive anxiety manifests most visibly in the stereotypes that people hold about wine lovers, including the commonly portrayed image of the effete wine snob who drips with disdain for anything but the finest vintages, and who will converse on ly with those who have the names of top producers on the tips of their tongues.

And how did this happen? Eric suggested that perhaps the current generations of American wine lovers (and writers) grew up in households where wine was not part of the family culture. Which meant that they learned what they know about wine as adults -- through magazines, books, and other sources of formal criticism and education.

And what do we find in such sources? Tasting notes. Millions of them. To the point that some critics and writers seem to do only one thing: generate more tasting notes. Which has led to a wine loving public that unduly focuses on two things: numeric scores and increasingly specific strings of adjectives that aim to describe every last hint of flavor and aroma in the glass. Describing wine with with such adjectives, Eric suggested, is the equivalent of describing a concert using decibels and frequencies.

This almost clinical approach to wine criticism, according to Eric, is killing our budding wine culture. The general public sees these chains of amazing and obscure descriptors for wine and they feel like if they aren't able to either identify with them or generate their own, that somehow they don't and can't understand wine.

And so wine anxiety grows, or at least festers, and if we wine writers and critics really wanted to do the wine world a favor, we'd stop writing tasting notes and start trying to find other ways of conveying the experiential and emotional qualities that characterize our relationship with wine.

* * *

Eric, you had me right up until "stop writing tasting notes."

Honestly, I agree with nearly every single thing you said, but I don't think the answer is to stop writing tasting notes. As critics and writers our jobs certainly must be to help people understand and appreciate wine, and part of the way we do that must be to describe the wine -- and wine tastes like things and smells like things.

Do tasting notes sometimes go overboard? Of course. Do some writers sometimes include obscure flavors and aromas? Guilty as charged. But the existence of these words is not the problem. The problem lies in the value placed on them by the writer.

I've said ever since I started writing about wine five years ago that the tasting note is the least important part of a wine review, and I firmly believe that, for all the reasons you so eloquently outlined in your talk. Wine is most meaningful when it is understood in context -- when you know the stories, culture, and people behind the wine.

But no matter how much context we provide, at the end of the day some people still want to know what the wine tastes like, and robbing them of that pleasure does those who are curious a great disservice. Of course, there exists a whole segment of wine lovers who actually enjoy the intellectual dissection of a wine, just as those who appreciate music and theater might discuss the genre or set design. Tasting notes are not the frequency and decibels of a concert, they are the plot and characters of a film, the pacing, the score, and the mise en scene. And while they are most assuredly not what lingers in the memory, they are the building blocks and fabric of whatever we take away in emotion, which, as you so right point out, is infinitely more important and worthwhile.

If you care to, read more of my thoughts on appreciating wine in context.

Comments (66)

02.22.09 at 10:50 PM

An article to contemplate..........Good job!

Cheers,
Martin

Jack Everitt wrote:
02.23.09 at 12:00 AM

Alder, you say, "some people still want to know what the wine tastes like, and robbing them of that pleasure does those who are curious a great disservice."

1) You're not telling them what the wine tastes like. You're telling them what it tastes like to you - which has little to do with what it will taste like to each unique novice wine drinker.

2) Is it not more of a disservice to give this information to the novice wine drinker, when your and everyone else's palate is different, and when no two major wine critics ever seem to describe the same wine similarly?

Earlier, Eric mentions, "And what do we find in such sources? Tasting notes. Millions of them."

Why yes - but with those TNs (that only a tiny percentage are read - those having a score of more than 89 pts) are friggin' Points. Is it not fair to say that The Wine Spectator is by far the leading cause of this anxiety? They practically beat over the consumer's head that All That Matter is the Score. They elevate wine to being a Mystery that only they can decode. This is solely what the dominant publication of the field (for novice wine consumers) has been teaching novice consumers for more than 20 years - well, along with the Wine Lifestyle, and Collecting Cult Wines(!). (Just think of the trees that would be saved if Marvin stopped printing the TNs part of their reviews. Wow!)

Finally, if you think back to all you've read about wine in the past year, what sticks out? Think, think, think. Okay, time's up! I'm betting a TN didn't make the top ten.

P.S. A really entertaining TN is the one that will ever be remembered.

P.P.S. It's not like Parker scores a wine 100 Pts and says, "Fuck, this is good!" right?

Glen Ferguson wrote:
02.23.09 at 4:10 AM

Enjoyed the post, it really got me thinking about tasting notes.

I agree with you that when I read a wine review I really want to know what the wine tastes like. The problem is that most tasting notes I read don't tell me what the wine tastes like in a way that I can relate to and understand. While they are better than a simple numerical score, which is just not enough information, tasting notes can also have problems. Oftentimes the taste descriptors are vague (hints of spice), outside of my experience (peeling willow bark) or just seem made up (limestone). Limestone does not have a strong taste. I think tasting notes could be made more useful if a standard language was used. A possibility is the UC Davis aroma wheel. The tasting note might be less intimidating if it could be understood. An easy objection is these descriptors are not enough to describe wines. I think this objection is probably true. I feel that clarity and easy of understanding are more important than giving the wine writer a full palette of descriptors. If standard descriptors were used it might even be possible to make them culturally relevant for nonwestern cultures that have different expectations or understandings for tastes and aromas.

Brooke wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:26 AM

I've been thinking about the subject of the tasting note since the symposium's end as well. I wrote an eager post about Eric's talk on Friday (not nearly so elegant as yours), but over the weekend I started thinking... Like you, my parents were never successful at making me sit still for classical music when I was a kid. But, when my ballet teacher played Mozart during barre exercises, I thought the sounds lifting from that scratchy record player were the sweetest in the world. There have been similar Aha moments (to be cliche) in my wine drinking years. So, I agree. It's all about context. And balance. And making sure the tasting note is about the wine and not about showing off. I once read a Syrah tasting note that, in one sentence, called the wine both an "easy rider" and "your Lolita." It was actually a rich and descriptive note, a wine filled with tarta de mora and serrano ham, neither of which seemed over the top until I got to the Lolita finish. And then I was incredibly disturbed, wondering what kind of wine drinkers would be excited by a fleshy, easy riding Lolita wine...

Arthur wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:37 AM

Well, Alder,
I think that ultimately people drink wine not its back story.
When I go to my favorite wine store, I tell the staff what characteristics I am looking for in a wine and what I intend to do with that wine.
I don't tell them I want a Napa wine made by a astrophysics professor who married an Italian model, abandoned potentially history-changing research at Hopkins to travel Tuscany for five years in the same pair of jeans, learned winemaking from a 75 year-old deaf mute who was blind in one eye and who owned only half an acre of a yet-to-be-identified vines, then came to Napa and slaved away as a cellar rat obscurity for ten years before securing some prized grape contract.
If the wine is crap, why would I want the back story?

Alder wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:47 AM

:-)

But given the choice between the one you describe and another decent one, you might enjoy the Astrophysicists wine more, just because of the story! You'd certainly remember it better.

But agreed, all the context in the world can't make up for shitty wine.

Arthur wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:55 AM

"all the context in the world can't make up for shitty wine"

PRECISELY

With so many brands out there today, everybody is playing up their story to stand out from the crowd. The problem I see, these days, is that too often the story and not the wine is the selling (and redeeming) point.

Arthur wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:57 AM

....and with people particularly mindful of their money these days, I think the consumer deserves to know about the traits of wine first and foremost.

02.23.09 at 9:33 AM

Has anyone seen the Japanese wine drama Kami no Shizuku?
There is a very dramatic and poetic way that wines are described there as a part of a wine puzzle/challenge. And the scenarios utilized by the protagonist to decipher the descriptions are fascinating. Some of my friends are gravitating toward those sorts of descriptions.

As far as objectivity in a tasting note, it seems that the points should refer to the quality of a wine, rather than the taster's liking of it. If an additional Amazon-like statistic thrown in, perhaps we are then getting somewhere. As in "this wine is an excellent example of an opulent, oaky vanilla, pure ripe black berry fruit, sweet-tannins, low-acidity California cab - exemplar of the popular style. 90% of consumers prefer this style. 95 points". What would you think of such a note? Parker would love the wine! Spectator - love it! :) Kermit Lynch and Neal Rosenthal - hate it! Having a typical food pairing might help as well as in "pairs well only with chocolate!" (I know it ain't gonna happen:) Actually, come to think of it, Gary Vee already does it like this on his video show... that guy!

St. Vini wrote:
02.23.09 at 10:05 AM

It's an issue of breadth, isn't it? If one wants to cover the spectrum of 10s of thousands of offerings every year, one needs a simple way to distill a communication to the consumer. A score does that (crudely, but effectively for its purpose).

On the other hand, if one wants to write a weekly column highlighting the current offerings of unique wineries, one can give additional context, background and substance. However, such an approach will miss 99% of the wines released each year.

The key, I think, has also been and will remain: find a reviewer who has similar tastes and stick with them, whether they are reviewing 100 wines a year or 100,000. As your tastes change (and they will) or theirs do, then move on. That's part of the ever-continuing discovery of what makes wine so captivating.

V

Dave Yuhas wrote:
02.23.09 at 12:06 PM

Wine tasting notes will never go away and are cherished by non-connoissuers because no one really knows what any bottle will taste like. Sauvignon blanc, for example, can taste "grassy" or like grapefruit juice or somewhere indistinctly in the middle.

Another reason for the popularity of tasting notes is the numerical lack of quality wineshops. When Costco is the largest wine retailer in the US, where are wine drinkers going to get wine information?

Brooke wrote:
02.23.09 at 12:14 PM

I think Asimov's point was not to get rid of the tasting note altogether but to remind the writers of them not to limit a wine drinkers' experience by painting too specific a picture of a wine. And, more importantly, to make sure the tasting note is stroking the wine's ego rather than your own. Tasting note as a platform to show off = sour taste in the mouth.

Irene King wrote:
02.23.09 at 2:46 PM

Wine is on a pedestal just like, say, golf or tennis is on a pedestal. *Somebody* decided that this drink, which used to power the armies in Rome as they carried their wine in skins, suddenly became something for the elite only. Habits are hard to break, and people don't exercise thinking when they want to try a wine. Part of it's budget, part of it is not trusting their own palates.

Arthur wrote:
02.23.09 at 2:53 PM

Irene
Have you read "Wine Politics"? It talks about why wine is associated with wealth and refinement

Rajiv wrote:
02.23.09 at 3:51 PM

As the guy who runs my university's wine tasting club, I come into contact with many 21 and 22-year-olds who have just started drinking (and tasting) wine. In fact, over 2/3 of the club members described themselves as not knowing much about wine when they joined. Over the last two semesters, I've been constantly impressed by the willingness these students showed to dive in - asking about acidity, tannins, balance, and bringing their own expertise to bear in a team effort to understand wine.

At the last tasting, a student who studied abroad talked of his love of local Spanish wines, though he didn't know their names. A professor of religion recalled sparkling Vouvrays from a sabbatical several years ago. Several molecular biology students argued the finer points of yeast metabolism. Chemical engineers debated the merits of industrial wines...

Perhaps the generation that came before us faced disinformation and snobbery when they tried to learn about wine, but thanks to people like Alder, and Mr. Asimov, and Gary Vaynerchuk, I believe the coming wave of wine drinkers will attack the subject with enthusiasm, irreverence, and gusto.

David Scott wrote:
02.23.09 at 7:27 PM

This post brings up an excellent point of conversation (as do most of them on this site). Although I have attempted to resist the Death Star-like gravitational pull of my temptation to become enthralled with this discussion, I have failed. Alas, here is my (somewhat candid) response.

First of all, I apologize for the above noted Star Wars reference.

I would agree with Eric’s assessment that the source of people’s anxiety about wine comes from the perception that to enjoy it, you must be an expert. In reality, this is the doing of wine folks just like you and I. We have lived out the stereotype of the wine snobs before us.

When two or more people get together in the same room with a glass of wine, the same peculiar dance begins. One or more folks will swirl it and make a comment on the legs as they perform the Viewing of the Wine; one or more will wave the glass under their nose and raise their eyebrows as they enact the Smelling of the Wine; one or more will take a drink and immediately swallow in the Tasting of the Wine. Then, almost synchronously, a quiet reflection will come upon the room as the entire gaggle, even those who have not performed The Tasting, engage in the Judging of the Wine. Some will over-emphasize the importance of the Tasting of the Wine and not enough of the Judging; those folks will often follow up with the Spilling of the Wine, and sometimes (sadly enough) the eventual Purging of the Wine.

My point is that this is not natural human behavior. This is a learned response which we associate with being appropriate in any situation where wine is involved and we want to instantly communicate that we belong. I did it; I bet everyone reading this did too. Why? Simply because I observed someone else who knew a lot more about wine than me (or so I thought at the time) doing it. And so it continues. Why doesn’t someone stop it? We can’t help it. Why? Who knows?

There are other things, however, that are help in almost the same snobbish regard. I always use my scuba diving analogy.

When I first got into scuba, I was quite intimidated not only with the sport itself but the people I came in contact with. Constant conversations about deepest dives, scariest situations, and jokes about recent encounters with a newbie were more than effective in making me believe I should probably just save the time and quit. My first four trips to a real dive shop as opposed to the sporting goods section of Wal-Mart were quite sobering. Those fins you’re using, that you think are really cool? Crap. That mask that you got for Christmas? Garbage. Renting your tanks from the guy in the parking lot with a trailer on his truck? Amateur. Spending Sunday afternoons diving in eight feet of water and looking at starfish with your girlfriend? That, my friend, isn’t even diving.

That perception convinced me to buy an $800 dive watch, a $200 set of fins, my own tanks, my own gear, and then take all that stuff, book a $2200 vacation, and go to Cozumel. Quite a serious dive spot and quite a few serious divers. Too serious to understand that I was still learning; too serious to understand I had never been drift diving before; too serious to care whether or not I was actually enjoying myself. That was 2005. I haven’t been diving since. I use my equipment to snorkel and point out starfish to my wife.
Point taken, Eric.

However, I have to also agree with Alder regarding tasting notes. They have their place, and that place is quite near and dear to my heart.

Compared to a lot of the wine writers on the web, including Alder, I am somewhat of a novice. While I’d assess that I’ve been serious about wine as a hobby for over five years now, I’ve only been writing about it for eighteen months. I’ve probably only really understood what I was writing for the last six months or so. My first “wine story” was a collection of tasting notes that I kept in a leather-bound journal that I bought from Borders. It looked official enough for my purpose. At any rate, these “tasting notes” were from my honeymoon to Italy. I didn’t understand the difference between European and American labels. I didn’t realize that chianti was not a grape. I didn’t realize that Venice was smack in the middle of a wine district-which wasn’t Tuscany-so you can imagine the quality of these notes.

The point was, I wrote them. I read them to my wife and she enjoyed them. Friends came to the house and marveled at my amazing wine journal. I didn’t realize until much later that in reality, my tasting notes were about as chintzy as the $19 fins I started diving with. The important thing was, that journal gave me the medium for practicing what I thought was an elite skill. It was cool. And it made me enjoy wine.

I respect the tasting notes of the Great Ones, and I respect the notes of the Unknowns too. I always read them with an appreciation for how the writer came to the interpretation of the wine that he or she had communicated rather than how good a wine might be or whether or not I’m even going to like it. Even a novice can quickly discern that in the wine world, everything doesn’t “taste like chicken”. How it tastes is a direct correlation of an individual’s palette, just like anything else. Tell me chitterlings and black-eyed peas don’t taste good, and I’ll kick you in the shin. Get the picture?

Every “amazing” bottle of wine I’ve ever had usually involved some time in my life, some event, or some memory that’s burned into my conscience as well. One of my favorites was a cab franc that I had in Venice, along the canal, on my honeymoon. One was a syrah from my first dinner of the very first night of the cross-country trip I took back home to see my mom in almost eleven years. One was during my first ever trip to Napa Valley. I contend that it was the experience – not the wine – that opened my soul and allowed me to drink it all in. And what I was trying to capture, without even realizing it, in those first tasting notes, was the memory. And like a good bottle of Bordeaux, you do everything you can to hold on to it forever.

Rajiv wrote:
02.23.09 at 8:16 PM

My first response was somewhat tangential - I apologize. As for tasting notes...

In any pursuit or sport, there are ways in which more experienced practitioners set themselves apart from novices. This may lead to intentional or unintentional intimidation.

For example-

I climb a lot, and I can usually tell how good a climber is on sight (roughly) by the fit of their shoes, manner of carrying themselves, calluses on their hands. In terms of intentional intimidation, sometimes people will "show off" at the wall, campusing moves (climbing without feet).

In badminton, it's a suprisingly applicable rule that the shorter the shorts, the better the player (only half-kidding).

A great example in wine is spitting - it's not directly related to tasting ability, but (as several bloggers have written), an artful spit can be intimidating.

So in any pursuit, you will have to get over that initial intimidated hump, and hopefully there will be experienced folks to encourage you. I've been on the receiving end of such encouragement from many wine lovers - though I've had my share of snobbish put-downs.

But removing tasting notes seems like a non-sequitur cure. Tasting notes were an invaluable tool for me to learn about wine - writing and reading them. It was reading Parker's tasting notes, carefully, that I first realized (with horror) that not everyone's palate is the same. It was in writing my own tasting notes that I discovered for myself the less common wine aromas such as acetaldehyde, pyrazines, brett.

I will concede that many wine terms are misleading or opaque - for example:

'tannic' = dry
'dry' = low residual sugar
'crisp' = high acid
'racy' = volatile acidity, or high acid, depending on who you ask.
'barnyard' = poop
'hard' = acidic, tannic
'minerality' = I'm still not sure.
'spicy' = lychee (in gewurz, according to Jancis Robinson in OCW)

These terms can be hard to decipher for novices for several reasons. Sometimes the term is just an unnecessary synonym for a more common word. Sometimes the term is used in different ways by different people. In any case, we should try to limit these terms, or at least define them better and more often.

02.23.09 at 11:52 PM

Dear Alder, I'm sorry for my english. I'd appreciated this article. Very interesting. I'm agree about the wine anxiety of common people. I think wine must be an emotion, a private meeting, when you drink a wine you must feel your perceptions. a good way to make this is cover the bottle, tasting blind, and closing your ears :-) , but tasting wine is also a way to socialize, a way to discuss about life, about us, about what you want.
Wine writer must give people the competence for tasting a wine using simply 4 senses: vision, hearing, smell, taste. sometime happens that the most inexpert about wines can express genuine feelings or perceptions.
I hope that I explained my opinion. Cinzia Canzian, Italy

dylan wrote:
02.24.09 at 7:24 AM

Wow, I certainly arrived late to the event. There's quite a discussion going on here.

I would still place myself in the novice category for wine tasting. There's still so much to explore and learn, and I've barely just begun. Yet, something I noticed after working on our vineyard was that friends of mine acted differently.

They asked questions, searching for guidance and filled with concern: "Is this wine any good?" It's as though my being involved in the process somehow gained me the perception of being an expert of wine. I mention this because it makes no sense. There's little reason for my friends to timidly look up for my approval on a wine which I was learning about just as much as they were. This is that fear, that pedestal which Eric mentioned.

And, it is intimidating, but you know what, so is anything new. Don't feel completely saddened for the novice who feels lost and weary in a sea of tasting notes they cannot fathom. It's the same as a novice to Sailing learning nautical terms, (or as one commenter mentioned Diving). Anything new feels uncertain because it is new. That's a fear anyone learning something must overcome on their own terms.

Even then, it's not all about being the best or becoming an expert in a given field. A person can know how to cook well, enjoy cooking, and yet still not meet the expectations of a 5 star hotel chef position. People should and can feel free to become as expert to the point that it interests them to be. You can still enjoy a wine and not have to intellectualize it; taste is taste, after all.

However, for those overwhelmed by wine because they wish to intellectualize my message is this: When you begin anything, accept with confidence the fact that you are, and will appear to others, a beginner.

The tasting notes can stay, perspective is what needs changing.

Alfosno wrote:
02.24.09 at 7:39 AM

I taped the session, if anyone wants a copy. Alder, maybe you can help me figure out how to send an audio file and you can link it up, if you want to.

Tish wrote:
02.24.09 at 7:45 AM

Fantastic post, Alder. And the thread of comments are incredibly astute and thought-provoking as well. Having been at the Symposium as well, I consider Eric's "Tyranny of the Tasting Note" the most important all week. We are at a junction in wine communication, and the future is pointing every way EXCEPT tasting notes with scores.

Doug Cook wrote:
02.24.09 at 8:46 AM

Go, Alder! Wonderfully put.

Tasting notes in some form are essential, because we need a way to communicate (and often, to remind ourselves) what a given wine is like. But a great tasting note isn't simply a list of adjectives, it somehow conveys the emotional experience of tasting the wine, in the same way a great description of a concert wouldn't be in decibels and frequencies, but would somehow convey the overall experience of being there. Naturally, that experience is personal and context-dependent, and no two people will experience the same wine in the same way, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. We're always trying to describe personal, context-dependent things (films, art, food, books,...). The difference is that we haven't codified the vocabulary and created ridiculous, reductionist scoring systems to fuel the insidious idea that there is an objective, "correct," and context-free notion of a book, or a meal, or a great work of art.

As you say, the problem is the importance placed upon the tasting note. I completely agree that context is essential — not just the context of the wine's "background story," but the context in which it is consumed. Peynaud made some great points about that that have always struck me; maybe I'll see if I can dig those up, try my meager translation skills, and post about it.

Lauren wrote:
02.24.09 at 10:40 AM

I really agree with you on the fact that people seem to like to put wine on a pedestal. Good article. It's very thought provoking.

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 11:25 AM

As far as Tasting Notes are concerned, I guess I just don't get it. How can something be so important if five people are given the same wine and they all describe the wine differently with different flavors and different aromas? Studies even show that the same person doesn't even describe the same wine the same way time after time. My question is: how useful are Tasting Notes?

02.24.09 at 11:32 AM

Sabernar, if five people were asked to describe how a *person* looks, do you think their descriptions would be different? Descriptions cannot be same, unless notes are broken down into multiple-choice checkboxes.

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 12:04 PM

Gary: well, isn't that my point? We're not discussing if people should have Viewing Notes, we're talking about whether wine should have Tasting Notes. If tastes/aromas/sensations can't be consistent, they the Notes are useless. These things aren't even consistent from a single professional wine taster on multiple occasions, much less different people at different levels of wine 'expertise' and different situations.

02.24.09 at 12:19 PM

sabernar, I think even if inconsistent, the notes or descriptions are definitely useful. When I started blogging, I sometimes mentioned wines without describing them, and my readers started to complain that they wanted to know what they wine tasted like. So I adjusted my blogging content, and the readers got happier!

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 12:27 PM

OK

We've been down this road before, but I have to speak up here.

Tasting notes vary because some of the people writing them are lousy assessors of wine. Period.

The notion of palate variability is a fallacy for two reasons:

It's not the "palate" (which has no chemo receptors like the tongue or olfactory epithelium) but the brain.

Interpretation of sensory data (olfactory, visual, acoustic) is a matter of cognitive synthesis, which is experience-based. Whether you call the methoxypyrazines in NZ sauvignon blanc "grassy", "cat pee", "gooseberry" or "grapefruit" IS contingent on your breadth of experience with these aromas. But the aromatic compounds do not change. What these aromas and flavors mean for the wine does not change either.

People's associations of aromas and memories and emotions vary, so writing about emotional aspects of wine consumption is nice as far as creative writing goes but it misses the point of why people to whom we turn for wine advice smell and taste wine: their job is to make sense of the aromatic and gustatory characteristics of wine BEYOND how tasty it is. These characteristics can be informative about the wine’s longevity, general quality (or regional typicity) and food-pairing potential.

Sadly, most wine writers today don’t get this and fail in that primary task of wine *assessment*.

Thom wrote:
02.24.09 at 12:45 PM

Very interesting article, and good points on the responsibilities of us wine writers.

it's a fine line, isn't it - being informative without being didactic or off-putting.

NO matter how much we might know about wine, and how much we love talking about the finer points and subtle specifics, it's important to reinforce the concept of "if you like it, drink it"

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 1:10 PM

Gary: maybe that's because that is what your readers have come to expect. Maybe they think they're supposed to like wine's with an aroma of old shoe leather and frankenberries. Personally, those types of Notes mean nothing to me. Don't you think those types of descriptions scare people away? It's like Eric said, wine used to be an Everyman drink. Now it's an elitist drink. People are scared to buy wine and Tasting Notes are, I'm sure, part of the reason. I can't taste the all the subtle aromas mentioned in Notes. I know if it's dry or fruity or spicy, but am I tasting violets or petunias? Blackberries or marionberries? Asphalt or tar? Make wine easier for me to buy. Adding more and more useless adjectives is not going to help.

02.24.09 at 1:19 PM

Nice presentation by Eric, point taken. And I agree with Alder: context! and yes, the tasting note should not go away. And Alder: good job on the tweets from SPWW, felt like I was there.

Bottom line though, especially in the US, people like scores, top 10 lists, rankings, ratings, "best ofs"... it's part of the culture.

And so it is with wine.

Interesting though, that you don't see the same thing happen with, say, beer.

You don't see "Beer Spectator gave this wheat gem from Belgium a 93!" at Safeway. How come? I think it has to do with context. Beer goes with pretzels and football. Wine goes with cheese, politics and introspection.


Brooke wrote:
02.24.09 at 1:55 PM

Great point Clinton, although I did read this today on FoodBizDaily.Com about Redhook's new "light" beer, Slim Chance: "The smooth finish and subtle citrus undertones pair well with barbequed meats, Mexican cuisine and spicy ingredients like chili peppers, curry and Thai peanut sauce." I think I liked it better when the pairing suggestion was, "Goes Well With Chicks." And I'm a girl.

Katherine wrote:
02.24.09 at 2:05 PM

Arthur, I concede. You undoubtedly have better assessment of cat pee aroma than I do, as I do not have a cat.

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 2:20 PM

"Beer goes with pretzels and football."

Clinton: wow, talk about close-minded. I'm really hoping that you were joking around. If you were, the joke didn't come through. If not, then I feel sorry for you.

Brooke: I've seen a definite uptick in the winification of beer descriptions. It seems to me a little sad. I live in Portland, the land of microbrews, and microbrew beer are very similar to wine in many ways. Useless, flowery descriptions should not be one of them.

02.24.09 at 2:47 PM

Sounds to me that there should be a certification given for wine tasting note writing. Only those who pass the course of standard wine descriptors will then be officially allowed to write wine tasting notes :) Perhaps WSET can add it to their course :)! And for every wine descriptor, there would be a long reference explaining exactly that it is. What is "racy"? What is "minerally"? Oh, so complicated! Is this a tobacco or black tea taste?

I am kidding!

You see, it is all based on experience, and to ask the writer to dumb it down is a big challenge. Yet, perhaps what I am getting from this thread is that there perhaps could/should be two types of wine note: dumbed-down/basic and descriptive/poetic. When I write about wine, I incorporate both. Granted, maybe the reader won't get "barnyard", but they will get "bathroom stink". Once again, I think Gary Vee does a pretty job at this.

Brooke wrote:
02.24.09 at 2:53 PM

Sabernar: I'm sure this sounds both strange and hypocritical, but I absolutely love craft beers, like those from the Russian River Brewing Company and Bear Republic. And while my beer knowledge isn't that vast, I think Kingfisher and Tikka Masala is one of the best food-drink pairings in the world. And yet... I love that we still talk about beer in terms of football, pretzels and chicks.

I suppose, again, it's all about what Alder wrote so beautifully about: balance and context.

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 3:00 PM

Gary

You are quite on the mark when you complain about the variability of the use/meaning/intent of words like What is "racy", etc. This means different things to different people and makes communication about wine a struggle at times. But nomenclature is what it is and each field and hobby has its own accepted parlance. In wine, this is patchy as far as reliability of the meaning of the words goes precisely because people erroneously go down the "subjectivity" path when thinking about wine tasting and description.

Thom wrote:
02.24.09 at 3:06 PM

something that's become glaringly obvious in this discussion, and something that i've always told patrons at the tasting room is this;

when it comes to wine, there are facts, and there are subjective impressions.

as wine writers, we should include enough factual information as to be credible, and provide enough subjective impressions as to be entertaining to read.

not every wine drinker is capable of tasting every distinct flavor like barn or leather. most wine drinkers are capable of detecting the obvious, less subjective facts of a wine - sweetness, tannins, body, acidity, and a few others. but every wine drinker is capable of deciding what they like.

so i think as writers, it is important to include a little of everything in order to be informative enough to assist the reader in finding wines they might like.

Marco Montez wrote:
02.24.09 at 3:19 PM

Two weeks ago I began a series of 20 minute monthly talks at my winery about the basics and culture of wine. My first talk's topic was "Wine Myths". I told everyone who came (about 50 people) that the #1 Myth in the wine world is exactly this notion that to enjoy wine, a person must KNOW wine. KNOW = where it comes from, how it's made, etc. etc. Even worst, a person must have the ability to identify different flavors in a wine. It's B.S. and it hurts the wine industry. The public perception in regards to this topic, is in my opinion unparalleled. People in general just don't have this perception that they "MUST KNOW FIRST" about beer, cheese or whatever else. Now, I realize that the more we know about wine the better prepared we are to enjoy it. Just like with many other things in life, education is the foundation to great pleasures. However, I have no doubt in my mind that this is the biggest barrier preventing people from entering the wine drinking world - I've witnessed it in person. Thankfully, a few people are changing this but it will take a while. Oh, and those creating this change are doing it while still using tasting notes and scores. Gary V. and you Alder are perfect examples.

02.24.09 at 3:27 PM

It's simple: people want to know two things (maybe three for the adventurous), 1) Is the wine good? 2) Is it worth the money and 3) what's the story behind the wine?

That's it! All of the tasting notes are irrelevant, especially since the novice taster won't taste the same "burnt pan grille" that Robert Parker or some other yahoo tastes.

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 3:43 PM

Marco

I can appreciate that you may feel that it hurts the wine industry for people to believe they should *know* wine. I really don't think that U.S. wine sales have suffered that much in the last few years.

The reason why I personally emphasize understanding wine is because it benefits the consumer: if they know and understand wine, they can make better decisions. What they enjoy is a totally separate matter.

This "drink what you like" populist approach is fine - people should drink what they enjoy. However, too often it’s a deflective argument in the quality and value debate.

So, perhaps some in the industry would prefer consumers did not know wine too well lest they choose wines other than those being offered (for sale) by the proponents of the "all wine is good" or "the wine you like is a good wine" philosophy.

It’s ironic how so many producers demur that the current style of wine is what the public likes. I suspect they would not like it if the public were to see through the marketing and see that the overhyped wines being offered are just overprice. THAT would really hurt some in the industry.

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 3:46 PM

correction:

"see through the marketing and see that the overhyped wines being offered are just overpriced"

Rajiv wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:12 PM

Sabernar,

Tasting notes are tricky things to work with. When you are learning about wine, the discipline of writing your own personal tasting notes is invaluable to honing your tasting skills. Even if you are a casual drinker, tasting notes illuminate for yourself which wines you like and more importantly, why you like them. How useful are they? They help you avoid wines you don't like.

But it's more complicated than that. When using tasting notes (someone else's) to learn something about a wine, you have to factor in knowledge of how your palate lines up with theirs. What sensitivities your palate has. Whether your threshold for flavor X is normal, below average, or above average. Whether you enjoy flavor X.

As for wines tasting different to different people, there are reasons for this. The solution is not to throw up your hands and say "it's all subjective" - the solution is to learn why and how these differences occur.

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:14 PM

In my opinion, the other thing hurting the wine industry is the overwhelming choice people have. When people have too many choices, they often don't choose. But the number of choices that are available are a result of the popularity of wine. Personally, I go to the wine shop down the road a bit that has only a handful of carefully chosen selections. 50 in total, maybe? The guy who owns it is wonderful and it's nice to go into a shop and only have to choose between a few wines. A 'full' wine shop with hundreds and hundreds of selections? It's too daunting. (I have the same problem with microbrews. Give me a choice of 20 top notch brews and it's easy. Give me a choice of 100 and I'll walk away with nothing.)

Rajiv wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:15 PM

Arthur:

"Palate" in wine tasting, refers to the tongue and nasal epithelium.

Variation is indeed experience-based to some degree, but thresholds are genetic, and physiological.

I have a friend who can sniff pyrazines at a far lower threshold than I can. This is not neurological - it is a genetic difference, just as some people can hear higher tones than others.

sabernar wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:26 PM

Rajiv: I understand that. But there are so many tasting notes out there, and so much wine, what is the average person supposed to do? Are they supposed to align their tastes to the top 50 Tasting Notes writers and then keep track of all of them? Keep in mind, the average person isn't going to go too far out of their way to get a bottle of wine to drink. If Eric Asimov writes about a wine, how am I supposed to obtain that bottle? Which wine shop around town should I go to? How many do I have to go to in order to find it? How many do I have to call/email? Should I mail order it? Well, already that's way too much trouble for the average person to have to go through. Personally, I go the local shop and read his notes on his wines, which are very well written, but they don't go into the subtle hint of lingering unripe banana aroma. They'll mention maybe some general ideas of what the wine is like (dry? 'big'? goes with strong cheese? pair with red meat? that sort of thing). This way I can read some of his notes and get an idea. Sometimes even those are too much for a relative novice (at least compared to most of you). I can tell him that I'm in the mood for Sangiovese and what I'm having for dinner and he'll point out a couple wines for me. Or I'm in the mood for something light and easy to drink and not pairing it with food, and he'll point me to several wines until I find one I'm interested in.

I'm not sure what my point is with all this. I know that as someone who is probably closer to the average wine drinker than most of the people on this board, Tasting Notes don't help me and, in fact, hinder me, when choosing a wine. Should I learn the intricacies of wine tasting? Maybe. But that's not the point. Not everyone has the time or energy to commit to something like that. Sometimes you just want a nice bottle of wine to drink.

02.24.09 at 5:29 PM

I agree tasting notes need to be more than descriptors; they have to get at the experience of the wine in somehow universal terms, which is tough. I came across one the other day that i thought did that. It appears on the Berry Bros and Rudd website, and is for Billecart-Salmon Brut NV Rose Champagne. It reads:

"There are very few aperitif wines that get my pulse racing as much as a glass of Billy Rosé. My mood lifts in a nanonsecond and all the stresses and strains of everyday life melt away....There is no law against dreaming and Billecart Rosé is one of the dreamiest, most seductive wines in the world."
(Matthew Jukes - The Wine List 2006 - The Top 250 Wines Of The Year)

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:42 PM

Rajiv
I make my distinction precisely because people believe in wild physiological variation. As a physician, I recognize some variability in acuity althoug several studies have indicated that some an-/hypo-osmias can be overcome to a degree by training and repeated exposure.

The fundamental flaw of the "subjectivity of wine" philosophy is that by saying palate, people forget that smell recognition is like language recognition. It is a cognitive function and one subject to learning.

That is why I emphasize the way of looking at wine tasting as embodied in my earlier post. It is not to divide, intimidate or set myself apart but rather to empower people. When you tell people something is possible they are more likely to achieve it. Engaging in notions of physiological variability which are incongruent with reality does not empower people to grow in their passion for wine.

Rajiv wrote:
02.24.09 at 5:53 PM

A couple points:

First, the notion that tasting is "totally subjective" is at best horribly misleading, and at worse, dismissive of a pursuit that occupies the lives of hundreds of thousands of vintners and other wine business people. Check out Alder's post on the high degree of agreement between the major critics in Bordeaux: http://www.vinography.com/archives/images/ratings_by_chateau.gif

As for the finer points of subjectivity and objectivity, one first needs to choose a suitable definition of "taste" - the noun, not the verb. I recommend Barry Smith's excellent essay "The Objectivity of Tastes and Tasting" in his compilation, Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine. If you want the Cliff-Notes version: Wine has objective truths, or else it would be absolutely pointless talking about it with other people, since they cannot possibly be expected to share your experience.

But it's not that simple. There is palate variation, and if you pay attention, take notes, and more importantly, taste with other people and read their notes, you will get a sense of how your palate compares to other people's impressions.

Don't give in to the lazy views, such as:

1) People don't always agree on the tastes of wine, so all tasting notes have no meaning.

2) People should agree, because each wine has objective tastes, therefore all tasting notes that don't agree are the result of bad tasters.

My last point is directed at the swarms of wine writers (you know who you are) who have published stories entitled "Top 10 Wine Myths" or something similar. Almost without exception, these "mythbusting" articles contain simplifications, poor explanations, omissions, or flat out lies. Worse, I'm starting to run into bullish characters (experienced and novice alike) who are devout anti-snobs. Just because you consider something snobbish doesn't necessarily mean it is wrong.

Take Marco's statement: You don't have to know a lot about wine to enjoy it.

What does that mean? Let's start with "enjoy." Personally (and I'm sure many of you share this sentiment), I don't enjoy wine in the same way as I enjoy beer or chocolate. It isn't enough for wine to be delicious - I look for the wine to say something about its context. I'm looking for information in the wine.

Now to enjoy wine as a tasty beverage, you certainly need not know about the circumstances of its creation. I don't care how Stewart's Ginger Beer is made - I think it tastes good. But this is a DISTINCT way of "enjoying wine" which is separate from the passion that drives collectors to bid upwards of $1000 per bottle.

Marco, you should qualify that statement. Perhaps "you don't need to know a lot about wine to find a bottle you will find delicious." (by the way, I personally disagree with that statement, but then, I'm picky).

But let's dig a little deeper. Marco's "mythbusting" statement begs the question: Why does this person want to get into wine in the first place? If they wanted to learn about the context of wine, nothing is stopping them - there are wine books galore. I would assume that they merely think they "ought to" know about wine, but don't really care about the context. I would submit that if you can clarify in your mind (and theirs!) the reason(s) that a person wants to learn about wine, you stand a much better chance of getting them interested in this beverage.

But people don't stop to ask this.

As (admittedly anecdotal) evidence, take a few questions I often hear from new tasters:

Should I chill white wines?
What kind of glass should I use?
How do I take tasting notes?

The answer to all of these questions is: "It depends." If you are like me, and you are fascinated by the scientific and cultural complexities of wine, then you should probably NOT chill the whites, in order to more fully express the aromas. You should play around with multiple glasses to determine for yourself their effect, and you should strive to take the most detailed tasting notes possible, in order to compare them with other notes by yourself or critics.

On the other hand, if you are more interested in the (non-trivial!) hunt for inexpensive wine that is delicious to your palate, then you should probably taste whites cold, as you drink them. Use whatever glasses you use at home, and in your tasting notes mainly focus on whether you liked the wine or not, and whether you think it is worth the price.

I apologize for my expansive comments, but I really do wish that we, as a collective group of wine-oriented people, could be more wary of simplistic thinking, and not be so quick to tear down establishment, simply because it is establishment.

As for tasting notes, the question of whether to write them depends (you can probably see where this is going) on WHY you are writing to begin with. If you are writing to sell wine, then do market research: do tasting notes sell wine? Scores do. (by the way, I've seen many stores with Beer Advocate scores in the craft beer shelves, so don't think wine is unique). If you are writing a blog and wish to up your readership, I would refer you to an excellent past post by Alder in which he questions the merit of single-mindedly seeking higher blog traffic. If you are writing for your own enjoyment or education, I suspect you already write tasting notes. Whether you publish them or not is up to you, but I think it would be doing a disservice to the throng of interested and informed wine lovers if you were to hide them on a whim.

Rajiv wrote:
02.24.09 at 6:06 PM

Arthur, I applaud your motivation, but you are only telling the convenient half of the truth.

You are right that many people don't realize the extent to which tasting can be learned. I would submit that anyone who doesn't suffer from anosmia can learn to taste. You also brought up a great point: tasting is a mental exercise. One book (Schuster's intro to wine) compared the mental feat of picking out wine aromas to the feat of resolving the familiar tiled-cubes optical illusion: one can choose to see the cubes going into the page or out of the page, with a little mental effort.

Continuing in this sentiment, I want to make it very clear that palate variation is not a ranking! I am not a more or less skilled taster simply because my acetaldehyde detection threshold is lower than average, or my rotundone threshold is higher than average. I am just a different taster.

And forgive me for covering my behind again, but the previous paragraph is not to say that there is no concept of skill when it comes to tasting - merely that skill lies elsewhere from pure physiological gifts. Think of it this way: One would not say that someone with acute hearing is necessarily a magnificent music critic!

But back to the topic of physiological discrepancies. I have a friend who worked in a neurological study at U Penn focused on smell thresholds. He found that thresholds varied a HUGE amount - often by an order of magnitude. Are thresholds critical for perception, though? Absolutely. Dubourdieu et al (1992) have found that isobutylmethoxypyrazine (IBMP) levels in Bordeaux cab, cab franc, and merlot hover at the threshold of the average person. Think back: how many times have you tasted with a taster far more experienced than yourself, and picked out an aroma that he/she did not?

Physiological variance, particularly with respect to detection thresholds for many wine aroma molecules, are a hard fact. They should be understood and not dismissed.

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 6:28 PM

Rajiv,

Thanks for your response. Maybe I am reading too fast, as I am not sure what you mean by “the convenient half of the truth”?

Physiological variance, however factual, is overstated and overplayed. Since repeated exposure and learning can induce greater acuity (and accuracy), then you will get different results if your cohort is composed of wine novices than you would if you had tested a group of Somms or MWs.

Then, there are environmental factors that impact acuity which, when removed, allow for greater acuity. These things are not tested for in a study that seeks to define the range of variability in a random cross section of the population.

Rajiv wrote:
02.24.09 at 7:06 PM

Arthur,

You say that "Physiological variance, however factual, is overstated and overplayed." While I acknowledge that learning and repeated exposure has an important role, I strongly disagree with this statement. There is a huge body of evidence for this in the literature, for example:


Many sensory analyses as part of wine research show significant threshold variation, despite using panels of trained tasters. Here is one such study:

From: "Effect of wine type on detection threshold for diacetyl" (Martineau, Ecress et al. 1994)

"Panel detection thresholds and standard deviation from the geometric mean were found to be 0.2 mg/l and 0.32 in Chardonnay, 0.9 mg/l and 0.21 in Pinot noir, and 2.8 mg/l and 0.38 in Cabernet Sauvignon." (with trained tasters).

For stark examples of variations in taste, consider the well-known genetic variation in PTC tasting - some people taste this as extremely bitter, some people do not taste this at all.

Also, consider the Monell twin study: Ability to smell androstenone is genetically determined. Wysocki and Beauchamp 1984.

The fact that genetic variation in smell is nontrivial is expounded upon in detail in "Better smelling through genetics: Mammalian odor perception" (Keller and Vosshall, 2008). Monell's twin study is mentioned, as is a study on the detection of isovaleric acid.

Finally, let me repeat my previous question: Have you ever tasted something in a wine that a fellow taster did not perceive, even though your fellow taster was far more experienced than you? Follow this to its logical conclusion: the threshold of perception must be based on more than just training and conditioning.


I apologize for piling on the disorganized mini-arguments, but the Keller and Vosshall review alludes to an evolutionary reason for sensory threshold variation.

Can you point me to a study that illustrates the minimal influence of genetics on sensory variation among trained tasters?

Great exchange, by the way.

02.24.09 at 8:45 PM

@sabernar: come now, don't take it too literally. Your comment is slightly fruity with a short, dry finish.

There's a larger point with plenty of truth to it. Brooke gets it.

Beer is functional. Nothing wrong with that.

Wine is emotional.

Arthur wrote:
02.24.09 at 9:51 PM

Rajiv,

Agreed, I’m enjoying the exchange as well. But it may be going afield of Alder’s original post. I will post my most succinct (ha!) response but Alder may ask us to continue off line.

The most memorable experience I had where there was some discordance in perception was one that turned out very interestingly:

I perceived a character that I had detected in wines from a particular region. My companion did not verbalize this character... until I started to describe it and give it a name. It was like a light bulb went off over his head. He agreed that the character was there but he's never put a finger on it. Now it had more clarity and he pointed out with in successive wines.

This points to the fact that much of the "palate training" wine lovers go through involves language and verbalizing what you smell. I also think that lowered acuity for particular, singular stimuli can be probably overcome through a compensatory approach.

The other side of the coin of not perceiving something has to do with what one looks for. You could argue it's a matter of suggestion when once one is told that a particular wine has aroma X that person acknowledges smelling it. However, it has happened to me. It was a question of expanding my "smell vocabulary" or my scheme or spectrum of wine aromas. What I did was go home, seek out sources of the particular aroma and check other wines for it. Some wines had it and others did not. Had I not had my horizons expanded, it’s possible that I would not have identified the aroma.

Now on to variability:

“overstated and overplayed"
Yes, there is some variation. It may be nontrivial, but is it significant enough to have people not be able to form a consensus about the core characteristics of chardonnay or syrah or merlot? Since there is such a consensus, and even acknowledgment of regional variation, I have to ask just how much impact this variation has in a real-world scenario. I have also reached an impasse in thinking about what evolutionary advantage a species might have in variation in sensory threshold – particularly with aromas and flavors of consumables.

“overstated and overplayed" – not because it does not exist but because it discourages and hinders an individual’s progress when it really does not make for such tremendous differences that two people would smell wildly different things in the same wine.

The research publications:

The problem with some of this research is this: what does sensitivity to androstenone or PTC have to do with the ability to appreciate the aromatics and flavors in foodstuffs and wine? Some of these findings are extrapolated (for whatever reasons) to thresholds for aromatic compound commonly found in nature and that is troubling.

And am I the only one who is a bit skeptical that a significant portion of the population cannot smell black pepper (rotundone)? I have not met anyone who was unable to recognize the smell. Maybe that’s just my experience. How many people do you know that cannot identify the smell of pepper?

Regarding “trained panelists” in the Martineau, Ecress et al. 1994: Were these Master Somms or MWs? What made for a “trained panelist”? There was a study that gained much buzz a year two ago where “experts” were fooled by white wines with red food dye. It turned out these were (first or second year V&E?) students at a French university. I recall a similar controversy where the “wine experts” in the cohort turned out to be members of a wine appreciation club.

My skepticism is not aimed dismiss or discount your assertions. It’s just that investigators often take wild liberties in categorizing their subjects one way or another. If a study were to talk about a cohort of Master Sommeliers or MWs (or people with advanced, recognized training organoleptic wine evaluation), explicitly, then I’d be interested in exploring how my contentions fail to connect with reality. I have not found a specific study which demonstrates decreased genetic (but is that necessarily functional) variation in sensory acuity of trained wine evaluators. I could be wrong, and the Martineau, Ecress et al. 1994 publication could have used such subjects. I’d like to see the full text but an initial search does not bring up the full version.

I have not found a specific study that demonstrates decreased genetic (but is that necessarily functional?) variation in sensory acuity of trained wine evaluators.

Finally, I have reached an impasse in thinking what evolutionary advantage a species might have to variation in sensory threshold – particularly with aromas and flavors of consumables. Drop me a line and give me your thoughts.

sabernar wrote:
02.25.09 at 2:58 PM

"Beer is functional. Nothing wrong with that. Wine is emotional."

Clinton: see, that just proves my point that you don't really know what you're talking about. Beer is functional and not emotional? I live in Portland and people are pretty emotional about their beer. I'm not talking about Miller Lite and Milwaukee's Best. Have you ever delved into the world of microbrews or Belgian beer? There are plenty of people who are just as passionate and just as emotional about their beer as you and your kind are about wine. Just because there is a large price difference between beer and wine doesn't mean it's functional and not emotional. I could argue the opposite case and talk about table wines which people (moreso Europeans) drink with little emotion and plenty of function.

In reference to the other discussions going on in this thread, well, they also prove my point. Go ahead and tell the average person about "detection thresholds and standard deviation from the geometric mean" of diacetyl and I'm sure no one is going to care. I think that people on this thread need to reread the original post and see how their discussion addresses it. Tasting Notes are too daunting for most people. They aren't going to take the time out to adjust their nose and learn new vocabulary for this and that. Some people just want to drink good wine. I think wine people should take that into consideration.

02.25.09 at 4:05 PM

My take on the concert reference:
People have the same anxiety about classical music as they do about wine, probably for the same reason - they didn't grow up with it. And just as with wine, they enjoy it but feel they're unworthy if they aren't experts. As a professional musician, let me say: just listen, drink, and enjoy yourself! If you want to learn the lingo, great, but you really don't need to. I want to move you emotionally when I perform. And when my wine store opens it will be about enjoyment, not numbers.

Rajiv wrote:
02.25.09 at 4:17 PM

Arthur,

Very good questions, and in my cursory research I haven't found a conclusive answer. I think we are in agreement that training, and practice at aroma recognition plays an enormous role. Indeed, I think you are right that tasters will sometimes cite "genetic palate variation" as a mechanism for variation in perception, where the underlying cause is actually differences in cognition and training.

However, I do not think the effects of genetic variation are "overstated" as you say. In fact, I think one MUST have an understanding of this possibility to become a better taster.

My own experience tells me this in no uncertain terms, and the reality of genetic palate variation has been confirmed for me by several tasters I respect greatly.

Your reference to a "consensus about the core characteristics of chardonnay or syrah or merlot" is something of a non sequitur in this discussion. The fact is, even experienced tasters will disagree over the sensory perceptions of a particular wine, but more importantly, will do so in a predictable manner. For example, a friend of mine has an extremely low threshold for IBMP. I have NEVER tasted with him in a group where someone else observed IBMP and he did not. I on the other hand have an extremely low threshold for acetaldehyde. There has been one time when another taster has identified oxidation before I did... and it was my dad. How's that for a genetic connection?

I admit that much of my evidence is anecdotal, but after a scant 17 months of tasting wine, pretty much everything I know is.

Sabernar:

This is not an issue of oppression. It is not a fundamental human right to drink good wine. There is no conspiracy of learned wine-folk to hide all the good bottles from the unwashed masses. Going back to one of my earlier points, I think you should re-examine your statement "Some people just want to drink good wine" and ask two questions:

1) Why do these people want to drink wine?

2) What constitutes "good wine" for these people?

The answer to 2) is highly dependent on 1).

But I will take the spirit of your point and return to the question at hand, as I interpret it:

Will the elimination of tasting notes lead to a heightened popularity of wine among non-wine geeks?

I highly doubt it. When faced with two wines, one of which has a description of the beautiful country it comes from, the other having a tasting note, I think most people would opt for the bottle with the tasting note, if it is appealing to them.

The fact is, wine can have many different flavors and textures, and if you are even a little bit picky, you're going to want information about the liquid in the bottle. I see no way around tasting notes.

sabernar wrote:
02.26.09 at 2:45 AM

Rajiv: You miss my point. I think that a wine with a basic description of what kind of wine it is (does it go with read meat? stinky cheese? It is light? bold? spicy?), is more helpful to an average person than telling them that it has hints of shoe leather, with an aroma of grapefruit and mistletoe. A description of the rugged, rock-filled terrain and of the 90-year old man who tends the grapes isn't very helpful to the average person.

wiljak wrote:
02.26.09 at 5:27 AM

And we wonder why people have anxiety about wine...(sigh)

OK, I realize that by and large the people reading this blog are not novices but geez. What about "removing barriers to increased wine appreciation" (which was the root of all this IMO)? Although anxiety about not knowing about wine is probably near the top I think the biggest barrier is simply wine's status in the US as a (pseudo) luxury good. I doubt a "non-wine person" from Spain, Italy or France would be anxious or intimidated.

For me the "what" is changing wine's status as a luxury good in the US. The "how" is a different story for another discussion. (Hint: I don't think TN's have much to do with it)

Have fun with wine!

paulcarufel wrote:
03.01.09 at 2:00 PM

Most customers don't know the difference between a French Burgundy and jugs of stuff that come from the Central Valley. Lowest-Common-Denominator tasting notes may get more people to buy wine (yes, there is a glut) but pricing should be realistic first.

Bob R. wrote:
03.06.09 at 5:29 AM

Great story, great speech by Asimov, and great comments (although I don't have time to read them all). I particularly liked Rajiv re tasting term definitions. My wife and I often refer to "dung" aromas (which we like)in many southern French reds; we've been told the more polite term is "barnyard," which Rajiv so aptly defines as "poop." And as to "minerality," I agree with him also: what exactly is it. I taste thousands of wines a year, and still have trouble when people say: "And this has such great minerality." I just can't usually taste it (or even really know what it is) But it seems to have become a required term in the trade.

Alder wrote:
03.08.09 at 7:14 PM

Bob,

Thanks for the comments. Minerality is indeed a common wine descriptor, but one that, as you note, varies highly in interpretation from one taster to the next. From a scientific perspective, there is no such thing as "minerality" in wine. Yet there are wines that possess certain flavors that seem to lend themselves to description using such terms. I've tasted wines that taste like wet slate/chalkboard, wet cement, chalk/limestone, and wet stones/granite, as well as iron/steel.

All of these are minerally, in a way, and tend to make me use that word to describe wine. But ask another wine taster, and you'll get a different answer.

slaked wrote:
03.19.09 at 2:05 PM

Great post Alder! I haven't read all the comments, but one thing I would add is that for me, even though I generally agree with Asimov's position, writing a tasting note in my head as I sample a wine, and then jotting down my notes, has become so habitual that I've found myself unable to remember particular sensations when I don't go through it. Now, I never enjoy a wine physically emotionally or intellectually as much as I would if I were forced to at least try to communicate those things to someone, as I try to in blogging. Thanks Alder.

Jack Korpi wrote:
02.08.10 at 5:31 PM

Maybe the tasting notes that wine reviewers typically write are exactly what intimidates the novice. When someones reads tasting notes that describe things like "currant" "smoke" "leather" "pear", honey, or some kind of obscure "berry", and can't remembers having tasted any of those things in a wine, the reader will assume his knowledge of wine is too limited to appreciate it properly.

If instead the tasting notes described the wine in terms that the average person can relate to: "big, full-bodied with lots of vibrant fruit and mild tannins", and suggest some compatible foods to enjoy with it, then anyone who has tasted wine can recall one that tasted something like that, and if they liked it, then they'll probably like the one being reviewed.

In other words, know your audience. Speaking to the oenophile requires different language than speaking to the average wine drinker. If we want to use wine writing to encourage more people to explore wines, then the language of the oenophile will certainly not be effective.

07.30.11 at 7:41 AM

Thanks for this account. I wish I could see some video, but this level of detail is great, and you take the conversation a bit further too.

In my experience, I receive lots and lots of tourists at the vineyard. And I always find it a little funny how nervous some of them are when we taste the first young wine downstairs. No matter how comfortable I've made them during the first part of the tour and no matter how much I suggest enjoying wine in a laid back way, some people will still be really hung up on the idea that they're supposed to get really pensive as they taste my wine and then say something like "sandalwood and elderflower". A big part of my job is identifying those people and putting them at ease. Simultaneously giving them some tips if they do want to communicate about wine and dispelling this anxiety they feel about the need to communicate about wine like a "professional".

Anyway, thanks for the account of the WBC.

07.30.11 at 8:48 AM

oh geez, embarrassment time. This is not about the WBC at all. Whooooops. :D Somebody brought it up in a conversation about that more recent keynote and I just made a silly assumption ;D

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