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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.

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