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02.22.2011

The Purpose of Tasting Notes

Eric Asimov, wine writer for the New York Times, and I agree on a lot of things, but we have quite divergent opinions about a subject that is near and dear to Eric's heart: tasting notes. Actually, tasting notes aren't near and dear to Eric's heart, rather, the opposite is true. He is a big proponent for the elimination, or at the very least a complete reformation, of tasting notes as a vehicle for communication about wine.

Eric's point of view, which we have discussed over many bottles of wine, comes down to the fact that he feels the strings of adjectives, increasingly precise and obscure, do more to intimidate consumers than they do to help. He would say, and I would agree, that one of the main problems in American wine culture, if there is such a thing, is that people are intimidated by wine, and believe that in order to appreciate it, they need to learn to be able to pick out all the different nuanced flavors that show up in the professional tasting notes of critics.

Eric sees tasting notes as a culprit in the creation of a culture that makes people scared to explore and enjoy wine, for fear of doing something stupid or not understanding it because they don't happen to taste the cigar box and blackcurrants that the critic does.

But I don't agree. I'm with Eric all the way up until he suggests that tasting notes are part of the problem, and then I vehemently disagree.

Today, Eric penned some more thoughts on the subject of wine tasting notes, with a thought experiment that involved getting rid of all descriptors of how a wine tastes in favor of one of two words: sweet or savory.

Eric writes: "A brief depiction of the salient overall features of a wine, like its weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors, can be far more helpful in determining whether you will like that bottle than a thousand points of detail. In fact, consumers could be helped immeasurably if the entire lexicon of wine descriptors were boiled down to two words: sweet or savory."

He continues: "It seemed to me that almost every wine can be placed in one category or the other. By sweet, I don't mean wines with residual sugar, though they would certainly be included. I mean wines with sweet flavors, whether they come from fruitiness or some other manifestation of wine chemistry. By savory I mean wines with predominant flavors not of fruit but of herbs, minerals, spices and such."

Now, I don't believe that Eric truly believes that it would be possible to reduce the primary description of wine to one of these two words. In fact, after playing with the idea a bit in his column, he admits that "...perhaps that's going too far. I'll leave it to you to decide. The point of this exercise, after all, is not so much to label every wine as one or the other, as it is to suggest a different, simpler way of thinking about these wines. And, perhaps, to help people make their own discoveries."

I completely understand the idea of trying to both capture a wine's essence without going overboard with a lexicon of fruit, and to push people to discover what they like and what they don't, but I think instead of simplicity, Eric has gotten overly reductive.

I'm not against the theory of simplification. By day I work in the world of design where people pay my company to help them simplify the complex for their customers.

But trying to replace most tasting notes with just two words is quite problematic.

For starters, trying to capture all fruity flavors under the "sweet" banner would never work. Trying to reclaim a word that is already very well understood by everyone and relates to how sugary something tastes, not the general class of flavors it contains, is a losing proposition.

Whenever I think about Eric's position on tasting notes I struggle with the fact that he's suggesting that as wine writers, we DO need to convey the experience of tasting the wine, but he's suggesting that we DON'T need to tell people what it tastes like.

Walking down the logical progression of Eric's argument, I always end up at a place where the only real way to avoid producing the kind of anxiety that he objects to would be to eliminate tasting notes all together. Without that, then we're in a morass where we're going to be forever fighting over the relative evils of "alpine strawberry" versus "red berries" versus "fruity."

Wines do taste like certain things, dammit! I delight in showing a complete wine novice a classic Gewurztraminer for the first time, putting their nose in the glass, and hearing them say "Oh my god, it smells like roses!" The fact that you can experience so many flavors and aromas of the world from simple fermented grape juice is one of the most magical aspects of wine, and trying to capture all of that magic with two primary words just doesn't cut it as far as I'm concerned.

Not to mention the fact that (as Eric admits) many wines have combinations of both his "sweet" and "savory" characteristics. So where does that leave us?

I think we need to step back and look at why tasting notes exist in the first place.

Tasting notes exist to try to convey to a reader what the author might have experienced when drinking a wine. Why? Because readers are looking for recommendations on what to drink, or to entertain themselves through vicarious appreciation for an experience, or both.

Like most targeted communication, the success of any tasting note can only be judged by the reader, and I would suggest the criteria for that success might be comprised of the following:

1. Is the reader able to imagine themselves tasting/experiencing the wine based on the note in a way that they can judge whether they WANT to taste this wine, given the chance? If one of the purposes of the note is to convey the experience of the taster, does it actually do that in a way that moves the reader to understand that experience by proxy? If you'll forgive the high-low comparison, tasting notes are not unlike poems in that their job is to evoke an emotional state as much as it is to communicate something specific.

2. Is the reader able to perceive the critic's assessment of the quality of the wine. That is, can the reader tell whether the critic thinks that this is a good wine or not? When I look at the kinds of notes that Eric sometimes writes in the style he believes achieves his goals, I am often left wondering whether he liked the wine or not, and whether he thinks it is merely ok, great, or fantastic.

3. Is the reader able to use this tasting note to help them distinguish between this wine and others of the same type that the critic may have tasted, and understand what makes it different from the others, either in taste, quality, or otherwise? Even when provided singly in isolation, tasting notes exist in the context of other notes -- other notes written by that critic, other notes out there in the world, and readers' own collections of memories of wines they have had. Part of the job of the tasting note is to provide fodder for people to make judgements or distinctions. As in "Ah, so that Syrah sounds different from this other one -- they both have flavors of blackberry, but this one has flavors of bacon fat, while that one tastes of wet granite." That is a meaningful difference I think to many people, but one that is difficult to capture in a highly constrained lexicon like the one that Eric suggests.

Now, do some tasting notes go over the top into realms of complete inanity? Yes, of course. But I tend to be quite forgiving of that (partially, no doubt, because I can be guilty of it myself). Yes, I've never smelled what crushed seashells smell like, but you know, I could imagine what that might smell like, and so if Robert Parker or someone else wants to use it as a descriptor, I'm fine with it, in the same way that I'm fine with an outlandish metaphor in a poem. The fact that it's beyond my experience doesn't matter all that much as long as I can understand it.

Some tasters use quite obscure fruits and vegetables in their notes, or words that most people might not know. One of my favorites is "petrichor," a phenomenally useful word that describes one of the world's great smells: the smell of the pavement just after it rains.

While I know the whole world doesn't delight in learning new words like that as I do, I also don't think that using it or other words are making wine less approachable to the interested public.

I wish Eric would concentrate less on the adjectives that wine writers use, and more on the overall quality of their work. Tasting notes do far less damage that boring, insufferable wine writing. Of course, Eric might point out that a lot of wine writing has been reduced to simply tasting notes only, and he'll get no argument from me about that being a major problem.

The tasting note is only the tiniest, and one might argue, least important, bit of what I think it takes to explain a wine in a meaningful way. Stories make wine meaningful, and memorable. As long as we're telling great stories about wine, what harm can there be in taking a sentence or two to describe what we think a wine tastes like?

So, what do you think? Tasting notes: good or evil?

Comments (35)

Benito wrote:
02.23.11 at 12:04 AM

There's a fundamental disconnect in America regarding the fruit/sweet flavors. It's reflected in the fact that it's almost impossible to purchase a soft drink that doesn't have natural or artificial sweetness added.

A wise wine woman taught me early on to study the grapefruit. There are specific aromas and flavors in the peel, the pith, the flesh, and the membranes. Even the seeds if you want to go crazy. Study each, and you'll understand Sauvignon Blanc. But there's no sweetness in that big bitter acidic ball, and when you pile on the sugar at brunch you get a whole different beast.

I think the longer explanations are necessary, and more apt. One of my favorite wine flavors is something earthy and bitter you get from chewing on raspberry seeds. Nothing sweet or fruity about it, but it would necessarily be grouped on the sweet side of the sweet/savory divide.

Carlos Silveira wrote:
02.23.11 at 6:30 AM

What about commenting a wine with just one word, like Andy Hadfield (see what he says about the Landskroon Shiraz 2007)? Can a wine simply smell like a loo spray, be a kak? Or the question is really the Internet, the presumed dead of the long-form wine article, and so the irrelevancy of the wine blogs? (I’m one of those 64% of your readers looking to wine blogs as a source for wine recommendations).

J.C. Milam wrote:
02.23.11 at 6:48 AM

Tasting notes are valuable when and if they are actually representative of the wine - no matter who wrote them. I would suggest that the lexicon of words utilized to describe wine are as wide and varied as the tastes that come with opening wines from around the world. Wine is as diverse of a subject as exists in the known world of consumables and thus it requires a diverse set of descriptors.

Breaking such things down to two main categories does nothing good for the wine drinking public in my personal opinion. Although it might be argued that using less confusing and high brow descriptions could be of value I would suggest that breaking all wines down into sweet or savory would serve to only increase confusion, not decrease it.

Is an off-dry Riesling from Alsace that tastes of minerals and wet stone but with a hint of RS considered savory? When the majority of Americans recognize (wrongly, I might add) Riesling as being sweet and then we are to tell them that, "No. This Riesling is savory." Confusion.

What is to be done about a grape like Carmenere that boasts savory and 'sweet', a la fruity, characteristics? Is there a scale that could be developed and promoted in some visually stimulating yet not confusing way to suggest to the consumer which area that specific wine falls into? I see an adoption problem with this option.

With so many people that come into contact with a wine before it even reaches a consumer I would say that tasting notes are not only vital to the educational process but vital to the business of wine in general. By all means feel free to excoriate the winery or brand that throws words onto a page just to make their juice sound more enticing, especially when the words chosen sound like directions to Paris when they really drop you off in the middle of New Jersey.

But for the purpose of discussion I would think that the argument to simplify tasting notes would be about as possible to win as suggesting that all wines be crafted into such simple divisions.

Wine isn't boring and shouldn't be described in a boring way.

Suzanne wrote:
02.23.11 at 7:50 AM

I would say the one practical application of tasting notes is that they give the drinker clues on food pairing. Other than that I think it's mostly hooey. It does allow tasters to get in touch with their senses- which as dulled down Americans I think is important- other than that it seems excessive. ( I work in a tasting room)

02.23.11 at 8:06 AM

If you compare any two TNs from anyone, even the "pros", for the same wine, you would have no idea that they're for the same wine. So, how are they valuable?

Since yesterday, I've been puzzling over whether Eric's boiling it down to "sweet" or "savory" are true, useful, whatever. Positive: Very short. Negative: One man's sweet could be another man's savory. Conclusion: Time saving and a bit better than other descriptive TNs.

Still, to me, all I want to see in a TN is:

1) Is the wine at a different place that expected in it's lifecycle? (Too young, too old, or closed down.)

2) If it has a high alcohol level, what degree did it distract or hinder enjoyment?

3) Did the taster enjoy it (most often expressed with a number) - did it give pleasure?

4) If pleasure for dollar was unexpected, was is it a poor value or great value?

5) If the wine is outside the norm of comparable wines, explain.

6) If definitely best as an aperitif or best with food, tell us.

So, those are the only ones that are of some use - to me.

Everything else is so individualistic as to be nearly completely useless.

Greg wrote:
02.23.11 at 8:28 AM

Alder,

I enjoyed your response and it is quite similar to mine. I start to see why Eric (and you) get bogged down by tasting notes. I see it when you start to refer to the "reader" over and over again. You and Eric both look at tasting notes as a way to convey sensory information, sensory experience, and hedonic feelings to another person without having a physical, shared experience.

This is a very tall order - a very difficult task. We spend 10 weeks at Davis training students to identify aroma standards (30-40 a week) and rate intensities in order to have a baseline ability to transfer information between one another. Furthermore, I find tasting-note-as-conveyor-of-experience to be a minor and not very useful incarnation of the tasting note.

The truth of the matter is that for tasting notes to be useful in the context of relaying sensory information, the person who is reading the note has to taste lots and lots and lots of wine. For wine writers like you and Eric, who are trying to convey very nuanced experiences to people who may not drink that much wine or have little experience with a particular grape, no amount of simplification is going to help to share that experience.

For example, a taster would have to drink a lot of Syrah before the descriptor of "animal, bacon, sage, with a little bit of fruit" would a) sound appealing, and b) be a useful descriptor. Simplifying it to "savory" still doesn't help.

The tasting note started to record personal experience for later recall - only later did it become a method to try to transfer information. It is much more useful for the former. Until people practice doing that and get good at it, tasting notes are going to be misused. They are, sadly, ubiquitous on the back label. People read the back label. They are predisposed to taste what is on the label (validation and expectation bias).

A bit rambling, but I hope that people realize that no matter how good the writer is at crafting a tasting note, without lots of wine experience those words don't fit into a context that can convey what the writer is trying to convey.

Thanks again,
Greg

Alder Yarrow wrote:
02.23.11 at 8:33 AM
Sebastien wrote:
02.23.11 at 9:44 AM

Personally, I would rather see tasting notes that conveyed what I think are the two most important aspects of a wine: its structure, and its typicity. A description of a wines structure can convey how a wine is made, what it feels like in the mouth, if it is balanced or not, if it should be paired with food and what sort of food, and its ability to age. Also, a wines structure, though it evolves, is more permanent than any flavor. A wine out of balance cannot evolve into a balanced one. As for typicity and style, I believe its important to say whether a wine reflects its place of origin, or fits a style. Humans use broad categories to describe all sorts of things, why not wine? Furthermore, wine writers tend to make such a big deal of terroir, and seek out true vins de terroir. Why then don't we use this in tasting notes, and in this way educate consumers by pointing out useful benchmarks in a given category.

Perhaps instead of trying to dumb down the discussion with reductionist descriptions, we should move the discussion towards expanding our understanding of the diversity of wine and where it comes from.

J.C. Milam wrote:
02.23.11 at 9:48 AM

After reading the article on slate I would like to throw out one more comment as an addendum to my original post above.

Descriptions which relate to the characteristics of a wine would be MUCH more helpful. I must agree completely with Greg's answer above concerning the need to taste and taste and taste and taste some more in order to grow not only an understanding but also an ability to attempt to discern what a critic or wine writer picked up on in a given wine.

I always appreciate words like "dry, full bodied, acidic" etc to fluffy words or those that have no real interpretive value such as "interesting" on a label or tech sheet.

But there again I have to tell you that from my personal experience I always get an interesting response when I describe a wine as being "sexy" or "vibrant" or a "rock star". Those words speak to people's desires in life but less to the identifiable traits of the wine in question.

JonathanNYC wrote:
02.23.11 at 10:18 AM

Alder, Completely agree with you and have been thinking quite a bit on this topic. Humanity is trapped in a postmodern quagmire of relativity regarding personal associations with wine tastes and descriptors; but this cannot be allowed to pass as some sort of defeatist excuse to renounce vibrant and perfectly idiosyncratic wine descriptions. We must be free to pick out any tone and label it as one may see fit. I agree the most important thing in a TN is to convey if you enjoyed a wine or noted it was well-crafted, then what the salient characteristics are that marked you--what made that wine different from others or exciting. Imagine the opposite: a mass spectrometer-generated list of chemical compounds. This would be the most honest, empirical assessment, and would communicate nothing to anyone. Not only because the human nose is far better at separating compounds, but also because humans who wish to speak about wine must speak a human language.

Tom Parnell wrote:
02.23.11 at 10:24 AM

Both yours and Eric's piece are very interesting. In principle I agreed with Eric's starting point: that tasting notes may communicate very little to the reader, may bewilder rather than elucidate. But he takes his argument to an extreme. I presume partly this is deliberately provocative!

Seems to me that if a tasting note is intended for 'public' consumption (rather than amongst dedicated enthusiasts/professionals), there's little point in specificity. I don't, after all, go shopping on the lookout for something with (to use your example) flavours of alpine strawberry. I go looking for something with a particular character. General(ish) observations about character are more useful to the average consumer, I'd say.

By pursuing that argument to its extreme, Eric highlights the danger of the excessively general approach, though: it's not only highly reductive; more importantly (devastatingly, for the writer) it's obviously incredibly boring.

Interesting to read J.C. Milam's comment above — that it's the more metaphorical descriptions of wine that people respond to. And this is something I agree with quite strongly. It's a bit like a good description in a novel. I could say that a man had mid-length, light brown hair, a pale complexion, brown eyes, a broadish nose, a long neck, small ears … by now, nobody can really picture this man. But if I say, 'He was a little like a rat in his movements' — bang, people are engaged, they are picturing a character.

Surely we should (as writers) be aiming to engage our audience in this metaphorical vein if we wish to influence them?

Weston wrote:
02.23.11 at 10:28 AM

taking notes for me actually helps me remember what the wine tastes like 6months later, log them into Cellartracker, and am at the liquor store and trying to remember if I tasted the wine and if so did I like it, read my notes and I can almost taste it again

Also I do enjoy wine but if im drinking it for simplistic reason then whats the point for me to buy wine more then $10? if im going to train my brain to taste it and say "Sweet/Savoury" ?

WSET lvl 1 tasting guide is great, has four simple descriptors, then take the balance/texture out of Diploma guide and thats good stuff

Tasting notes when done properly are helpful, I mean RP descriptors for his fav wine means I'm not going to enjoy it too big/powerful/concentrated for me.

Take Vanilla, it is not sweet by itself, add it to a savoury sauce you taste vanilla and your brain was been trained since a kid that vanilla=sweet.

ryan wrote:
02.23.11 at 11:03 AM

As an ex-retailer, I have to say the notes often turned people off to wines more than they sold wines. More than once someone came in and said "Ewee, I don't like {insert random fruit}, I won't buy that one" after reader a shelf talker, let behind by a lazy wholesaler.

As we all know, my 'blueberry' is often your 'black berry'. My lemon, your keifer lime.

TN's are great for Professionals who need to use them, for personal growth, and wine learning/education. No argument there. But a TN in it's purest Haiku-esque listing of adjectives form, is completely worthless to anyone who is not trained, or used to following one critic.

TN's at least in the form that I believe Eric is talking about should stop, at least when talking to normal, non-wine-geek humans(Surprisingly I have a few of them as friends! :) ) - Rather why not talk about the experience with the wine, or the moment/place you enjoyed the wine. Give me context, texture, beauty...not piles of adjectives and other silliness! :)

Wine Harlots wrote:
02.23.11 at 11:32 AM

“Simplicity is complexity resolved.” — Constantin Brancusi

A lot of this is navel gazing and inside baseball, which has no relevance to the average wine consumer. Alienating, confusing or intimidating your core market doesn’t help the cause. But making wine criticism simple without being simplistic is no easy task.

P.S. – Thanks for the new word “petrichor.” I too am a word geek. And adore the smell after a rain.

Cheers!

Alec White wrote:
02.23.11 at 12:19 PM

Re Eric's point about "...strings of adjectives, increasingly precise and obscure, do more to intimidate consumers than they do to help", I wonder about flamboyant TRs in Wine Spectator and other sources that list multiple fruits, spices, herbs, and flowers in a single wine. For example, "...layered palate of cardamon, fig, pie crust, nectarine and persimmon" or "...dried apricot, mango, persimmon and ginger flavors". Some are so obscure--"white flower notes", "crunchy-textured lime" (what the hell is crunchy-flavored lime?) that I doubt there are going to be a lot of aha moments for most wine drinkers, especially new ones. I for one have never smelled or tasted a gooseberry, but if I had a nickel for every tasting note that referenced gooseberry I could buy a yacht.

Tracy wrote:
02.23.11 at 12:52 PM

as a complete novice trying to "listen" to the wine, I try not to read tasting notes because invariably I find it will prejudice me.
having said that, after you drink enough and find what appeals to you in a wine, if you find a wine writer who has enjoyed the same wines, you'll go a long way to forgiving even outlandish language if it means a good bottle of wine you might not have known to try.
bottom line it's subjective so there is a trust factor involved no matter what the word choice.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
02.23.11 at 1:07 PM

Alec,

Yes, of course, there are tasting notes that go way beyond the reasonable, but at the same time, these things do exist in the world. If you had never tasted a blackberry before, using blackberry as a descriptor for wine would confound you, but anyone who has tasted Zinfandels in any number greater than two or three will know that without that fruit, it's hard to describe the flavor of Zinfandel accurately. While gooseberries are not very common in the USA, they are real, they have a VERY distinct and unique flavor, and they are by far the most accurate descriptor of the flavor of many Sauvignon Blancs.

The point is not to produce a-ha moments, but to give people something to grasp, and of course we're here arguing about just how much and of what variety of characterization we provide to people.

We struggle with this exercise because we have to do it in language, and everyone's language is different and based on their own experience/culture/situation.

02.24.11 at 4:09 AM

Eric has a good objective just didn't deliver. Obviously sweet and savoury don't work. Need to find something new, sorry Eric !

Tim wrote:
02.24.11 at 6:10 AM

OMG, I can't take it. It's brutal. Bored to tears by the third paragraph.

Do you know what's harder to read than tasting notes? Highbrow wine writers pontificating about tasting notes.

If readers feel their getting value from them they'll read them, if they don't they won't.

Sorry if I come off like an asshole. I'm fired up this morning :-)

Jennifer wrote:
02.24.11 at 7:34 AM

I'm taking your side on this one Alder! All good points -- although I am not a fan of ridiculously pompous sounding tasting notes.

We use our own tasting notes (not Parker, et al)on every wine in our store to help consumers get a feel for a wine and what sounds good to them. We are always there to help customers and recommend wines but some people like to orient themselves first and be armed with information before engaging a sales person. This is part of making wine LESS intimidating, not more!

We also provide a general descriptor (Elegant, Juicy, Or Bold) on every wine which (we believe) helps people narrow down their choices by their palate preference of just what they are in the mood for at that time. The vast majority of customers comment on how much they like it -- although for a few it admittedly confuses them more.

It is difficult at times to organize wines in to these three categories but I would find it nearly impossible to have just two categories of 'sweet' and 'savory'. After all this time of educating people that 'sweet' is the opposite of dry, this just confuses the issue even more.

I think Eric was just trying to get a rise out of people. Well, it worked.

Stephen wrote:
02.24.11 at 10:22 AM

A missing element in all this, it seems to me, is the specific interaction between a wine writer and his audience. Whatever the writer's approach may be to describing wine, the reader has to find some correspondence with his own experience. This often does not happen until the writer and his readership have been at it, together, for quite a while.

In this relationship, readers gradually develop an understanding of what a certain writer intends when he or she describes a wine as having 'lively,' 'spirited,' or 'jittery' acidity - because these are terms he uses habitually. The writer creates a kind of code which readers gradually learn (and even adopt) as they repeatedly compare written descriptions with their own experience.

In order to nurture this kind of relationship, writers do well to employ a more limited vocabulary that they might if their only interest were to make their writing colorful or 'literary.'

Over the years, my approach has been to try to put the 'interesting' writing in the main part of the story then revert to something more utilitarian (limited descriptive vocabulary is part of this) in tasting notes.

If Eric Asimov began using the sweet/savory binary pair regularly in his column and blog, it might well prove a useful concept - but only to the extent his readers find it meaningful enough to actually internalize.

02.24.11 at 11:05 AM

OK, toss out the binary system of savory and sweet, but credit Asimov with making us think.

One thing missing in this conversation is any discussion of the audience for whom wine writing of any sort is intended. Have a look at today's blog about Gerald Asher. He hates tasting notes, but, in fact, he often wrote 3,000 word essays about one wine. It took him that long to set the stage, provide the context, talk about enjoying the wine with food, etc. But, in the end, if his essays had not been about wine and inspired us to go try something, then he would have failed. Obviously, he did not fail.

If one puts together the King Krak requirements with Alder's requirements and then lets the writer decide how much of those items are needed to bring the wine alive, and toss in some useful context where that is germane, then tasting notes are not rote, uniform constructs but reflections on what is relevant about the wine.

No need to deal in great length on every wine, but for wines that have personality, especially if they come highly recommended, it is always useful to provide context, style, adherence to or variations from both varietal character and expected norms for the location, uses with food as well as interesting (hopefully) descriptions. In the long run, however, it is the market place that decides if a writer is being helpful and worth reading or not. And the market has pretty much said that there is no such thing as a "one style of wine wrting fits all" model.

Millie wrote:
02.24.11 at 11:42 AM

Simply stated, wine is art. It starts with an artist who has a vision of something he or she wants to create and uses the materials available to attempt to create it.

The only difference between a bottle of wine and a painting or a poem is that instead of the intrinsic happiness one receives being enlightened by a fellow human creating something out of a feeling, wine is full of that instant uncomplicated happiness that comes in so many wonderful forms: alcohol.

It's what gives wine a broader appeal. It's what places wine in a liquor 'store' as opposed to say a liquor 'museum'. But like the film industry, you basically have producers making films on a spectrum ranging from the incredibly uncomplicated big-blockbuster (think Barefoot or Yellow Tail) to the obscure art pieces (think a grand cru Bordeaux). And it's this tricky balancing act which is at the root of all this heated debate.

Consumers are so used to getting what they want and having it so simple, and more importantly, salesmen are so used to bending over backwards for the consumer that now we are debating whether or not we should dumb down decriptions of highly complex concepts. Should a decription of Goya's The Third of May 1808 say “its a ugly picture of a bunch of well dressed men shooting a bunch of poorly dressed men.”? Of course not, that paining requires a great deal of thought if you want to gain anything by looking at it.

Pontificating is how people innovate, grow and learn. So like Tim insinuated, if you have no interest in learning and growing as a person, then by all means go buy some Two Buck Chuck, get trashed, wake up with a thought-suppressing hangover, and start your mindless daily cycle all over again.

I do agree that there are some problems with professional tasting notes (as I've noted in the comments of the Slate Wine article posted in an earlier comment), but I do not at all think these notes should be overly-simplified for people who are used to having all their information spoon-fed to them.

When I took my wine evaluation courses in school, I specifically remember the very first lab we did. We had a Sauvignon blanc and the first thing the G.A. said was how he detected notes of gooseberry. Like about 90% of the class, my first thought was, “What the hell is a gooseberry?” I could have stopped there, dropped the class, and decided that winos were a bunch of stuck-up snobs, but instead I went to the grocery store and bought some gooseberry jam, and I've never missed that note since.

Clive Watson wrote:
02.24.11 at 12:13 PM

Excellent points. The idea of reducing wine terms to binary categories is deeply appalling to me. Why would we even consider crushing an incredibly nuanced experience into two categories so basic? If we as wine advocates can't offer anything better, we might as well just resort to clicking "like" buttons on winery facebook pages.

Sure, conveying meaning through language is a woolly business, and some loss of transfer is inevitable. We all have different vocabularies, and our understanding of words is always shaped by private experience -- but this is a good thing. It's why we can learn from each other. Standardization is sterilization, in wine writing as in all other areas of organic culture. To reduce so many carefully crafted wines, so much passion and articulation on the part of wine-makers, to say nothing of age-old traditions and styles, to just two columns, or even a standardized list of bullet-point attribute rankings would be an insult to the wine makers and a deep disservice to those who might enjoy it. There are already plenty of shallow things in western civilization. We don't need to pretend the rich, complex things are shallow too.

Karl Summerville wrote:
02.25.11 at 6:59 AM

Interesting posts and comments. Check out a related article on NYTime's 'The Pour' http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/

I'm with Clive Watson on this one.

Dale Cruse wrote:
02.25.11 at 7:48 AM

I respect Mr. Asimov but his argument falls apart before it even gets out the door: If he tried to write his weekly column using one-word descriptors, the NY Times would fire him immediately.

02.25.11 at 9:01 AM

Alder,
I believe that, when evaluating the hedonic/subjective/organoleptic qualities of wine, reviewers should adopt a reductionist view and judge all enological components individually: 1) Sugars (Umami/Fruit); 2) Acidity; 3) Phenolics; 4) Flaws & Petty Winemaking Practices; but always having in mind that the evaluation should be in context with the type of wine and its innate features (grape variety, climate & geographic origin).
Novel wine evaluation formats, models, ideas, etc., IMHO, should aim at establishing a systematic/objective/intelligible/non-metaphorical framework to describe wine.

Chris Lopez wrote:
02.26.11 at 5:49 PM

Upon reading this, I am caught asking myself "was this post sweet or savory?" =)

02.27.11 at 2:30 AM

Howdy all - what a fascinating debate - and so glad to see it's good natured. I wanted to add 2 points, one about the reason I started my site and another about the various examples that The Daily Maverick used which people seem to concentrate on :)

First. I started my site after being frustrated with the populist reviews, like those in Platters. I am not trained in wine - I just love the stuff and have a lot of fun drinking it with friends. The Platters reviews especially weren't telling me whether I'd like the wine or not and what it tasted like. Obviously this is a subjective task, but hence the job of the critic. I like your 3 criteria listed in the post - they make sense. I tend to say to people that a Real Time Wine Review needs to distill one thing about the wine which help the man in the street make up their mind. Taste/Smell/Feeling. Hence you get things like Loo Spray coming through :)

Please remember, that my target market is not the wine experts and the wine industry inner circle. I have the utmost respect for you all (especially how you've managed to train noses/palate etc). And I enjoy drinking with an expert. My target market is the people that don't understand blend %'s, climates and most of the flowery adjectives that are included on the controversial banned words list.

This tastes like mulberries and soil, but makes your tongue curl up on the sides.

I sure you can turn that into a much better expert review, using technical terms - but then I would understand it.

And lastly, it's unfortunate, but part and parcel of being a disruptor - that people tend to concentrate on the one or two reviews that The Daily Maverick used to stir the pot. The Landskroon "kak" review for one. Funny back story, that was my very first review, almost two years ago. I had NO IDEA what I was doing, or what it would turn out to be. For prosperity sake I included it on Real Time Wine. I love looking back over the 200+ reviews on the site (Especially my ones) and seeing how my style has matured and grown - it was pretty naive at the start, but the last 100 reviews, while irreverent hopefully stick true to that mantra of a simple, direct, relevant wine review for the man in the street.

And that's the beautiful thing about wine and wine reviewing at the end of the day. We get better at it! And that makes it more fun.

I've never reviewed a wine as 10/10 on our scale. I feel that once I've tasted a 10 I might as well give up. I'd much rather keep tasting wine, keep attracting new people into the world of wine and keep chasing that elusive 10.

Zar Brooks wrote:
02.27.11 at 3:10 PM

All wine comes in at the mouth
And love comes in at the eye;
That's all we shall know for truth
Before we grow old and die

WB Yeats from The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910)

Alder Yarrow wrote:
02.28.11 at 9:08 AM

With his permission, I'm sharing an e-mail that Eric Asimov wrote to me in response to some back and forth we've had on the subject:

"I think you're misinterpreting me now, as you did a few years ago. I'm not saying that tasting notes intimidate people because they overwhelm them with information, and that we need to simplify them to make notes less intimidating. I'm saying that tasting notes offer much useless information. If they convey anything at all, it's not at face value, it's because you've read a certain critic's notes for long enough to be able to interpret them, regardless of what they actually say. I say, refine notes so they convey the information that is useful, not wrap that information in piles of unnecessary, irrelevant detail. If people are intimidated, it's because they intuitively recognize that many tasting notes are nonsensical. Yet because of the wine culture we have, they blame themselves rather than conclude rightly that they are reading nonsense."

By a few years ago, he is referencing the talk he did at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers entitled the Tyranny of Tasting Notes.

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