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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?

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