Wine Writing Day Two

Today marked the second day of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers, which I am attending for a peek into the world of respectable wine journalism, whose fringes I skirt around without knowing the real score, so to speak.

The morning began with a panel instruction on writing tasting notes, hosted by Harvey Steiman of The Wine Spectator, Frank Prial of The New York Times, and author and educator Karen MacNeil.

Steiman began with a presentation on what he felt were the appropriate components of a tasting note:

– What does it look like?
– What does it smell like?
– What does it taste like?
– What is your overall impression?
– What is the wine’s most telling characteristic?

The presenters offered some interesting comments about different forms of tasting notes, which I was surprised to hear everyone in support of, including the most wacky of notes such as those used by Wine X Magazine or Red Wine Haiku.

In the midst of this initial, somewhat remedial instruction on tasting notes, Karen MacNeil said something that struck me as both at once very logical but also very profound.

“Thinking about writing tasting notes always brings up something that has troubled me for many years. This thing needs to be grappled with if you’re going to write about wine,” said Karen. “There is a muddily complex relationship between wine and language. Wine is not its own language in the same way that food is its own language. For instance, we can put a piece of bell pepper in our mouth and say that it tastes, well, bell peppery. The thing itself is enough explanation.”

“But it’s obviously not enough,” Karen went on to say, “to tell people that Barolo tastes like Barolo. When we write tasting notes we are applying other languages to the task of communicating about wine.”

She then tied this back to the discussion of different styles of tasting notes, saying that since the exercise of applying different languages was always an approximation, there really is no right or wrong way to do it (though later she was quick to point out some examples from the class that might alienate common readers because of their extremely technical terms).

The more I hear Karen talk about wine the more I like her approach to it. I found her a nice counterpoint to Steiman and Prial, and especially enjoyed it when she skewered one of the students in the class for mentioning the wine’s legs in their tasting note.

“As with women,” she said sharply, “the legs tells you nothing of real importance about the quality or complexity of a wine.”

This session, especially in the Q&A throughout it, danced around some interesting topics that I wish we had an opportunity to explore in depth, especially when we got into (and quickly moved out of) discussions about scoring wines and what the real definition of “great” was.

Steiman’s closing tips about writing tasting notes were apropos: “It’s a note, not an essay. Put what distinguishes the wine first. Use active verbs. Formality can be boring. Paint a picture.”

I don’t think he likes my style of tasting note.

The day’s second session featured a short course by author Andrea Immer Robinson on the art of the interview, complete with guinea pig guest interviewees, Joel and Amy Aiken, husband and wife winemakers (he of Beaulieu Vineyards, she of Meander Cellars). Robinson was an engaging and energetic teacher, but I didn’t think the session was structured well. We watched her interview the couple, and then got the chance to ask them our own questions (with the predictable results of some people monopolizing the floor). And then without warning we were asked to write up the interview and share it with the room. This proved frustrating on a number of fronts, including the fact that I hadn’t taken notes, nor was there any coherence to the interview questions. I was surprised though, that a couple of my colleagues managed to begin promising sounding pieces in just a few minutes.

We ended the day with a very odd, half lecture, half discussion on writing about terroir, which wasn’t as much instructive as it was entreating. Writer Rod Smith, whose writing I have come to very much admire in the two short days I have been exposed to it, basically laid out the case for an approach to wine writing that left behind scoring and quantitative evaluation and focused instead on writing based on actual experiential knowledge of where the grapes are grown and observations of wines based on this knowledge.

Of course, the usual discussion about terroir’s definition ensued, which was fun, and provided the opportunity to ask some pointed questions of the panelists about various aspects of the many accepted uses for the term. Ultimately though it seemed that Smith was simply pleading with writers to get out into the vineyards and stop just tasting what was in the bottle and writing pithy notes.

The discussion prompted me to observe that if terroir is a “thing” at all, it is a narrative — a story of everything that happened leading up to the moment when a wine goes into the bottle, and maybe a bit afterwards as well. I took Smith’s entreaty to really be about returning to the story of a wine — the who, the what, the where, and the when of its creation.

Perhaps I’m trying to shoehorn his point into my own perspective on the topic, but I nonetheless thought that he was asking us all to tell more stories, and most importantly from the first person experience of a wine and its place.