Monday, October 11, 2010

a note on notes

I'm a little tasting noted out. It's not just because I'm fighting a cold or that I had the misfortune to sample some of Tesco's more deplorable offerings recently, though the latter certainly gave me reason to pause. It's more the repetition. As a writer I find myself cringing with every mention of 'citrus' or 'forest floor' (the latter is certainly one of my crutches). As a reader I find them increasingly boring. How many times can you type or read 'pencil lead' and 'cassis' before you want to crack open a bottle of Budvar and be done with it?

Tasting notes didn't used to be like this. They weren't a list of other things that the wine in question smelled and tasted like. Instead they were meaningless metaphors about picnicking at Easter or wandering the moors on a midsummer's eve. Immensely fun to read but of no use to anyone who wanted to know what the wine actually tasted like. Like, you know, the consumer. Parker called them all on this, screamed bullshit and did his own thing. So instead the whimsical wine metaphor was replaced with lists of fruits, herbs, condiments and in some cases none of the above (manure). And while more people know what blackcurrant and bramble tastes like than what wandering the moors on a midsummer's eve tastes like, I feel there's a sad rut that that this almost entirely unimportant literary genre has reached. So broken down are wines becoming within these lists of fruit and whatnot that you can't see the forest for the trees. You get a hint as to what a wine tastes like, but not how it tastes. There are exceptions: Jamie Goode's occasional 'complete' tasting notes, in which he describes not only the wine, but the surroundings and situation in minuscule detail are fun and fantastic in how they acknowledge that situation is essential in how a wine tastes. Gary Vaynerchuk's Wine Library TV isn't everyone's cup of tea, but he's done more to explain flavours in wine to the masses than a library full of fruit salad tasting notes. But the vast majority could be cut-and-pasted from one wine to another and no one would notice.

And maybe there's something to that. Perhaps wines just taste too much alike these days and their differences are too minute for the limitations of wine vocabulary. Is the vocabulary itself to blame? Is it too limited? It seems whenever a wine-writer strays back towards the old metaphor-style, they catch all manner of hell. When Andrew Jefford describes flavours as 'helicoptering', people call bullshit. Andrew Jefford is one of the best booze writers in the world. His New France is among my favourite wine tomes. Then he turned around and wrote Peat, Smoke & Spirit, the best whisky book I've ever read. Have we come so far from those whimsical wine-writers of the past that we cannot see some of the positive points of their writing? Is it time for another upheaval within our writing and wine assessment? Michael Broadbent still waxes the whimsy rather beautifully and his notes are a joy to read (though often fill me with a wrathful jealousy) but it's as though he's the exception that proves the rule. Once again I look at Vaynerchuk's style and content to see what might be coming next. He uses an extraordinary number of descriptors, from classic fruit salad to the geological with healthy doses of the flavours of childhood. But he also chucks in the odd metaphor - ugly girlfriends and WWF heroes - a far cry from picnicking at Easter, but people do seem to respond to it.

Of course, that brings up a question of who these tasting notes are for? Are they purely for the consumer? If so, how interested are they, really? When I host tastings for people just getting into wine and guide them through the nose and palate, their first response when I ask what aromas and flavours they get is always 'wine'. Sometimes it's 'red wine' or 'white wine'. Which is fair enough. I sometimes think that there are those in the wine trade who feel that you can't even casually appreciate wine without an understanding of the vocabulary that comes with it. And a lot of wine writers seem to be writing only for their peers and their paycheques. If that's the case, then there's even less of excuse for mundanity and repetitiveness of tasting notes these days. Am I the only one seeing this?

 I write my notes for me, to provide some manner of written record of what I'm tasting. From now on I'm going to stray into the more ambiguous, whimsical and metaphorical because a) it's more fun to write and b) it's more personal for me. That's not to say there won't be a dusting of fruit salad here and there, far from it. There'll just be a touch more garnish to go with it.


Freya said...

Bravo - I agree with many of the points raised here and hope it generates further thought and discussion.

Richard said...

Ta, Frey-dawg. It'll be interesting to see if my notes change at all.

Robert McIntosh (@thirstforwine) said...

oh so true, thanks for this

Jon Atkinson said...

I like your thinking on this - most of 'the trade' (self included) just automatically lapse into picking out fruit flavours Etc. even though some consumers are then led to believe that the wine in question has had raspberries, blackberries or whatever actually added to it - confusion reigns. Did you see @oliverstyles post on the same?

Cara Wood said...

I did a tasting on just this subject on Monday evening ... Favourite bit: when I asked is this wine Kate Moss, Kate Winslet or Katie Price got a unanimous Kate Winslet - We all spoke the same language!

DermotMW said...

I'm not sure what this post is about. You're bored by your own tasting notes, apparently. I can understand that having to write a long series of notes for a wine list, for example, can be extremely boring - 25 sauvignon blancs and how do you distinguish them?
However, it seems that you're writing tasting notes for your own sake at a tasting but then transcribing them for an article - if I'm mistaken in what you do, please forgive as I live elsewhere and don't read wine articles generally.
Both Jamie and Andrew Jefford have posted in the last dew months about tasting notes and all of you, I believe, have missed the point. The use of jargon is for purely peer to peer communication - one pro to another. If you're using the WSET SAT, for example, to communicate with punters then you're using the wrong tool.
In re Parker be aware that David Bird MW and Maggie McNie MW designed the original SAT for WSET in the late 1980s and, as I can testify from knowing both personally, they have major issues with how WSET uses the SAT now, as do I.
However, I never use the SAT as a means to talk to punters - that's like a computer geek spouting RAM when all you want to know is can I send an email.
I don't wish to seem annoying but there are very good reasons for using a structured tasting system but there are, as with wines, occasions when it isn't useful. You are supposed to know when these occasions arise. That, in some ways, is what being an expert is all about - knowing when to use jargon and when to speak in vernacular.
Anyway, that's my two cents...

Dermot Nolan MW

Bigpinots said...

That was like a fresh spring morning walking through a field of lambs, surrounded by clover, with an undertone of gumboot. Oh, I mean refreshing outlook. I'm all for the poetic tasting notes - give us a bit of1980s Jilly Goulding!

Richard said...

Thanks, everyone, for commenting. I wrote this last month and am a touch surprised that with recent articles it had gained some attention. Thanks also to those who linked to it.

I should kick off by saying this was never meant to be a structured essay on what I feel tasting notes should or shouldn't be; it's just a loose collection of musings on the matter: A note, if you will.

It was also never meant to be a direct attack on the WSET's Systematic Approach as a form of assessment. That's all it is though: it's a form of clinical assessment at a professional level. It also lacks in certain areas (structure and mouthfeel are not dealt with at all).

I will say that the SAT and its ilk have become a crutch of bad wine marketing, and if Dermot's assertion that it obviously wouldn't be used with the average punter is true, then there are thousands of back labels that didn't get that memo. There are also quite a few newspaper columnists and bloggers that are similarly in the dark. And if that jargon is used throughout the mainstream consumer press, as well as back labels, then it isn't restricted to peer-to-peer communication. I feel that assessment is just flat out wrong. I certainly don't think any of us have missed the point in this regard.

Most punters just want to know if the wine is good or not, and whether it will suit their tastes. This has sadly coincided with an overall lack of trust of the average retailer and the conviction that they will recommend anything as long as they get the sale. It's incumbent on wine merchants and retailers to build that trust back. But that's another story entirely.

As for the notes themselves, I feel they're for a smaller audience. I feel they can be fun to write and read, though it's harder than maybe it used to be. It might be a small audience, but it's a good audience. I feel, as a writer, it's incumbent on me to both express the wine's impact on me and make it fun to read. And from the looks of things, I'm not the only one feeling like that.