Tuesday, April 5, 2011

What's Wrong with Tasting Notes - Part 2

In my previous post, I started my rant about wine tasting notes.

I’ve been mulling over this for a while now, and mulling inevitably leads to Googling, which brought me to a wonderful article in the Journal of Wine Economics from 2007, On Wine Bullshit: Some New Software?, written by Richard E. Quandt of Princeton University.

Professor Quandt argues that there are some topics that tend to induce bullshit and that there are some people who have a special propensity to bullshit.
In some instances, there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances…
Oh dear…busted.

Wine tasters come in for particular attention from Professor Quandt, who assembled a list of wine descriptors that he culled from published wine tasting notes. His particular favourites are “bass” (the fish? the ale? the instrument?), olive-tinged black currant, scorched earth and spicy earth, liquorice (both root and melted), zesty mineral, velvet v. silky tannins, and the list goes on.

Like Professor Quandt, I think I know what a taster may have been trying to convey with each of those terms (OK, “bass” has me perplexed). But perhaps my perception is different from Professor Quandt’s, and different again from that of the author. Some tasting notes he found had 20 descriptors, including this one: “meaty, sweaty, and sweet Pinot fruit”! (To the credit of my sommelier Profs, I think that one would have received a failing grade.)

That’s what’s wrong with tasting notes: Too much deconstruction without reconstruction. Too much emphasis on the parts; not enough emphasis on the whole.

Now, I don’t underestimate the difficulty of trying to capture the whole experience of a wine. The Globe and Mail recently published a feature by Ian Brown, entitled, Foodies: Are food crazies getting their just desserts? Here’s an excerpt, but where the word “food” appears, I’ve substituted the word “wine”. It sums up the challenge.
The great [wine] writers have always known that writing or talking about [wine] per se, about the actual taste of something, is like writing about the sex act: it’s an intensely private sensation that doesn’t last long, and so should be attempted rarely, if at all.
Ah, but we have to try.

Next up...what should be in a wine tasting note.

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