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Care For A Word Salad With Your Wine?

2013 April 10
by Mike

Have you ever noticed that critiques of “professional” tasting notes are much more interesting and entertaining than the tasting notes themselves? In general, tasting notes suck. The tasting note, as a literary form, doesn’t easily accommodate stylish prose. But a bigger problem, I think, is that most wine critics are not good writers, and their shortcomings are magnified by the absurd number of tasting notes that they typically churn out.  They tend to fall back on the same tired descriptions, the same overwrought phrases, the same ridiculous metaphors, which makes their notes achingly dull to read but exceedingly easy to mock. The famed children’s author Roald Dahl, himself a wine enthusiast, once wrote a letter to Decanter magazine in which he derided as “tommyrot” the “extravagant, meaningless similes” used to describe wines. He asked of wine critics, “I wonder…if these distinguished persons know that their language has become a source of ridicule in many sensible wine-drinking households. We sit around reading them aloud and shrieking with laughter.”

Dahl now resides in the great chocolate factory in the sky, but tasting notes continue to provide endless comic fodder. Keith Levenberg, who is one of the finest wine writers in the business (even though it isn’t actually a business for him: he has a day job as a lawyer and writes about wine purely for recreational purposes, which makes his work all the more impressive), posted an item the other day poking fun at tasting notes and some of the more ludicrous phrases and clichés that are a standard feature of the genre. His riff about “literally” is especially funny, if a little wicked, and points up the fact that some of these guys are literally just throwing words at the page, with no thought to what they are actually saying.

I part company with Keith when it comes to the use of fruit descriptors, which he maintains are complete BS. Sure, the cherries and berries thing can be taken too far—it really doesn’t matter to me whether it was a Bosc pear or a red Anjou pear that a critic smelled in a chardonnay; just knowing that he caught a whiff of pear is sufficient. But Keith thinks wine critics should avoid fruit references entirely. “Cabernet sauvignon does not taste like currants,” he writes. “Pinot noir does not taste like cherries. Riesling does not taste like apples. They taste like what they are. Cabernet tastes like cabernet, pinot tastes like pinot, riesling tastes like riesling.” That’s a bit glib, and if you follow this line of reasoning to its logical end, you must conclude that it is a fool’s errand to try to describe wines at all. Judging by the 3580 tasting notes that Keith has posted on CellarTracker as of this morning (and I do hope he is billing his clients for the time), he clearly doesn’t believe that—he just objects to name-checking the specific fruit aromas that one detects in a wine.

But if a riesling has a pronounced green apple note, or a Chablis shows a lot of citrus, why not point that out? It can be useful information. Keith writes, “Nobody has ever bit into a cherry and remarked that it tasted like a Gevrey-Chambertin, a fact which ought to prove conclusively that any Gevrey-Chambertin’s resemblance to a cherry is so distant it’s barely worth noting.” Nobody has ever taken a bite of chicken and said that it tasted like frogs’ legs; however, it is certainly the case that frogs’ legs taste a lot like chicken, and this comparison can be helpful to people who’ve never tasted frog before and are wondering what to expect. Such analogies are of limited value, but they are not devoid of value.

At any rate, Keith’s post is well worth a read, and while I’m sure his intent was merely to give everyone a good laugh (mission accomplished!), perhaps his mockery will encourage a few spit-and-scribble types to pay a little more attention to the words they use.

Tasting notes are also the subject of Andrew Jefford’s latest column. Someone—presumably not Andrew—slapped a strange headline on the piece: “Wither Tasting Notes?” is an interesting question, but it is not a question that Andrew addresses in his article. Instead, he evaluates the tasting notes of some of the more prominent wine critics—reviewing the reviewers, you might say. He begins with the most prominent critic of all, Robert Parker.  “Parker’s own notes seem to me to remain the gold standard,” Andrew writes. “They are lengthy enough to do justice to the wines he is writing about, and while not polished in any literary sense convey the character of the wine with great deftness, are internally coherent….and bubble with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can fire the reader into a purchase.” I completely agree, though I would put it more bluntly: Parker is a terrible writer who happened to have a knack for turning out compelling tasting notes. At their best, his tasting notes really did make you want to run out and load up on whatever wine he was praising. His enthusiasm was infectious.

Andrew goes on to assess the tasting notes of some other well-known critics. He contends that Jancis Robinson’s notes “can seem abbreviated, staccato, occasionally capricious and lacking in internal coherence, as if she grew a little bored or impatient as she wrote them.” I don’t know that I buy that, but if Jancis’s notes do occasionally betray some ennui, who could blame her? She’s a hugely gifted writer, and there is nothing more mind-numbing than pumping out 50 tasting notes in a single sitting. Andrew says that “Neal Martin writes lengthy, articulate, and coherent notes, but (like many European tasters) he seems to have an enthusiasm problem.” From this side of the Atlantic, that restraint looks like a virtue, not a flaw. Some American critics are so determined to get their scores and notes cited by retailers that they have effectively become shills, dishing out big numbers to lots of wines and stuffing their tasting notes full of superlatives (even wines that don’t get monster scores often receive lavish praise, creating a bizarre disconnect between the ratings and the tasting notes).

Andrew declares that “tasting notes are the kerosene of wine criticism; they have powered its ascent, and keep it aloft. If scores matter, they do so because they are a shorthand for the note itself, but it is the tasting note which builds a critic’s reputation, not the score.” On this point, I strongly disagree with him. In my opinion, scores are the kerosene of wine criticism, and they have come to serve that function in no small part because tasting notes are generally so crappy. Describing wine is not easy even for talented writers, and most of the “note-issuers”, as Andrew amusingly calls them, are not talented writers. Their tasting notes tend to be long on obscure descriptors and banal adjectives and woefully short on genuine insight. There is no doubt that scores are the first thing most people notice, and I suspect that many oenophiles, having waded through enough of these word salads, no longer even bother to glance at the accompanying tasting notes.

What say you? Do you think tasting notes are the cornerstone of contemporary wine criticism, or is it the scores? Words or numbers? Jefford or Steinberger?

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