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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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  24. April 30, 2013

    Seems to me that they need to augment their vocabularies in the direction of what distinguishes a wine, if anything.

  25. April 17, 2013

    One vote for Steinberger. I had the same objection to Andrew’s comment on the supremacy of tasting notes over scores. Scores far overshadow tasting notes in their influence. People seek the opinion of a wine critic in order to learn the extent to which a wine pleased the critic. Scores do a much better job of meeting this objective than any descriptions of aromas and tastes ever could.

    I rarely read tasting notes. I consider most of them to be a complete waste of my time. They rarely tell me what I want to know. How well did you like it? Why? Does it diverge from other wines in its category, or is it closer to typical? Who made it and what were the aspects of how it was made that contributed to its characteristics?

    When I do read a tasting note, I skip over all the aromas and taste descriptions. I consider them utterly superfluous. I know what Cabernet taste like. I know what Pinot Noir tastes like. Besides, just because you smell strawberries doesn’t mean that I will smell strawberries, or even that you will smell strawberries the next time you smell the same wine. Why bother? Tell me something I don’t know.

  26. April 12, 2013

    It’s always an honor to inspire Mike Steinberger to pick up his pen. Thanks for continuing the conversation.

    Your frogs’ legs example is a perfect analogy, but I actually find it essentially consistent with my point of view, not a counter-example. You write:

    “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.”

    By the same token, I had allowed that the fruit analogies are “of some arguable potential use to someone who’s never tasted a grape before,” but an extremely unhelpful way of describing any particular wine. Put another way, it is accurate to say that frogs’ legs taste a lot like chicken — but if you were weighing your options in a restaurant and asked the waiter to tell you about the frogs’ legs, and he replied, “They taste like chicken,” you would quite rightly conclude that he had entirely missed the point of your question. You already knew what frogs’ legs taste like; you were asking a question about how these particular frogs’ legs are prepared, and the waiter told you absolutely nothing about that.

    It’s also true that saying frogs’ legs taste like chicken makes sense only in a context in which we eat chicken so often that it serves as a familiar frame of reference and frogs’ legs very rarely (otherwise we would say that chicken tastes like frogs’ legs). Yet I suspect that most people remarking that their Bordeaux tastes like black currants consume quite a lot more Bordeaux than black currants. When they say their Bordeaux tastes like black currants, what they really are likely to mean is that it tastes like other Bordeaux that wine critics have described as tasting like black currants. When words get so many degrees removed from the actual experience of the thing being referenced, the result is going to be imprecise at best, more often just outright wrong and misleading — and, I would argue, even where it’s not wrong, it’s not all that relevant.

  27. April 11, 2013

    Dan, to your last point–I don’t think the two things are mutually exclusive. One can cite a few aromas in a tasting note, and one can also address questions of typicity, etc. But, of course, “typicity” is a loaded word these days, and it is an issue that most of the major point-slingers have little desire to address. All those New Wave St Emilions surely fail the typicity test; they bear no resemblance to the kind of wines that traditionally came out of St Emilion, and out of Bordeaux more generally. No way is Parker or anyone else who likes those wines going to acknowledge that they are atypical; instead, they insist that wines like the 2003 Pavie are modern-day versions of the 47 Cheval. I also suspect that some of these critics simply lack the experience to comment on typicity. I wonder, for instance, how much old Chave, Jamet, and Clape the new Wine Advocate Rhone guy has ever tasted. Has he had much if any Verset from the 70s and 80s, or Gentaz? Those wines will give you a very different perspective on Northern Rhone typicity than, say, a recent vintage Guigal LaLa.

  28. April 11, 2013

    Hi Sasha, thanks for the comment, and delighted you liked my post. “Throw some nouns” is a nice way of putting it (plus, some adjectives, too). I enjoyed the piece on your site. I’m not against tasting notes per se–I’m opposed to bad writing, and too many tasting notes are the product of inept writing. Are tasting notes deterring us from gaining a more nuanced understanding of wines? It depends. There’s no doubt that people tend to focus too much on individual aromas and flavors–they lose the forest for the trees, forgive the cliche. But it doesn’t have to be that way, and I’ve always encouraged people to focus on overall impressions–did they like the wine, what did they like about it, etc. I don’t think tasting notes are inherently bad; in fact, I think they can serve a useful purpose. But as I said, too many professional tasting notes just stink.

  29. April 11, 2013

    One of the key reasons tasting notes begin to sound similar can be traced back to viticulture. Clonal selections exist solely because they create uniform profiles. Of course the resulting wines are nuanced by where and how they grow and what happens after they are crushed. However, we should not expect there to be a wide variation in the core aroma/flavor components of (for instance) a dozen Rutherford Bench Cabernet Sauvignon. I find that each of the core characteristics presents itself at a particular amplitude in a specific wine (think of a sound engineers mixing board). I don’t know how other critics do it, I start off a note with what is most primary then assemble other descriptors in descending influence.

  30. Dan McCallum permalink
    April 11, 2013

    Seems to me that the element that is disappearing from wine reviews is consideration of typicity. That is, after all, the reason why we choose a Sancerre one day and a Barolo on another day. This is an outcome of the ‘it’s what’s in the glass that counts’ mentality. Thus leading to a new edition of wine reviews reading like another 500+ retail shelf-talkers (as they are destined to become). “Redolent of blackberries” means near nothing. To see how little- stick the phrase in a browser and view the results. Is it a good, better, or as good as can be Pauillac? And why? That means something. Likewise ‘underwhelming’ or ‘overwhelming’ are telling words. Particularly the latter is seldom mentioned, except in code.
    I’d restate Keith’s point in this manner- why compare a specific wine to a specific fruit salad when it is so much more meaningful to compare wine to wine?

  31. April 11, 2013

    Great piece, and I completely agree. It’s the “throw some nouns at the problem” school of wine analysis. And it’s not only silly to read, but it also holds wine drinkers (beginners and old-timers alike) back from a more nuanced understanding of what’s in the glass. Here’s my more-than-two-cents on the same topic.
    Thanks for the post and discussion.


  32. April 11, 2013

    Hi Mandy, thanks–glad you enjoyed it. And I obviously agree–it’s the numbers, not the words, that carry the most weight. I, too, wish it were otherwise.

    Yes, Ron, tasting notes are truly the lowest-hanging fruit around, the easiest aspect of wine culture to criticize or mock. But while I agree with you that wine language has its inadequacies, I keep waiting for someone to come up with a better way of talking about wine. I haven’t been able to do it; no one has. And while the Parker cherry-and-berry thing leaves much to be desired, I still think it’s an improvement on the tweedy British style–“very fine” and all that bullshit.

    Waterboarding with Prosecco? Interesting idea. I just saw Zero Dark Thirty, and it appeared they were using cava in those scenes.

  33. April 11, 2013

    Thanks for the brilliant write up Mike. Laughed out loud and nodded my head several times. I agree, numbers are the cornerstone of contemporary wine criticism but I wish it wasn’t so.

  34. April 10, 2013

    David, great to see you again (figuratively speaking, of course), and thanks for stopping by. The Chenin/quince example is fantastic, and is a very persuasive retort to Keith’s comment. I don’t believe, however, that Keith was criticizing the use of these descriptors because he thinks we employ them too promiscuously; he seems to think that they are simply inaccurate and misleading. At any rate, your last line raises a key point, and underscores one of the big problems with contemporary wine criticism: when you are writing tasting notes for hundreds of wines, it is very difficult not to be repetitive. My answer to that problem? Taste fewer wines, publish fewer notes. Alas, that solution is probably not available to you, not in your role as a critic for The Wine Advocate.

  35. April 10, 2013

    Dan, my reaction to the Jefford piece wasn’t quite as negative. It did seem as if he was edging close to psychological analysis, which made me a little uncomfortable, and while I realize that he had limited space to work with, I think he would have produced a better piece had he actually interviewed some of these people (if he did interview anyone, it’s not apparent from what he wrote). But I thought he made some interesting points–points worthy of discussion, at any rate. And, yes, as Jack noted, it was a WA tour de force. As you know, Parker’s definition of good, responsible journalism is journalism that praises Parker.

    That’s an interesting experiment you did, and a very intriguing result. It would indeed be good if some of these guys could expand their vocabularies; it would be good, too, if they could turn a nifty phrase every once in a while. I suspect neither thing is going to happen.

  36. David Schildknecht permalink
    April 10, 2013

    Interesting and useful stuff!

    I’m too pressed (do I hear sighs of relief?) to comment in any detail.

    But I wanted to mention that I long used quinces and chenin as an example of how one sometimes wonders whether pointing out that the orchard fruit tastes like wine from that grape can be no less useful than pointing out that the wine tastes like the fruit.

    Last year, I finally got to spend some time with Jacqueline Friedrich – who in more senses than one “wrote the book(s)” on Loire wine – and at one point she mentioned that, having grown up in the Northeast, she had absolutely no notion of quinces until a ripe one was finally placed under her by then middle-aged nose in California, whereupon she exclaimed “Oh my gosh, it smells like Chenin!”

    Whether one looks at this example or at Keith’s of cherries and Gevrey, the ubiquity of the descriptor does not make it inappropriate; but on the other hand, of course it means that one has to move on to other descriptors in order to say anything about what makes a given example distinctive.

  37. April 10, 2013

    I thought I was everybody’s favorite wine blogger. OK, maybe not Alice Feiring or Blinky Gray. Yeah, Parker blindsided me with his rave reviews of my foolishness. His way of backhanding other bloggers, no doubt, was to declare the HoseMaster his favorite. Sort of like declaring Bill Buckner is the greatest Red Sox player of all-time.

    It’s funny that folks want to know, “What’s that wine like?” and the answer is often, “It got 94 from Wine Enthusiast.” Oh. Now I understand.

    Nothing, and I mean nothing, is easier to criticize in the wine business than tasting notes. “Well-written tasting note” is oxymoronic, and I would know, I went to Oxy and am a moron. In real life, wine “experts” never ever talk about wine the way tasting notes do. Try describing a wine in Parkerese at a wine judging and you’re likely to get waterboarded with Prosecco. Which is what it’s best for. Wine description is an invented language that fails to accomplish what it’s meant to accomplish. Think of it as Esperanto for Drunks.

    I was only in the neighborhood looking for ideas. Yeah, that’s my story, Mr. Parker, and I’m sticking to it.

  38. April 10, 2013

    Miguel, thanks for the sensational comment–some really interesting observations there. As you point out, there is an unavoidable tension between what serious oenophiles want and expect from a tasting note and what is likely to appeal to casual wine enthusiasts, and it is a dilemma without an easy or obvious solution. Even before these two articles (Levenberg and Jefford) were posted, I was giving some thought to tasting notes, and I’m coming around to the view that maybe shorter notes–short, as in one sentence–are the way to go. If you can get across the pertinent information in a single, hopefully clever sentence, that’s pretty good. Can it be done? I’m not sure. But brevity is a virtue in writing, and I think that probably applies to tasting notes, too.

  39. April 10, 2013

    The Hosemaster visits my humble abode? I’m the one who should be nervous. I agree, Ron, that tasting notes sans scores (I’ll stick with the French, in deference to you) are a bit of a joke. On the other hand, the score is the only thing the point-chasers care about (a self-evident observation, but that’s my specialty!), and some of these spit-and-score types are so “challenged” when it comes to writing that they would probably be doing both the English language and the wine world a favor if they’d just lay off the prose and stick to dishing out points.

    And Jack is right, Ron–you are Parker’s favorite wine blogger. Being seen in this neighborhood might get you downgraded in his.

  40. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 10, 2013

    But, but, but, Hosey, you are Robert Parker’s favorite Wine Blogger. We are in the Little Leagues next to your “Bigshot Blog” LOL.
    By the way Mike, for all the blustering Keith Levenberg may post about ridiculous fruit descriptors in wine notes, he ain’t afraid to post tasting notes with his scores attached. 3,580 Tasting Notes on Cellar Tracker alone. And they don’t even include his old hysterical blasts of all things Perse from the early 2000’s (i.e. 64 points for 98 Monbousquet et al.)

  41. April 10, 2013

    I can’t type either. That’s no “chance” of making the team. I’m just nervous being on such a bigshot blog.

  42. April 10, 2013

    Scores sans tasting notes (see “sans” is way cooler than “without”) are hilarious–they’re like the numbers of the guys in baseball spring training who have no choice of making the team. Tasting notes sans scores (oh, that “sans” makes me sound smart) are the haiku of the addlepated. Which one is the kerosene? They’re “literally” the Siamese Twins of wine kerosene.

    I wish I could write.

  43. Dan McCallum permalink
    April 10, 2013

    I thought the Jefford piece to be ‘mailed in’ drivel to fulfill a contractual obligation. Now, as Jack points out, it is now a WA tour de force in journalism. Begs the question of ‘what else has he read lately?’

    On tasting notes from the pros- I once did an experiment, I input to google search a few entire reviews from various reviews. I was testing the notion of independent reviewers using each other as a resource for note key-words. But what I found was the opposite, individual reviewers using the same words and phrases on remarkably different wines. Seems to me that they need to augment their vocabularies in the direction of what distinguishes a wine, if anything.

  44. Jack Bulkin permalink
    April 10, 2013

    I don’t need no stinking critic notes or their points to describe wines. Fair, good and excellent would work just as well for me. Not surprisingly, Mr. Parker rather enjoyed the Jefford article Mike. He called it good journalism. I am certain that he would not enjoy your revisit of this issue nearly as much. It would likely be rated as poor in his view. Afterall, you are a blogger .

  45. April 10, 2013

    The scores have made for an effective shorthand in selling he wines and as you said, make up for horrid notes.

    The notes are indeed incredibly difficult to write in a compelling manner. For each edition of our guides, we keep trying to write in a simpler manner for the general public to quickly identify with as we absolutely want to stay away from numeric scores. This has proved trying. When simplifying the notes, the professionals find them silly. When trying to appease the professionals and write with more standard terms, we lose the general public, but we need to write for both groups.

    I’m finding myself favoring Jancis’s approach more and more, but in an even more abbreviated fashion. Like you said, saying that there are citric elements or notes of pear should be enough when describing a white. These are elements that most any regular wine drinker should be able to identify with. When you can in to the “wet dog” or even “petrol” descriptors, you start to lose people, although once you know these terms, it’s hard to not use them as they immediately stand out.

    Obviously, wine is not beer nor whiskey, but at the same time, I see this “wine note creep” in to so many other fields like writing about beer, whiskey, or tea and it seems to just justify higher prices without people understanding a damned thing about it. I don’t know what the solution is, as short of actually tasting a liquid text is the only way to convey what it’s like to other people. Again, this is why I’m favoring shorter, more basic notes, but of course, seeing 300+ wines from a specific region grouped together, terms like “strong minerality” again and again get boring for most people.


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