Non-Stupid-Sounding Tasting Notes: The Final Frontier

o-ASTEROID-facebookIn a world filled with terrorist temper tantrums, approaching asteroids and diseases that make your eyeballs bleed, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about wine tasting notes.

And here’s why:

fermat_with_neg_numbersIn theory, there exists a wine note format that does not come across as trite, derivative, pompous or simply idiotic, but finding it has proven tougher than finding positive integers greater than two for an + bn = cn.

It took 384 years to work out Fermat’s Theorem and the solution wound up being a hundred pages long.

I have struggled mightily, and failed epically, to raise the quality level of my tasting notes to a standard I assume wouldn’t shame a drunk Shropshire Sheep with Asperger’s, and yet, I shudder every time I proofread one of my reviews:  It’s like listening to an endless recording of my voice crashing from a three-day crack jag:

‘Can I possibly sound so overwhelmingly, stunningly and mind-bogglingly lame?’

The short answer to that classic conjecture is, ‘Yes. Chris: You can and you do’.

The only saving grace I cling to is that every other wine writer on the planet sounds just as dipshitty and predicable as me, and some—don’t call me stuck-up, now—are even worse.  In my world, amid the wider wine emporium, there are merely two categories of note taker: Those I dislike and those I dislike more.

From that peculiar bell curve, a few of the least annoying rise like soup scum to the the top of the pot.

parkerFor example, I’ve always enjoyed reading Robert Parker’s notes.  Agreeing with them or not is not the issue—I rarely get the opportunity to sample the sort of swank swill that is his professional lifeblood. But the man has a poetic grasp of the language and a lyrical way of describing wines that I throroughly appreciate.

Likewise, I dig Jancis Robinson’s style. She packs more emotion into a handful of words than most bards do in a canto.  She’s able to break wine down into bite-sized chunks, then built it back up to the empyrean, all the while making the journey seem effortless.

Claudia is better than I am.

Claudia is better than I am.

Andrew Jefford is up there, and so is Claudia Tyagi, a dear friend who happens to be a Master Sommelier, which is a qualification that by no means guarantees you will be a Master Note Taker.  She is nonetheless.

And yet, some of the most knowledgable wine folks in the business come up with some pretty ratchid wine description paragraphs, but we’ll get to that.

For now, let’s look at a wine note tutorial offered by one of my blogging peers:

Wine Folly—which tries so goddamn hard to be a streetwise all-things-to-all-people wine blog that I avoid drinking beer when reading it lest I deviate my septum while snorting—offers an online primer course modestly titled ‘How to Write Excellent Wine Tasting Notes’.

WF, not so much

WF, maybe not…

I tripped over it the other day and, having already confessed that my notes suck, what did I have to lose by reading it other than the twenty minutes I lost by reading it?

Here’s a verbatim sample that lists the sort of things Folly figures I will have to learn to elevate my tasting notes above the pit of profound  inexellence in which they currently reside:

‘PRIMARY AROMAS, including notes such as Raspberry, Gooseberry, Black Pepper, Tobacco Leaf and Licorice.’

Clipboard gooseberryOkay, so here’s what I mean by tasting notes sounding grandiloquent and idiotic. The Wine Folly chick is from Los Angeles and I would be willing to bet crack money she’s never tasted a gooseberry, and if she has, not often enough to have it affixed in her memory as a ‘primary aroma’.  Gooseberries are European, and it isn’t even legal to grow a gooseberry throughout most of the United States because the bush is host to a deadly fungus that attacks pine trees.  I get it: Certain Sauvignon Blancs remind certain people who grew up with gooseberries of gooseberries—it’s a derivitive term Americans borrow (I’ll bet more crack money) from a Brit who knows whereof he or she speaketh.

Likewise, tobacco leaf.  Unless you live in rural Virginia or South Carolina—basically the only places that grow tobacco—you are not likely to have the slightest notion of what a tobacco leaf smells like.

‘SECONDARY BOUQUETS include Fresh Baked Bread, Lager, Sour Cream, Fresh Butter and Yogurt.’

Clipboard lagerAnd it just… gets… weirder. Lagering is a method of storing beer, not an aroma.  Does she mean malt?  Hops?  In 25 years of reviewing wine I have never even once heard anyone describe a wine bouquet as smelling like ‘lager’.  And ditto sour cream or yogurt.  I think Wine Folly has accidentally stumbled into Tzatziki tzasting notes.

So, I’ll Move On…

sucklingThe driving factor behind this column was a strange review by a very well known, well-respected and well-paid wine critic who actually makes you fork over valuable drug money to read his reviews.  James Suckling is one of those stuffy old-school guys who has scrawled so many redundant, iterative wine paragraphs over the years that he’s mentally past even mailing it in.  These days, words just sort of seep out of him like flatulance during a noontime nap.


This is a powerful wine with mineral and dried flowers. Full-bodied, with firm tannins yet they are very polished and beautiful. It goes on for minutes. It is so layered and deep. It needs at least 10 years before opening. It is a dense and deep wine. 98 Points

As a self-avowed failure at tasting notes, I will now try my hand at a vivisection of someone else’s tasting notes and leave it in the hands of you, humble reader, to evaluate my output:

chateau-pavie_2The wine in question was Chateau Pavie 2009—not a wine that you, me or the Wine Folly chick are likely to be sent review bottles of; it retails for $400 and received a perfect 100 point score from Robert Parker.

So, with all the available fancy-schmancy, hoity-toidy wine descriptors—gooseberries to road tar to nicotine-laden carcinogens—the best Suckling can come up with is ‘mineral and dried flowers’? Some rich sap looking to invest thousands of dollars on Suckling’s advice  going to buy a wine that tastes like rocks wrapped in Grandma’s potpourri?

rocksAnd, not to put too fine a point on it, Jim, unless you’re talking about brimstone, minerals don’t smell. And dried flowers don’t smell like much.  Even Suckling’s inamorada Robert Parker added ‘mocha, cocoa, plums and ripe blackberries’ to his description of this wine.

But we do learn that the wine is ‘deep’ because he mentions it twice in fifty words.  What a cop-out descriptor, huh? Like ‘dense’. A bucket of bilge sewage is deep and the sludge at the bottom of a NASCAR Port-O-Potty is dense. Can’t you pin it down a little better than ‘dense and deep’, considering you are charging dense people with deep pockets $143 annually to read your ‘tasting reports and tasting notes’?

Portaloo toilet  backstage at the Glastonbury Festival 2009Leading us to the crackerjack disclaimer, ‘It needs at least 10 years before opening.’ Hang on; didn’t you just describe the wine as ‘polished and beautiful; layered and deep’? What’s wrong with that?  And what’s so wrong with it that you figure we need to wait ten years before drinking it?  Wait for what, Jimbo? Are we to assume that it will get beautifuller and layeredier?  Rockier and dried flowerier?  There seems to be such an aesthtic disconnect between word one and word fifty that were I a Tevya-quality wealthy man I’d cut my losses and figure I’d just spend $143 on a roll of Port-O-Potty paper.

And finally, the score, 98 points. But is that 98 points for now, or 98 poins for what the wine may become in some Iain Banks utopian future where the terrorists are gone, ebola is cured and the asteroid has missed earth by a country mile?  Dude, I’m not sure we have ten years, so for $143 worth of advice on a $400 bottle of wine, I think a fair question is: ‘WTF are you talking about?’

astroid hits earthWhew!  But see, that was really more satisfying that writing my own tasting notes.  I had a reader tell me that when she reads my decription of wines they don’t make her thirsty, they make her hungry.

Which is a little like listening to a symphony and telling the composer, ‘Gee, listening to your music makes me wish I was at an art museum.’

Onward and upward, droogies; and don’t get cold-cocked by one of those incoming asteroids on the way.

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1 Response to Non-Stupid-Sounding Tasting Notes: The Final Frontier

  1. Dirk Bromley says:

    Like everything in life, it is that which unites us rather than what divides us. Love the humour here but the battle of tasting notes is a furphy. As the world audience for wine becomes more sophisticated is seems as if there is a battle to be heard above the din, refrain. Our job as wine communicators is to open the door to the world of wine with a big smile and an need to share with grace. Cheers.

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