Time to Grow Up: The Problem with Tasting Notes

Time to Grow Up: The Problem with Tasting Notes

My almost two-year-old twin boys have entered the chatterbox phase. They are overflowing with words to describe their environment: two shoes, mommy’s cup, big shark book. Their vocabulary and their thinking are anchored in the concrete. It will be a little while before they understand abstract concepts completely, and acquire the words to express them.

Watching this process has me thinking differently about the language we use to describe wine. The current state of the tasting note is, well, not good. Eric Asimov cites a number of howlers in his recent book, How to Love Wine. (Check out my favorite chapter, Tyranny of the Tasting Note.) To my mind, the biggest problem with notes today is this: they are chock full of nouns. They’re a hodge-podge of names of things — roasted plums, dried thyme, Maduro tobacco — that remind me of how my toddlers see the world. Just like my little guys aren’t demonstrating a capacity for abstract thought yet, or an understanding of associations and comparisons, most tasting notes are stuck firmly in the world of things. As in, “here’s something that tastes like some other stuff, let me list them out. 92 points.” If, as writers and readers, we think of wine only in these concrete terms, we miss out on subtlety and sophistication. It’s infantilizing. Concepts like balance or terroir will elude us. Consciously or not, we give more weight to wines that taste like things, and less weight to wine that taste of a place. I’m not a terroir absolutist, and I understand that tasting notes are convenient and practical shorthand, but we do ourselves a disservice if we rely on these notes, and the wines they benefit most, to the exclusion of all else.

Back when I had time to teach wine classes (pre-chatterbox toddlers) I loved to pour cru Beaujolais for my students, if only to show them the world beyond Duboeuf. Once, after  asking a group to talk about the Morgon in front of us, a student said that “nothing about the wine stuck out.” She spoke reluctantly, certain she had said something stupid. I asked her to elaborate, and gradually I understood what she meant, and why she felt so sheepish about it. There was no “flavor” that jumped out at her, no raspberry jam or flambéed cherries or whatever it was she thought an ” expert” would identify. It just tasted like wine to her, wine that she liked. in fact, it was exactly the kind of wine she preferred. But she didn’t know how to ask for it, because she didn’t have the vocabulary she needed. “Nothing sticking out” was her way to explain that it was balanced. That it tasted of fruit, but wasn’t exactly fruity. that it had just as much alcohol as she wanted. That it was refreshing, even, not something she usually thought of in red wine. (And the more she drank, the more she wanted something delicious to eat with it.) How can we provide someone like her with a wine vocabulary that’s ample, descriptive and nuanced?

We spend a lot of ink and pixels criticizing winemakers who produce simplistic, overblown wines and the people who drink these wines. But if we want more people to appreciate different kinds of wine, we need to give them different language to understand and express their experience.

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