Notes To Self…

I do review wines – almost every day, in fact – but I rarely publish my tasting notes. This is mainly for two reasons: firstly, because I don’t think my wine conversations would be anymore illuminating if I did; and secondly, because there are so many better voices already doing so.

But, if the truth be known, it’s also partly because I don’t think it really ‘works’. Among all recent posts of New Year’s lists and predictions,  the idea that the wine community has got to improve its ‘communication’  - internally, and above all, externally -  has been common to many. It is therefore interesting to consider both the influence and reliance we put on tasting notes as a key delivery.

To me, one of the aspects of our wine language and behaviour that seems increasingly arcane is how we describe wine and why. The fatuous nature of back label narrative is now almost beyond parody: the ‘good-with-grilled meats-fresh fish-pasta-rice-salads-ice cream’ sort of mainstream nonsense; or the equally universal ‘hand plucked-hand picked-hand made’ declaration of artisan endeavour… Both approaches seem worryingly formulaic – more autobiography than story.

Similarly, the pool of ‘agreed’ adjectives seems to have acquired the uniform register of received pronunciation rather than the liberating accent of infinite variety – ‘nervous acidity’; ‘dusty stone fruits’ and ‘filigreed tannins’,  all featuring among the current ubiquitous favourites.

Ultimatley, I am beginning to believe that tasting notes are only of real meaning and benefit to the author, and suffer greatly in translation, and even more so in wilful circulation and distribution.

That is until I revisited Chandler Burr’s excellent, The Emperor of Scent, and remembered Luca Turin’s – the book’s de facto hero – explanation of how he strives to review perfume: “I assume it’s what a movie director feels when he has got great dailies in the can. When I manage to capture this awesome beauty and greatness in language, translating smells and black-and-white words on the page and making this ether tangible and real – that is thrilling.”

Turin continues: “Perhaps the edge I have in turning smell into language is that for me smell has always had an utterly solid reality that, to my utter astonishment, it doesn’t seem to have for other people. Every perfume I have ever smelled has been to me like a movie – sound and vision – which to most people are thoroughly real senses – but not smell, for some reason. To me, smell is just as real as they are.”

To be able to convey a reality – a sense of product truth that goes beyond subjective opinion – is quite an achievement. When wine tasting notes comprise a word salad of adjectives, they can only ever be of limited use and comprehension. However, if they can ‘frame’ a wine – put it into context, character and reference – then they can be of enduring and transferable benefit.

Consider Turin’s note on one of the great classics, Apres l’Ondee by Guerlain: “Apres L’Ondee (After The Rainshower)…a prototype of the cold, melancholy fragrance, this stunning creation is the counterpart – the brighter, fresher, younger brother – of the mysterious L’Heure Blue (Guerlain). Apres l’Ondee evolves only slightly with time: its central white note, caressing and slightly venomous, like the odour of a peach stone, imposes itself immediately, and retains its mystery forever. Its simplicity, its keen nostalgia, and its unadorned beauty, make this an anomaly for Guerlain.’

Now that’s a note that doesn’t just tell you how a perfume smells, or indeed how it was made, but rather engages you with how it acts and breathes and behaves, and with what kind of character it has. Not only would I buy such a scent, I would celebrate it and talk about it!

Now for those of you who are thinking that this approach is just too purple a style of prose for the rigour of critical review, inhale the withering contempt with which Turin can put away a young pretender, Python (Trussardi): “The absurdly named Python is a poverty-stricken sweet-powdery affair, a very distant relative of the wonderful Habanita (Molinard). It belongs in a tree-shaped diffuser dangling from the rearview mirror of a Moscow taxi.” Quite.

Ultimately tasting notes need to be reflexive, and they should be able to convey the interest and the fascination of the wine they are describing. Unfortunately, more often than not, they tend to reflect the features of the author rather than the subject.

My top three winehero tips for reviewers with every bit as much insight and elan as Luca Turin are:

  • Dave Brookes (@vino_freakism)
  • Ned Goodwin MW (@rednedwine)
  • Juel Mahoney (@winewomansong)

None of the above will tell you what a wine tastes like, but they will make you want to taste it for yourself. ‘Tangible and real’, as Turin would say…

14 thoughts on “Notes To Self…

  1. What a thrill to find myself seated at this dinner table – in the company of such writers. Thank you.

    One of my first jobs was in perfume. In between spraying Ralph Lauren Romance on myself for lost and confused boyfriends to see if it was right for their own girlfriend, I avidly studied the huge hard-cover reference book on the categories of smells in perfume stashed under the cash register and plastic bags. It fascinated me how this book split up perfumes into categories (wish I knew the name of this book). My favourite was the green category, “fougeres”. I found it mysterious and the people who asked for fougeres (Vetiver is one note of the fougeres) were often more interesting, with a great story about why and how they started wearing this perfume, than the average harried Xmas customer.

    Once I knew the categories, I could refer in my mind to the categories when a customer asked for a certain smell or affect (working backwards). Most people just wanted a perfume to smell good on them. Just as in wine when people say, I know what I like. But after a while, some people want to get past this and know why they like something, and that’s the whole job.

    Rambling here. Thank you once again.
    Best wishes for the new year,

    Juel

    • Hi Juel

      Thanks so much for visiting. Turin’s note on Vetiver for you:

      “One of the rare perfumes so named that do not betray the character of this uncompromising raw material, Vetiver is a temperament as much as it is a perfume, above all when it is worn by a woman. Stoic and discreet, Vetiver scorns all luxury save that of its own proud solitude. At the same time distant and perfectly clear, it must be worn muted and must never allow itself to be sensed except at the instant of a kiss.”

      I am sure you used to advise your clients accordingly!

      Cheers,

      ph

  2. Great post here. Ringing most true is the confected ‘word salad’ parody. One of the most difficult things about wine communication is working on Who Is The Audience, particularly if wine communication is positioned in numerous channels. The audience is variegated. Always. Audiences as a universal concept, that benefit from your above positing, are very hard to find. While you very worthily purport that the interest and fascination of wine is most potent, it is also relevant to note that varying audiences require varying levels of wine speak. Wine writers can often work to a cyclical nepotism (no direction to anyone mentioned above or yourself PH) – that worth is built from industry kudos rather than participation of intended audiences. Online does provide the best framework for interactivity, but online isn’t the only place currently where wine communication exists. The push for more context is always at my forefront – location and situation is always the most important thing about wine, but only where possible. As writers, communication is also about passive or even directive education, and engaging with a demographic requires understanding that prose may have to alter to audiences needs, without pandering, and with the hope that there is an elevation in interest from writings. Lofty as the sentiment above is, and as beautifully utopian as you place it, I reckon that breadth of communication and writing is also important, with of course looking to further audience’s understandings of wine through ‘upping ante’ where ever possible. Onwards. x

  3. Hi Mike

    I think you are spot on about ‘audiences’, and the differing requirements of need, want and knowledge. How to triage these in terms of medium (on-line; digi; print; broadcast) and channel (general consumer; special interest; trade) is as demanding as is the prose.

    I think it has long been recognised that the wine community can focus on itself rather too much. This is most often reflected in our language and terminology, as well as – at times – a generally unhealthy degree of assumption about levels of audience knowledge and interest.

    Good wine writing – as you know, and capably demonstrate yourself – should both inform and ‘connect’. I just think it is good to be questioning, rather than necessarily critical, when things begin to look too comfortable, and the conversation too internal…

    Thanks again for all of your contribution, both to this issue and the work you do across all wine media!

    Cheers,

    ph

  4. As always PH, you’ve delivered yet another insightful and thought provoking post and one that indeed should be discussed. Nice way to start off the year.

    Wine notes, reviews and how we communicate about wine is something I too have been pondering (over the break) and agree there are many aspects of wine language that are ‘increasingly arcane’. Despite the rise and rise of social and modern media, how we communicate about wine has essentially remained the same. Sure, the vehicle in which it is transmitted may have evolved but the vast majority of wine blogs (and or video reviews etc) maintain the ‘traditional form’ of a tasting note. The way we communicate may have changed, but content has remained, essentially, the same.

    I also agree with Mike that audiences need and require different ‘levels of wine speak’ though the vast majority of writers pitch to the top 5% of wine consumers. I have no doubt many wine notes/articles are written with the thought of how industry piers will perceive it and how it will further add to the author’s ‘kudos’.

    Recently I asked a high profile (female) Sommelier, after being asked to submit a wine note to Gourmet Traveler Wine, who she thought of while writing it; a guest in her restaurant or other wine writers/trade. The answer was the later highlighting a fundamental issue. After successfully communicating with consumers daily, she instantly forgot them when writing a wine note. This is not her fault, it is the ‘culture’ in which we all work.

    When it comes down to it, the question is do wine notes/review really educate the consumer or merely continue to baffle, confuse and isolate them? And I’m not speaking of the converted top 5% either.

    Yes, there are indeed a few writers who do manage to engage and tell a story rather than report and spurt wine note ‘word salad’; yet they are few and far between. May I be so bold as to suggest that shrinking wine column inches may actually be because what the writer has to say is boring? Quelle surprise!

    If wine reviews could truly educate, it would empower the consumer with knowledge and help them better understand what they like and why. And at the end of the day, isn’t that what we’re all trying to figure out?

    Thanks again for the post PH.

    • Hi Dan,

      All excellent points and I think that your sommelier(e) anecdote is the most telling – not in a judgemental way, but just – as you suggest – because it is so indicative of self-reflective wine culture. It seems the currency we most covet is peer-to-peer recognition and/or credibility. This is not an ignoble pursuit in itself, but it is unlikely to foster greater consumer understanding or engagement.

      As we no doubt face further retail consolidation, diminishing mainstream column inches and still no breakthrough wine on tv in the year ahead, we all need to invest more in encouraging a higher-/better-/more-involved consumer. Ubfortunately, I think a great deal of our current writing and effort is unlikely to do so.

      Keen to discuss further with you when you have a moment.

      Thanks again very much for taking the time to visit and to post!

      Cheers,

      ph

    • My view is that tasting notes should help the consumer make a purchase/drink decision. To the extent that notes are successful in that, they are useful. If they have any other purpose, then they tend to fall into the “wank words” category. If they are directed at the top 5% of drinkers, then they are probably wasted – that crowd can probably make their choices unaided by tasting notes. It’s the other 95% (the ones that the industry really needs to be drinking a couple of litres/year more!) that a) may find the information useful, and
      b) are most likely to be turned off by notes written for the wrong recipients – “pretentious” is the bouquet in their nostrils, which is not what they should be smelling :)

  5. Paul,

    Happy New Year and well done for the most recent post. As you’ll be aware, you’re preaching to the converted on this one and following our recent, bibulous, get together I have a copy of the Emperor of Scent on the go at present.

    I have a feeling ( and for the time being being able to communicate what I really want to say remains elusive)that this is a subject that is much bigger than any of us currently think. I’m sure that as we all discuss this further, the opportunities to utilise the awareness and understanding of smell and flavour in a productive marketing sense, will become more apparent.

    I agree with your commentary on the “word salad” approach to writing reviews and descriptions but do wonder whether we are getting a little ahead of ourselves when recommending certain wine blogs as good examples of how to communicate. I read Juel’s writing regularly and it is well crafted, sassy and inclusive, I’m sure the others would be the same. However, the audience for these blogs is essentially a converted audience, one that already craves more wine knowledge and though this audience needs servicing, the far bigger challenge is to involve and interest (I think the word engage is suffering over-use at present)a mass audience.

    Why does cookery dominate our tv screens and book shelves to the extent that it does? Not all of us are converted foodies, rushing home each evening to sous vide some venison or ceviche some salmon. Yes, we all have to eat (and some people don’t need to drink wine)but the interest in cookery and cookery programmes far outweighs the actual interest in being able to cook any of it.

    Cooking involves far more of the senses than wine might appear to but is this more to do with the vocabulary we use and our relatively nascent understanding of how powerful our sense of smell ( and therefore our ability to create flavours) actually is.

    When people watch “wine professionals” swilling and gurgling, this alienates many consumers as something that needs to be learned, not to mention how ridiculous it looks when practised
    in the wrong setting. If instead, when talking to consumers, we talked of flavour then we have the beginnings of a meaningful conversation – one that they already have the vocabulary for.

    Our sense of smell is enormously powerful and has the ability to create vivid pictures and memories like no other sense. The images that odour molecules create in the brain when processed are as complex and vivid as those produced by sight but we rely on simily to decribe smells and flavours whereas sight can be described in more real, concrete terms.

    Whilst this is the greatest challenge for those communicating about anything relating to smell, perhaps it is also the greatest opportunity. If, we as an industry, learn to talk to consumers in a way that unlocks the inherent skills that they already have in term of flavour processing and identification, then perhaps we too will enjoy the same level of consumer interaction that cookery currently enjoys.

    Keep up the great thought provoking stuff,

    Giles

  6. Paul,

    Firstly let me say thanks for such a though provoking and well written post. There’s so much to cover here and those who have commented already, have covered much of what I wanted to say.

    Mike is right of course when he talk of the different audiences. I have a blog where I know that more winecentric people check in and I’m to blame in the past of possibly writing arcane notes which I think will appeal to my peers rather than your average consumer. Having said that I know that Joe Average is not reading my blog.But as I write this I think perhaps If I did write more accessibly would I have a much more captive audience?

    I’m also on the coalface of print with a monthly column for Australian Good Taste, where part of the editorial brief is not to use technical language or obfuscate with ’word salad.’ Funnily enough it’s here that I sometimes get unstuck and find it harder dumbing down the writing for an audience that might not understand what ‘Glossy tannins’ are. This is where you have to describe wines in different terms and tell people what they might expect rather than giving them a shopping list of adjectives.

    I think you are right when you say, wine communication needs to improve and I think we need to be less precious and realize that a tiny fraction of the population drink the kind of wines we professsionals do. Context, story and entertainment are going to be key drivers in this, but no matter how accessible you make it, I’m still not sure whether that many people will get it in the same way, they get cooking shows or cooking books. While grapes may be fascinating to us for most people it seems like a fog of intimidatory language and a bunch of posh people sniffing and swirling. I’m not sure whether there is any quick fix and we are still to find an engaging way to televise it as Giles points out above.

    I’ll certainly be thinking about this in the future with both my blogging hat and my writer’s hat on so you can be pleased that your post has resonated and made me think more realistically about what it is I really want to say and who I want to say it to.

    Cheers,

    Patrick

    • Hi Patrick

      Thank you so much for such considered and thorough observations, and I particular respect the candour with which you address that only ‘a tiny fraction of the population drink the kind of wines we professionals do.’
      I don’t suppose any of us believe we are really writing for a greater audience, and to that extent we are all somewhat fatally misdirected from the outset – that is, aimed at the converted. But blogging platforms must contribute to even the most specialist of interests becoming a little more mainstream in terms of profile, if not in terms of understanding and acceptance. To that extent, we are all performing an important role and should certainly be encouraged to continue.
      Your point about the mainstream broadcast appeal of wine – or lack thereof – is the biggest obstacle. While most food programming is not necessarily about creating committed cooks, but rather about fostering interested and even passionate observers, wine just doesn’t seem to have the same appeal.
      At a very basic level, we continue to make wine programs primarily about ‘tasting’, but the success of cookery programs’ entertainment is not based on ‘eating’… its about travel, sourcing, sharing, participating and a little exotica. Is there no parallel to be found for wine, or is it fundamentally just not as ‘important’ or as intrinsically ‘interesting’ as cooking, restaurants and ingredients?
      It does seem that a new and timely approach is needed…

      Cheers,

      ph

  7. Would you believe that this is the very topic of my PhD? Using words to describe wine (and all smells/flavours) is difficult, especially to novices. Those tasting notes on the back of wine labels mean nothing to them. “This Shiraz is peppery? Why the hell is there pepper in there?”

    Luca Turin is great to read on this topic. Also have a look at Avery Gilbert’s “What the Nose Knows” – a very easy and entertaining read ($12.59 via Amazon Kindle).

    But then how else do we tell people what’s in the bottle? The language makes sense to others in the trade, so perhaps we should keep the language approach for experts and have something else for novices?

    Thanks for the great article.

    Alex

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