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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
10/14/2014
A Well-Crafted Tasting Note Still Matters

By Stephen Eliot

A loyal reader of CGCW recently inquired about a couple of newly reviewed wines and wondered just how precisely the differences between the two could be described. He asked “I would appreciate a more explicit definition of the contrasting styles--more than California vs. Burgundy, more than full of fruit and lots of oak vs. tighter and more acidic. Can it be defined more precisely? Can it be defined by scientific analysis, i.e. acid level, alcohol level, or other measurement?”

His questions opened anew that can of worms one encounters when discussing the worth of tasting notes, their value and their limits. In this case, and in contrast to new voices that hold any and all tasting notes in contempt, he wanted more description rather than less. My answer was that, while we make every effort to know the acidity, pH and alcohol levels of every wine that we taste, we taste the wines before knowing the “numbers” and have learned that quantifying the character and experience of one wine or another by “scientific analysis” is next to impossible; that what is important, what makes for a successful wine is how its myriad parts work together. As for extraordinarily precise and overly specific descriptions, those impressionistic ramblings whose convoluted and painfully florid prose would try the patience of any first-year English professors, I replied that they are generally useless exercises in confusion, but that words, when well-measured, could paint a clear and hopefully useful picture of a wine’s character. It is obviously, given my profession, an idea in which I wholeheartedly believe.

As I have mentioned, there are those who would damn all tasting notes as being wholly antithetical to wine appreciation at any level. But, with the recognition that there are indeed many levels of analysis and many wine lovers of all stripes who are, in fact, looking for guidance, it is more likely than not that informative, well-written tasting notes remain an indispensible resource to those who seeking to know more.

English wine writer, Andrew Jeffords, whose work I very much admire, once offered the thoughts that “not only are tasting notes intrinsically ephemeral, difficult to craft well and demand a breadth of experience which takes years to acquire, but they are also immensely time-consuming, expensive and laborious to enable, to make, to edit and to put onto the page or screen.” Amen.

It is a simple idea. Very few consumers have the time or the means to annually sort through thousands of wines looking for those that satisfy and excite. It is assuredly time consuming and expensive. It is an irrefutable reason why wine writing and criticism continue to flourish.

Now, I would not for a moment claim that all tasting notes have inherent merit, but that is where subjectivity enters the picture. I happen to like concise, well-crafted, grammatically correct writing that carries some weight of professional expertise, but if incomplete sentences filled with obscure reference and words that make no sense to me are of value to others, I cannot tell those readers that they are wrong. I really do not see the problem. Utility comes in all forms, and lest we assume a self-righteous, ivory tower conceit, we need to recognize that simple fact. Authority and humility are not mutually exclusive.

The consumer, in this case the reader, will ultimately decide the worth of one’s work, and I for one am loathe to ignore their opinions. Opinions, after all, are at the crux of my business, and the tasting note is how I make them known. To all those professional and would-be wine writers, I would urge you to listen to what your readers have to say and keep on fighting the good fight.


 

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Comments

Between a rock and a hard place
by Deborah Parker Wong
Posted on:10/15/2014 12:22:29 PM

When it comes to a professional audience, it's proving to be harder to adopt a comfortable, centrist position. The purpose of the analytical tasting note, however lacking in entertainment value, is to serve the trade reader who may have the desire but certainly doesn't have the time to taste every wine that interests them.

By producing tastings notes that rely on a common language or rubric, like those taught by various trade bodies, we can work towards a more objective evaluation one that describes a wine for what it fundamentally is.  

In the hands of dogmatic writers, those who confuse their opinions about a wine with its factual nature i.e. intensity of aromas and flavors, levels of tannin, acidity, etc., the tasting note becomes a work of fiction.

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