Are Traditional Tasting Notes Worthless?

August 7th, 2008 by Gabriella Opaz · 7 Comments

ryan71Last week, I cozied up to a small worn wooden table in a dive seafood restaurant alongside 5 Catalan friends on the coast of Barcelona. The six of us are but half of a larger group of sailors, all dedicated to a 40 foot German sailboat that races on the unpredictable Mediterranean waters on the weekends. However, this was a goodbye dinner than a merry gathering, as our friend Marc was heading off to China to study both a masters in business and mandarin.

A little forlorn with the ever approaching day of his departure, we sat down with the full intention of sharing heartfelt stories over a hearty seafood dinner paired with a few bottles of wine.

As the waiter set down six mangled plastic menus on the table, which had clearly seen the hungry paws and cigarette butts of many a local, the wine menu was promptly passed to me. Listed on the menu were two house whites, reds and roses; all completely nondescript, leaving my choice to be based more on whim than on variety, style or producer. The day was steamy hot, and since the last thing I wanted was a red, I opted for their “Vino Blanco de la Casa #1”.

Tailed by an orange and black cat, the waiter informally plunked down the ice bucket, opened the wine, poured me a glass, put the bottle into the ice bucket and walked away without thinking twice to even wait for my reply to the wine, or considering the 5 empty glasses. The wine was a simple Albarino, delicious and the perfect pairing for our plate of uber spicy chorizo, eggs and potatoes – a house specialty. As I picked up my fork in childish excitement to taste their famous burnt red chorizo, a voice quietly ebbed from the other side of the table, “Um, Gabriella, what am I suppose to smell in this wine?”

“What do you mean ‘supposed to’?” I replied.

“Well, I’ve always wanted to learn more about wine, but I don’t know what I should look for?”

The rest of the table nodded in agreement, while the woman across from me peevishly stated, “Well, I grew up around wine in the north of Spain, and I know I don’t like white wines.”

Taking a deep breath, I asked all five eager looking students, “Remember, wine is subjective and what you smell or taste may not correspond to the person next to you. So don’t think about what others think at the table, focus on what you personally experience? So try again, what are the first smells or flavors that come to mind?”

“It smells like wine,” piped up our friend to the right of me.

“Yup, I agree, wine,” said the guy to his right.

And suddenly, I noticed that I had lost them. Their conversations about boat parts and regattas seemed much more enticing than their “inability” to attach any smell or flavor in the glass to the tangible world around them. It was as if wine was as detached from the land as the package meat in the freezer section of their supermarket is to a cow.

2080658810_7060af5f7b_mSuddenly, it dawned on me how stupid ineffective tasting notes can be.

If these five Catalans couldn’t connect to the vineyards, the orchards, the sea, the wild herbs they walk among everyday to the aromas in the glass in front of them, then how are my ridiculous tasting notes of “juicy green apple, slate and mature notes of pear” going to help someone in Nebraska? Clearly, there’s a disconnect!

Stand back, because I’m getting passionate!

There are few exceptions to the traditional tasting note, as seen by Gary Vaynerchuck’s videos and Chateau Petrogasm’s photos, but the majority of us abide by the age old theory that a literary explanation will communicate our sense of the wine. In very small circles, I might agree with this premise, but for the rest of the population who are not wine experts, or wine geeks, what’s the point?!

This is especially true as we are losing our sense of smell and taste. With more of us living in cities, surrounded by car fumes, pollution and chemical filled fruits and vegetables wrapped in sterile plastic, how do we expect people to have a dynamic relationship with the wine in front of them? Where do we get off assuming that someone can relate the aroma of a fresh raspberry, much less a white orchid, honeycomb or honeydew melon? Add to the language barrier of terms like “body, acidity, mouthfeel and wood” and suddenly, we’ve isolated ourselves completely from the wider population.

Why do we keep abiding by this system both in print and digitally? Is there a better way to approach the tasting note system in the digital age? How can we educate consumers about wine, while still communicating our experience with wine in a useful and descriptive manner?

Granted, not all is lost. There are alternatives to the traditional tasting note. One of which was brought to my attention by Giampiero Nadali of Aristide based on the Oxbow Wine Profile, or what about Johnny Jona’s Wine Recognition System printed in Drink’s Business and commented on in Spittoon? Then we have the issue of winery tasting notes and their relevance, as challenged by Pinnotblogger?

Do we need to create a new system? And if so, how and what?

Flickr photo attribution to: apesara

Tags: Blog Writing · Conference Discussion

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Dr. Debs // Aug 7, 2008 at 9:56 pm

    “Do we need to create a new system? And if so, how and what?”

    No.

    And I don’t think tasting notes are stupid. I never did, even when I didn’t know anything about wine.

    Will they work for everyone?

    No.

    I don’t like action movies, but they keep making them and people keep going to them, so they work for someone.

  • 2 Gabriella Opaz // Aug 7, 2008 at 10:27 pm

    Dr. Debs, you are 100% correct. They are an effective tool on a personal level that help me remember a wine I tasted years ago (on a good day). And they are not necessarily “stupid”, but maybe it should be said that they are “ineffective”.

    What I struggle with is whether they are effective for the general population. If Wine Bloggers assume the role as educators, do traditional tastings notes help people learn not only about a specific wine, but wine in general? And as we are in the digital age, is there a more effective way to communicate our experiences with the wine?

  • 3 Lizzy // Aug 8, 2008 at 6:36 am

    “Do we need to create a new system?”

    Yes.

    Better: we need a new system beside the old.

    A system perhaps more simple and modern.
    However, I do agree wih Dr Debs: “learning wine” – to learn to taste, to appreciate it – it’s not easy. It’s a process which requires a lot of time, and personal care. It is necessary people knows it!

  • 4 Dr. Debs // Aug 9, 2008 at 10:57 pm

    Gabriella, I appreciate that not everybody “gets” the point of a wine review. This is true of film reviews and book reviews, too. As an educator, one of my #1 jobs is to take graduate students and teach them how to review a book in 500 words, because that’s all you get in most journals. There is an art and craft to the 500-word book review that is formulaic to be sure and wouldn’t make someone jump up and down with excitement, but to be taken seriously as a scholar one must learn to do it.

    I think every wine writer needs to develop their own voice (which is hard) within the traditional genre that is the “tasting note.” Then if you want to add bells and digital whistles, that’s fine. But I have yet to see any single replacement (images, music, graphics, etc.) that conveys as much information about wine as succinctly as a traditional wine tasting note/review.

    What would be ideal would be to give everyone a wine aroma/flavor wheel, and work one on one with them until they expanded their smell and taste vocabulary to the point where tasting notes made sense.

    So I guess it’s all about audience. I don’t think most ordinary drinkers even read tasting notes. Enthusiasts do, and they get it. Most ordinary drinkers go by price and color, and the occasional brush with a retail employee or shelftalker.

  • 5 Giampiero alias Aristide // Aug 11, 2008 at 12:31 pm

    Tasting notes are worthless to the consumer’s wine buying process. Wine scores are hardly objective, assuming they are based on personal and different approaches of individuals or committes of tasters. They tend to establish absolute values on a matter that is absolutely subjective and relative: wine taste.
    Ranking wine through scores is a 30 years old “technology”, based on old plain media like paper magazines. Now we have Internet, Wine2.0 concept, social networks, online databases and mobile gadgets to access anytime and almost anyplace all this stuff.
    I think we need something more, something useful to balance the overpower of scores, something more respectful of the complexity around wines and of the new capabilities in understanding all that by the new consumers.

  • 6 Vitor Mendes // Aug 11, 2008 at 1:48 pm

    No doubt taste notes can push some people away from wine… but for me is kind a poetry to read something writen by a wine specialist, because you can make at that moment a type of “image” of the wine tasted. Although i still think that things could be a little more simple… but we are all different, and what works for me, could not work for other people. So keep on making great taste notes, and people like me will try to follow and learn something about wines…

  • 7 Wine Racks, Judging Blogs and an Anti-Oak Rant?? // Sep 8, 2008 at 2:42 pm

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