What is it that makes wine so scary to people, especially those who are just beginning to learn about it? Could it possibly be the wine itself? Of course not. Wine is harmless, existing only to give pleasure, though many people would say ruefully that its purpose is to baffle and confuse.
No, what’s baffling and confusing is not the wine but the way we talk about wine. Perhaps you’ve felt the fear yourself, a sort of paralysis that comes over you if by chance you are privy to a discussion among wine connoisseurs and then suddenly are asked for your opinion. It’s as if out of nowhere you were invited to expound on some odd point of logic by a philosopher you’ve never heard of, in a language you barely understand.
Describing a wine may not be an intuitive skill for anybody, but I’ve found that people who have no idea how one is supposed to talk about wine are far more creative and clear in discussing it than those who have read some books or undergone some training in wine classes.
Having internalized what they consider to be a proper wine vocabulary, they can no longer communicate usefully. The words emerge easily enough, spouting lists of aromas and flavors that they’ve detected in the glass. Yet, for all their intelligibility, the words are essentially meaningless. It’s the way most people talk and write about wine nowadays, and it comes from tasting notes.
What are tasting notes? They are quick descriptions of the characteristics of a particular wine. Nowadays, that usually means a litany of esoteric aromas and flavors. Here are a couple of typical examples from recent issues of Wine Spectator magazine:
Still tightly wound, with a brooding core of mulled currant, warm fig sauce, and maduro tobacco, liberally laced with tapenade and lavender notes. The finish is long and grippy.
Dark and winy up front with ambitious mocha and loam notes leading the way for fig, raspberry, and red plum fruit, followed by a brighter profile on the finish, where spice and licorice hints kick in as fresh acidity provides solid drives from behind.
Tasting notes like these are the currency of American wine reviewers today. These particular notes might seem a trifle exaggerated in their jargon, their ungrammatical construction, and their reaching for obscure references, but they are by no means unusual. Some discerning wine writers are periodically driven to satirize this sort of winespeak, but the fact remains: This is the way the vast majority in the wine trade talk and write about wine today, so it can’t simply be laughed off by people who take words seriously.
My former colleague Frank Prial, the longtime wine columnist at the New York Times, once traced winespeak back to English academia, “to the Gothic piles of Oxbridge, where, in the nineteenth century, certain dons, addled by claret, bested one another in fulsome tributes to the grape.” It would be fair to say that the general public was spared their transporting muse.
Decades ago, tasting notes were largely a kind of shorthand, used by professionals in the wine trade and serious collectors to communicate among themselves. Even so, those sorts of notes did not have the elaborate, almost comical complexity that one sees so often today. Instead, these professionals had a series of agreed-upon characteristics found in particular wines. Gunflint, for example, was a frequent reference point for wines like Chablis and Sancerre. More typically, a wine might be complimented as fine, or denigrated as coarse, without a recital of specific aromas and flavors.
A.J. Liebling, the New Yorker writer who gave great weight to fine food and drink, might occasionally be moved to describe a wine as superb. More often he would reflect on how a particular bottle made him feel, as when, after going many years without, he encounters a Côte-Rôtie, a wine he had loved as a young man. “I approached it with foreboding, as you return to a favorite author whom you haven’t read for a long time, hoping that he will be as good as you remember. But I need have had no fear. Like Dickens, Côte-Rôtie meets the test.”
You could read through a classic early-twentieth-century work like George Saintsbury's Notes on a Cellar-Book and find nothing remotely resembling a modern tasting note. Saintsbury had no difficulty communicating his likes and dislikes without resorting to descriptions beyond an occasional “flavor” or “majestical.” One exception: He described a wine he found particularly awful as “ginger beer alternately stirred up with a stick of chocolate and a large sulfur match.” Egad! No further elaboration necessary.
Somehow in the last quarter of the twentieth century, as the wine business began to grow, centering on tourism and consumer publications, the specialized vocabulary of the tasting note came to be understood as the common language for discussing wine. Nowadays, a vast majority of wine lovers who really ought to know better have convinced themselves that it is meaningful to know whether a wine has “aromas of apricot jam, guava, and jackfruit,” or some equally overspecific description.
Imagine if a music critic, reviewing a recording, described a symphony in terms of wattage, intermodulation, and impedance output, or even worse, tried to enumerate the various notes and chords. In some vague way it might accurately describe the technical details of what was heard, but it would have nothing to do with a meaningful experience of the music.
Similarly, the flowery litany of aromas and flavors does little to capture the experience of a fine glass of wine. Yet because tasting notes are now the primary way we write about wine, people assume that they are the proper mode for thinking about wine, too.
That is a disturbing notion. While tasting notes may be laughable, their exaggerated language makes it far more difficult for people to enjoy wine without fearing that they somehow don’t understand what they are tasting, or lack the proper equipment for enjoying wine. In their overly specific effort to beat a wine into submission, boil it down to its every last aroma and flavor, box it up, and present it as fully known and understood, tasting notes become thoroughly off-putting and intimidating, leading directly to the sense of wine anxiety that so many people feel.
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