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  • Writer's pictureJason Millar

The Trouble With Tasting Notes

“It’s a naïve domestic Burgundy without any breeding, but I think you’ll be amused by its presumption.”

The devastating caption to James Thurber’s satirical 1937 cartoon of a host presenting a wine to his dinner guests has never been bettered as a lampoon of winespeak. It is a reminder that people have been critiquing, or at least scoffing at, tasting notes for as long as wine worth writing about has existed.

But if we agree that we should talk about wine at all, then how should we go about it?

Articles are written defending or attacking different approaches as though there is an attainable perfection in the discipline, a gap that we haven’t quite filled yet.

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) has established itself as the dominant technical system for evaluating wine quality. Yet the WSET approach lacks versatility and passion when communicating outside of the context of professional blind tasting. Describing a wine with medium-minus tannins, medium-plus acidity and notes of fresh red fruit might well be an accurate technical assessment, but it will do little to enthuse a prospective drinker, or upsell a customer from another similar wine.

The major contrast to the WSET’s formulaic and technical approach is the creative one, relying on metaphor, simile and allusion to evoke in the reader the experience of drinking the wine. This is a broad church and open to accusations of fancifulness. What might seem moving and poetic to one reader can easily seem mawkish and contrived to another. The more personal and specific these comparisons are, the less likely they will succeed with a wide readership, just as with any form of ambitious creative writing, which may or may not succeed.

Another view, which might be closest to Thurber’s on the evidence of the cartoon, is that talking about wine is and always will be unbearably pretentious and ridiculous, and that no one should indulge in it, but just get on with drinking the stuff.

Based on my experience, that is probably the majority view of wine drinkers, who are not really in it for the poetry. Perhaps that’s why I’ve almost never had anyone outside the industry ask for a wine of finesse and perfume, muscled yet lean, or that smells like tarmac after summer rain. And while some wine lovers will admire a virtuoso tasting note, even they are likely to find this sort of fancy more amusing than informative.

So what to do? Let’s first acknowledge that a large amount of wine writing (and wine communication more widely) is consumed by wine professionals, not ordinary wine drinkers. Most of the latter don’t subscribe to wine publications, follow wine critics on social media, or know what the WSET is.

In order to communicate effectively with them we need to take a step back from our various industry jargons and speak the language of our customers.That means avoiding the WSET and poetry for the most part, while still being willing to call on these if the moment demands it. Sometimes you’ll need “glouglou”; other moments might require “pure and limpid like Alpine river water cascading over granite” (if only to raise a chuckle at a tasting) and, surprisingly often in retail, you’ll need “less than £10 and I’ve got it in the fridge”.

Debates about the nature of good wine writing and communication often lose sight of the reality that it is primarily commercial journalism, not poetry, and serves an often sceptical audience, not a heavenly muse.

If we forget that, we edge closer to Thurber’s narcissistic host and his bewildered audience, who remain relevant almost a century later.


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