|Courtesy Seduction Meals.com|
I stopped by Ritual Coffee for a macchiato. I don't know how many of you have access to a shop like Ritual or Four Barrel or Blue Bottle or Sightglass, the leaders of San Francisco's artisan coffee movement. Each imports and roasts its own beans, often from single fincas (the equivalent of single vineyards). Forget Starbucks or Peet's: single-variety, single-finca coffees are where it's at.
I like these shops; they all make great coffee. But I just don't get their tasting notes.
Ritual had a choice of three different types of beans for espresso. The tasting notes were written with authority. One said, "Tastes like blackberry, vanilla and peach galette." Another said, "Tastes like red grapes, boysenberry and plum." I forget the third; I was staring at the words "peach galette."
I have NEVER had a coffee that tastes like peach galette.
I don't think I'd want a coffee to taste like peach galette. It's kind of disgusting. You'd take artisanal beans, carefully roast them to the exact degree, weigh the shot, skillfully hand-pull it, and then pour 1/2 ounce of peach syrup and some brioche crumbs into it. Ewww.
The problem isn't that Ritual makes weird-tasting coffee: I love Ritual's coffee. I love that they'll throw away a shot rather than serve one the barrista considers imperfect.
The problem is that San Francisco coffee shops have taken their cues on tasting notes from mainstream wine critics. Rather than write that the coffee is rich, robust, moderate acid, with a hint of fruitiness and sweetness, something that might actually tell you what to expect, they tell you it tastes like "red grapes, boysenberry and plum." Bullshit.
The thing is, I have complete confidence to say that. I may not have the world's most acute palate, but people pay me to tell them what wine tastes like. Plus, I'm not afraid to seem uncool, even in a hipster San Francisco coffee shop.
I imagined the average wine consumer reading a shelf talker, which is where the non-enophile encounters tasting notes. I imagined her seeing, "This wine tastes like blackberry, vanilla and peach galette." But I couldn't imagine her reaction. Does she think, "Mmm, that sounds good!"? Does she think, "I never taste these flavors, but the people who write these are professionals so the fault is mine."? Does she think, "Well there's information in this. I want a wine that's less sweet, with more savory flavors." ?
You might hope she thinks that last bit. But then we get back to, Bullshit. That coffee simply doesn't taste like peach galette. The Zinfandel in the store doesn't either. The tasting note tells you nothing.
Maybe Asimov has a point. Here's a wine-based example.
I've been looking for an excuse to make fun of the Wine of the Week in the Tampa Bay Times. This ran on Dec. 19 and was picked up in syndication.
Remember when people used to say wine blogs weren't as good as print journalism? They never considered terrible newspaper stories like this one.
Let's just note that the writers and editors got the name of the winery wrong (look at the photo), and move on to my main point:
The bottle looks like some overnight-sensation supermarket brand made by a wine corporation. The review, with no reporting whatsoever, seems to confirm that.
But actually Oliverhill Winery is a small family operation and if I were working for what's probably Florida's best newspaper, I'd try to reach them and learn their story.
Instead, what we get are tasting notes, and crappy ones at that. A "classic candy nose"? Does that mean classic candies like Bit-O-Honey, or that Shiraz has always smelled like marshmallows? Tell that to the French, who are just misunderstanding this "juicy red varietal."
Does the review above make you want to try this wine?
Aren't you a little more interested when I tell you that Stuart Miller and his family do everything, from pruning the grapes to picking them and making the wine? That Shiraz from McLaren Vale tends to be less full-bodied than wines from nearby Barossa Valley? That the vineyard is on the sardonically named Mount Benson (elevation of vineyards: 5 to 50 meters) on the Limestone Coast, and that some of the region has Australia's most famous soil, the not-sardonically named Terra Rossa?
I don't know anything about this wine and I haven't tasted it. And I didn't use any special reporting techniques; I learned all that stuff in about 10 minutes on the Internet.
What I do know is that the review, the label photo and the tasting notes made me sure I'd hate the wine. (Note to food editor: When Julia Child wrote the recipe, "young and full-bodied" meant something different. She'd hate a wine described like this too.) Maybe the wine really does taste like cherry candy, in which case it has too much residual sugar and I really would hate it. But maybe the tasting notes themselves are the problem.
I still don't completely agree with Asimov; tasting notes have their uses. But Asimov first raised the point that bloggers should try to write about wine for a year without using tasting notes. I won't do it, but I could, and maybe it would be good for me. I can see that it would be good for some others.
Read my latest interview with Eric Asimov about the success of his book "How to Love Wine," whether it has changed his positions, whether he's making any money and how he feels about The Times not reviewing it on Wine-Searcher.