Friday, January 4, 2013

When tasting notes are bad

Courtesy Seduction Meals.com
New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov is becoming famous for opposing tasting notes. On the macro scale I don't agree with him. But I had a moment on Jan. 1 that made me see things his way.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.

13 comments:

rapopoda said...

I hear you on the coffee notes. I home roast and buy my green beans from Sweet Marias (highly recommended). Their bags come with tasting notes that are *almost* always off the wall as far as what I can detect

Patrick Frank said...

Nice post. The worst tasting notes are those that rack up irrelevant-sounding descriptors like the ones you mention, and I think you & Asimov are right to home in on that as a problem. The solution is to write with a bit of wisdom, which means including some discussion of how the wine at hand fits (or doesn't) into its intended slot in the wine world. Such notes indeed benefit less-experienced tasters, which is what tasting notes are for. I think.

Amalie Robert Estate said...

And then there is this style...

Tasting Notes: Wanton red. Transcendental aromas of cigar box, wild rose-hip jam, fresh cranberry, savory and Five spice arouse the senses. Spend some quality time with this bouquet before the first sip reveals a sinewy texture that ripples across the palate revealing voluptuous tart red berries and coriander supported by whole-cluster stem tannins and teasing acidity. A lithe and well poised feminine wine in harmony with its masculine instincts.


Suggested Food Pairings: Chase down some “Devils on Horseback” while you prepare roast rabbit shoulder or lamb T-bone and hay smoked red potatoes mashed with hardwood smoked duck bacon and warmed herbed goat cheese for a rustic culinary experience. Or, you could opt for a Duck Confit salad with dried cranberries, toasted hazelnuts and crumbled gorgonzola.

Amalie Robert Estate said...

And then there is this style...

Tasting Notes: Wanton red. Transcendental aromas of cigar box, wild rose-hip jam, fresh cranberry, savory and Five spice arouse the senses. Spend some quality time with this bouquet before the first sip reveals a sinewy texture that ripples across the palate revealing voluptuous tart red berries and coriander supported by whole-cluster stem tannins and teasing acidity. A lithe and well poised feminine wine in harmony with its masculine instincts.


Suggested Food Pairings: Chase down some “Devils on Horseback” while you prepare roast rabbit shoulder or lamb T-bone and hay smoked red potatoes mashed with hardwood smoked duck bacon and warmed herbed goat cheese for a rustic culinary experience. Or, you could opt for a Duck Confit salad with dried cranberries, toasted hazelnuts and crumbled gorgonzola.

Josh Stein, Stein Family Wines said...

It's all about conditioning, though, isn't it? Wine marketers have been too successful, and wine as a thing in society still means more than wine as a beverage to many people. One could argue that the spread of "tasting note-itis" signifies an opening up of rarified wine into the larger culture, albeit the rather rarefied part of that "general" usually meant when someone says "hipster."

If we want to move not just wine drinkers but the general culture, which now seems to be paying attention to us, away from these technical/technique-laden ways of discussing wine or other agricultural products, then it's on us in the trade to do so. Why do tasting notes _matter_? What purposes _should_ they serve?

There is an epistemic shift underway as consumers seek out "non-corporate" ways of feeding and clothing themselves, at least among those who can afford such options, and that means there is a real opportunity to open up the ways in which we talk about wine, but I'm afraid recent headlines from the wine world have not shown a willingness yet for that kind of openness...

HNY, Blake, either way!

chilecopadevino.com said...

Coffee hasn’t built its own nomenclature and really should not be borrowing from fruit based products like wine. I agree the idea of a cooked peach like coffee would drive me screaming from the shop. As to wine notes, I think the drive to creativity has gone way too far, a word generator could write many wine reviews. I just want to know what it has and will I like it.

Meg Houston Maker said...

Actually, coffee does have an established tasting vocabulary, very like wine. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_cupping.

hazchem said...

"Coffee hasn’t built its own nomenclature and really should not be borrowing from fruit based products like wine" *sigh* coffee beans are the seeds of a fruit tree. Coffee has fruity flavours for a reason. IT'S FRUIT.

That said - it does have to be asked - could coffee benefit from a set of descriptors like the WSET ones for wine? The whole problem with more ethereal tasting notes is that they will always be coloured by the writer's sense memory. Just look at the jury descriptors for Cup of Excellence coffees. So many very similar words/flavours being described for what s probably just a small handful of actual flavours present.

Kyle Luke said...

I have to say that I kind of agree with Mr. Asimov on this one, to an extent. Though sometimes, when given by trustworthy person, tasting notes can be a helpful thing. But even then I often find that the notes only send me off expecting something in a wine that I usually never find. A wine may have eucalyptus,currant and whatever in it. But even if those are desirable things the wine is only as good as the sum of its parts. After all wine is about balance and particularly the tasters idea of it. I find that more often than not tasting notes are just setting the wine up for failure. which is an injustice to the wine, the winemaker and the vineyard.

Louis Calli said...

I actually have Siri just randomly generate all my tasting notes from an database of terms like "tour de force" and "elegant". She's getting pretty good.

W. Blake Gray said...

Seriously, Louis? That's excellent. I'd love to see consumers blind-tested on which tasting notes were more relevant for them: major magazines' critics, or Siri's.

Creatures said...

I can walk into any of the stores you mentioned in SF and get a good laugh. I like to stand right in the middle of the counter and do it.....and then ask for coffee pleez! Cracks me up!

Daniel said...

I have to admit, that when tasting with other people, it's fun to talk about the flavors; what kind of cherry it reminds you of, or what the smell is like (say, wet leaves in the forest), but I've never understood the need of people to write about what I'm going to taste, or that people would want to be told what they will be tasting. I want to know about the winery, the people, and the place that the wine comes from, and maybe talk about the style or characteristics. Let me decide what it tastes like. It would be like reading a menu at a restaurant and having the taste of the entrees listed..."deep earthy flavors of umami and meat...".

and yes, Coffee has fruit notes to it, just like good Chocolate does (another seed from a fruit!). I notice it more often when it is overcast (which is pretty much every day up here in the PNW) that the citrus qualities seem to show more. Or maybe it's the OJ from breakfast...
cheers