Monday, August 3, 2015

Tasting notes: a silly game that could be fun

Most people are not aware of the battle at the margins of oneophilia over tasting notes. They've seen tasting notes, realize they're inherently silly, and don't care that wine critics less important than Robert Parker don't like the way he uses the language.

A new board game demonstrates that silly tasting notes can also be fun.

The New Yorker skipped into this issue last week with an elegant argument against trying to describe flavors. I'd like to take this opportunity to point out one of my best articles, in which I interviewed linguists about how the words we use to describe wine change our experience of it, and how those words do not translate across cultures.

But nobody is making tasting notes go away. They have escaped oenophilia and are swimming around U.S. culture. Cafes describe coffees as tasting like apricot and elderflower liqueur, and I know exactly how non-wine aficionados feel about wine tasting notes because I have never, ever tasted apricot in a cup of hot coffee.

If you can't eliminate something, best to enjoy it. That's the purpose of Read Between the Wines, a new drinking and overwriting game that, if one can remove one's disapproving frown for an evening, might actually be a good time.

The game is somewhat like Apples to Apples, which I admit is far superior, or the hilariously foul-mouthed Cards Against Humanity. But Apples to Apples encompasses the human experience, whereas Read Between the Wines is limited to the excessive verbiage one can apply to a sip of wine.

What I like about Read Between the Wines is that it's not a blind-tasting game. There are no wrong answers. As a writer, I might wish that it rewarded hyperbolic creativity, but in fact, it's more communal than that: like Apples to Apples, it rewards knowing how your friends think.

How it works is that a book club or other group that likes to drink wine opens a bunch of wines. Good start, am I right?

Each player gets a pour of the first wine -- which is openly displayed, no mysteries here. The dealer for the round picks a card that announces a theme for the tasting note each person will write.

The cards, themes and examples are a pretty good barometer for the way most Americans think of wine tasting notes: sometimes they're serious, but usually they're silly.

For example, a card might have the theme, "Compare this wine to a type of landscape," which makes some sense, as grapes do come from landscapes, with the example, "A canyon of tannin ... this vast and expansive blend has incredible depth." I get that. I can taste that! It's also bor-ing.

More common are themes and examples like these:

Theme: What drinking vessel or container is this wine best suited for? Example: "A mason jar in the trailer park."

Theme: Write a personal ad on behalf of this wine. Example: "Meet Brenda. She livens up the party with a flirty, bold character that pairs well with rich, attractive slabs of meat."

Theme: How would this wine dress? What sort of style does it have? Example: "This wine is wild and unapologetic. It would wear assless chaps in public, and not just on the weekend."

Everybody tastes the wine, and tries to follow the theme by writing down a description. The dealer collects the descriptions and reads them out loud. Players earn points not by writing the funniest description, but by guessing who wrote what. I don't completely understand the scoring system, which probably makes even less sense after everyone has tasted six or eight bottles of wine.

But the point is, you have your friends over, you're tasting wine, you're writing silly things about it. I imagine hijinx and laughter at the expense of serious tasting notes. One thing most of us can agree about is that tasting notes are too stuffy. For people who truly care about the language of wine, a game like this is even slightly subversive.

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  1. The link probably doesn't get past your AdBlocker. I can't see it on my own computer on Firefox, but can on Safari.

    It's an Amazon link and I get 4% of anything ordered through it, so I'm not going to put up a link for which I don't get credit. Amazon links like these are one of the few ways bloggers get any money. Why, I got $12 in the last 3 months! That's nearly $0.0001 an hour!

  2. I've always enjoyed the Silly Tasting Note Generator, found at

  3. Interesting post! And author has shared a lot good points with us! Thank you!

    Stella Pan
    The Wine Elite

  4. Perhaps you need to imagine hijinx and hooplah...

    And can you tell me how much $0.0001 per hour is after federal, state and local taxes?

    That, in fact, is the definition of hijinx and hoopla.