Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Professional wine tasting notes are for the reader, not the writer

Ten years ago I went to the Professional Wine Writers’ Symposium and hated the session on writing tasting notes so much that I have complained about it ever since. This year the Symposium went virtual, with an interesting, diverse set of speakers, so I signed up. 

Perhaps this was predictable: while I enjoyed some of it, I hated the sessions on tasting notes so much that I was either going to complain for the next 10 years, or write this rant.

Here is the TL;DR version:

* The point of being a professional wine writer is to get paid. That's what “professional” means.

* A professional writer writes for two audiences: readers, and the editor.

* Professional tasting notes are for the reader (or paying editor), not the writer.

* The point is to communicate an idea of what the wine tastes like. 

* Most tasting notes are boring. Long conversations about them are even more boring.

* Everybody hates scores! Except for most of the wine trade and most consumers.

* The writers who score are more successful than the writers who don’t.

Now here's the rant version:

Naturally the session kicked off by mocking a Robert Parker tasting note. They are eminently mockable. But Parker is by far the most successful professional writer of tasting notes the world has ever seen. This is like directors of dinner theater mocking big Hollywood movies. 

Here is what Parker did better than anybody: he communicated excitement. Berries burst from the glass. Flavors explode in your mouth. The finish lasts for a full minute! It’s easy to mock the fruit salad nouns of blackberries, huckleberries, marionberries, loganberries, etc. Where Parker succeeded was the verbs. Wines in Parker's tasting notes were alive and active. 

I say this despite the fact that Parker’s 99-point wines, where he found endless layers of flavor, often tasted like monolithic assaults on my mouth. But that's a question of personal taste, not Parker's writing. 

Lyrical writers like to call Parker clumsy. Maybe they are Mozart and he is Salieri. But in writing tasting notes, we are not drafting a masterwork that a future generation will discover 100 years from now. 

After attacking Parker, a writer who’s retired, the Symposium failed to talk about any of the current Advocate writers, or the Wine Spectator critics, or Antonio Galloni of Vinous, or Jeb Dunnuck, or James Suckling. These are people who make a living writing tasting notes! Unlike Eric Asimov or Jancis Robinson, who would be successful wine writers if they never wrote another tasting note, these writers’ whole careers are based on them.

Are they the best at it? Define “best.” They have people who pay for subscriptions to read their tasting notes every month. Do you? I don't.

Encouraging writers to write unusual tasting notes is a literary exercise in the worst literary genre imaginable, and it’s not the path to getting paid. If there’s a publication out there that will pay writers for tasting notes in haiku, I want to write for them. (Text me!) But, generally, they don’t. I loved WineX magazine as literature; it famously described a wine as "Brad Pitt stepping out of the shower." If somebody got paid to write that, more power to them. But I have no idea what that actually tastes like (and frankly, ewww). It’s no coincidence that Wine Advocate is still in business and WineX is not.

Rant Part Two

Writers should be aware that others don't share the same cultural references. English critics often say wines taste like “pear drop;” I have no idea what that tastes like. An Indian sommelier on the panel said she had read about blackberry flavors for years – but had never tasted blackberries, because they don't grow in India. OK, remember that if you write for an international readership (I do.) 

What I am trying to do, in a tasting note, is give you some sense of how the wine tastes. I also use that opportunity often to do a little more storytelling -- but about the wine, not about myself. 

If I write a feature about Oregon Malbec, I sometimes add a tidbit that doesn’t fit in the main story, but might help you appreciate the wine. If I have 35 words for a tasting note, I might spend 25 on storytelling. But those other 10 words have to explain whether or not readers will like the wine.

A lot comes down to ripeness and body. For me, "restrained," "fresh," "savory" and even "salty" are positives. But many consumers want powerful, rich, fruit-driven wines. If you help your reader it's easy for someone who doesn't share your taste to parse your notes to see if a wine might appeal to them.

The Symposium did make a few useful points. Nobody should call a wine "masculine" or "feminine" in 2021 because nobody knows what that means anymore; half the women in San Francisco can kick my ass, and the other half say, "What do you mean, only half?" Using the word "exotic" just says you're not a very international person. Why would yellow curry be "exotic" and not tater tots? 

When bloggers get together, we tend to support the most florid, least helpful tasting notes possible. We praise the literary quality of lengthy notes that can be poems or meditations on the writer's childhood.

Twice in the last 10 years, I held my tongue in the Symposium while everyone praised tasting notes like -- these were actual ones from this year -- "It reminds me of the trunk of my grandfather's car," or shades of Wine X, "That tastes like kissing Antonio Banderas." (We need more info -- is he a smoker?)

But we’ve been round this problem before. We had this conversation 10 years ago and, just like last week, the discussion quickly deteriorated into exactly the same kind of discussion bloggers always have about tasting notes. If you want to blog and write whatever you want for no money, then do so -- that's what I'm doing right now. But if you want to be a professional, it's an entirely different conversation.

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


Andy said...

Interesting post. I admit to liking scores and professional tasting note within the context of palate calibration -- e.g. writer X says "strawberry" and "I like it a lot" with a 93 pt score and I consistently taste something that I like a lot as well (even though his or her "strawberry" is my ripe red fruit)-- and visa versa of course. This requires drinking a lot of wine and comparing to your favored writers scores so you can buy something based upon their recommendation but otherwise "sight untasted" and feel confident that it will not end up in the sewer system. Like the 2017 Desti Priorat I ordered based upon a WS review and drank last night (this is a wine unavailable in California so they only way I was going to get it was thru this method)

W. Blake Gray said...

I completely agree with this. Measuring one's taste against consistent experts works in movies and music, and it works in wine as well but people don't talk about it enough. I have learned I can't trust NYT for movie reviews, because even though they are excellent, knowledgeable critics, my taste in films is different. (I like the Austin Chronicle.)

Robert Whitley (RIP) described scores as "a measure of the writer's enthusiasm for the wine." It's silly for publications to claim wine ratings are universal or objective, but used the way you're talking about, they're a very useful shorthand for the reader. It's all about the reader! Or at least it should be.

Robert said...

What I have always found interesting is the amount of flavors and aromas that are written about a wine. I make the stuff for a living and even I can't describe more than three. Could be I'm not a good taster or writer but how can you taste blueberry and cherry and blackberry and tobacco and bitter chocolate all in the same tasting? Especially if the taster/writer is on their 4th wine?

W. Blake Gray said...

Robert: Something the symposium never gets into, but that is worth analyzing, is this: are more descriptors in a tasting note better for the writer, professionally speaking?

This gets back to my original point: to help aspiring writers write professional tasting notes, it would be good to analyze what works. Most of the writers who make a living on tasting notes use what many people think are an excessive amount of descriptors. But is that what the readers who are willing to pay for tasting notes want? Without research I can't say, but I think it's possible.

DeborahParkerWong said...

For what it's worth, here are two studies: one that looks at the effectiveness of descriptors on tasting sheets in winery tasting rooms and another that looks at traditional versus "fanciful" tasting notes. Clearly, more research is required.

Nine tasting rooms in New York participated in the study that took place on weekends (Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) during a six-week period in July and August 2012. The authors found that both bottle and dollar sales were higher when tasting sheets without sensory descriptors were used, with dollar sales statistically significant at the 10 percent level. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/280201834_The_effect_of_tasting_sheet_sensory_descriptors_on_tasting_room_sales

The study presented in this paper contrasts a more traditional tasting note style, using direct references to aromas, tastes and mouthfeel observations, to a style utilizing more fanciful descriptors, such as those involving (indirect) references to personality traits (‘confident’) or non‐food items (‘flinty’). The results of a scenario based experiment showed that there is some support for the hypothesis that fanciful tastingnotes appeal more to consumers than more traditional ones, even if the mechanism through which this occurs is still unclear. 

W. Blake Gray said...

Deborah: Thank you VERY much. This is EXACTLY the kind of research that a professional symposium on tasting notes should have, rather than a bunch of people sitting around trying to outdo each other with obscure references.

Bizop1234 said...

Blogging and write whatever you want without money, so be it. I have a website to write about. I don't know about wine, how good it is to drink, but thousands of people still drink it every day.