Wine: It’s a matter of tasting notes


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There’s a new message in the bottle. A growing, grumbling movement suggests that wine consumers have little use and perhaps even less tolerance for wine tasting notes. The concept of keeping score to endorse a wine’s value is always one that sparks hot debate but trending now is a derision towards what some see as a gross abuse of language, as it pertains to writing about wine. In a sudden and dramatic shift, writers are voicing their strong and in many instances, indignant opinions. Scribes are up in arms, mad, barking, “We’re not going to take it anymore.” Critiquing the critic is the new hot, and bothered. So much for the high road.

So, what’s the big deal? What’s the real problem here? Are we to be convinced that the average wine drinker has really become turned off by a heinous and excess use of speech? Are “thrown nouns” disrupting the ability to experience a more “nuanced understanding” in your wine? Has wine writing gone over the top and into the arena of the absurd? The Wine Diarist wants to know if you Care For A Word Salad With Your Wine? His take, “in general, tasting notes suck.” Have a lesser breed of wine writers confused, ostracized and alienated the wine buying public? Should the notions of professionalism and credibility seriously be brought into question?

Eric Azimov of the New York Times has gone so far as to distill wine into two words, sweet and savoury. He writes, “it’s one or the other.” Azimov feels that tasting notes are turning people off wine. My fellow Postmedia Chats colleague Rod Phillips is one who believes that tasting notes should be void of nouns, such as apples, sedimentary rock or bull’s blood. Phillips is adamant that notes be restricted to the concepts of balance, terroir, intensity, weight, sweetness and tannins. Others cringe at the overuse of adjectives, like supple, scrumptious or generous.

Should tasting notes stick to the direct and simple, like “the wine is flawed,” or “the wine is correct?” Is the sole purpose to describe a wine as light, medium or full-bodied? Is the balance between sweetness and acidity all that really matters? A well-respected writer, David Schildknecht comments, “The ubiquity of the descriptor does not make it inappropriate.” Jamie Goode writes that, “Tasting notes are the stock in trade of wine writers and critics.” So much of it may be crap but you’ve got to write about something. There’s the rub. Writers and critics. Perhaps it’s time to decide who you are, to choose who to follow and who to ignore. Many wine writers have been hurled onto the quadrae like slabs of meat, or cadavers, to be cut, dissected, broken apart. Why the schadenfreude? Why the sudden and furious need to chastise and belittle? It must be those useless, verbose and ridiculous tasting notes. Total bullshit. Utter poppycock.

Michael Godel Photo: Marc Rochette/

Michael Godel
Photo: Marc Rochette/

What about that high road less taken? Decanter Magazine’s Andrew Jefford writes, “Tasting notes are the kerosene of wine criticism: they have powered its ascent, and keep it aloft.” In his article Whither Tasting Notes? he also concedes that “A well-written tasting note has practical worth, in that it communicates a sensual experience via metaphorical and analytical means, and puts that experience in its appropriate context.” And yet, Ron Washam the Hosemaster of Wine so rightly reminds us that “In real life, wine ‘experts’ never ever talk about wine the way tasting notes do. Try describing a wine in (Robert) Parkerese at a wine judging and you’re likely to get waterboarded with Prosecco.” From Alder Yarrow, Is the Wine Writing World Out of Touch?, “Of course, most people writing about wine aren’t writing for the average wine drinker.”

Look, an astronaut can cover and alter the lyrics to David Bowie’s A Space Oddity aboard the International Space Station. Writers have forever been stepping beyond the comfort zone, like Hunter Thompson making a mockery of the Kentucky Derby, or George Plimpton playing Quarterback for the Detroit Lions. A wine writer can’t have a little fun?

I have no pretensions that my tasting notes might move, enlighten or teach and it’s no secret that I do not take myself seriously, especially when I write about wine. My M.O. is a lighthearted one but it is built upon a work ethic of incessant tasting, a burrowing tour of language and a whole a lot of pop culture. Music, especially lyrics that elicit word associations when tasting wine, are infused into my tasting notes. Why bother, you ask? What can anyone learn from that? The answers are simple. Read between the lines. Seek some entertainment value. Appreciate the written word, enjoy the wine. Wine makes me think, my brain forms associations and I put them to paper. I like the exercise, literally. My writing strikes a chord with some, hatred with others. That’s life. The variety helps to add colour and spice to rooms anointed with 100 wines.

Wine Tasting Photo: Michael Godel

Wine Tasting
Photo: Michael Godel

When 33 Ontarians (and two ringers) were poured at the Brock University Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute’s Expert’s Tasting back in March, I wrote, “Right in my wheelhouse and on so many levels.” This was because the tasting was orchestrated alongside the songs and lyrics of music, my music. Everyone enjoyed the cross-cultural referencing that day. The tasting was humbling, educational and a whole lot of fun.

The art of transcribing sensory experiences is natural, base, cathartic and necessary. Writing, whether it be about sculpture, painting, movies, sports or wine, aims to tell a story. I am careful to credit where a wine comes from, its history, its land and its maker. I am always cognizant that it has been given life at the hands of someone who cares deeply about the natural and living process. These necessary and critical points are never taken for granted.

I was fortunate to have been properly and ritually immersed into wine during the summer of 1987. Three weeks ago the Art History department and University of Toronto community lost a great mind and teacher. Prof. Jens T. Wollesen passed away on April 22, 2013. I have Professor Wollesen to thank for introducing me to the world of Chianti Classico, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano and Brunello di Montalcino. The 1982 Tuscan vintage was very good, not the classic that was 1985, but I had little to complain about while sipping them in the Enoteca La Fortezza di Montalcino with Prof. Wollesen. Professor’s tutelage laid down a foundation for wine discovery and the dizzying setting overlooking the Val d’Orcia opened up my pen to a world of thoughts. The next 25 years are history.

Good to go!

One comment on “Wine: It’s a matter of tasting notes

  1. Elena Lemeneva says:

    Hello, I am the wife of Prof. Wollesen. He left five children; the youngest two, 12 and 10 year old, are mine. I am collecting stories about their father so that, when they are older, they can know something about the man he was outside of the family. Would you be so kind as to write a few memories down for us? With many thanks in advance, Elena Lemeneva.

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