fearless or feckless?

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A thread on one of the Wine Library forums tackles the topic of “Funny Tasting Note Descriptors”.


It was writer Jon Bonne’s San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 that inspired this rather bawdy (and frequently hilarious) series of posts. And it wasn’t so much his choice of wines that ignited the rather critical feedback – it was the descriptors he used.

Specifically, a description of a 2006 Cadence ‘Ciel du Cheval’ Red Wine:

“Lacquered plum, iron filings, ancho, cassis and a burnt-earth hint that provides terrific depth. Ciel du Cheval might provide the most refined tannins on Red Mountain, and Ben Smith finds a perfectly ripe expression in this double-Cabernet (Sauvignon, Franc) driven blend without sacrificing its energizing structure.”

“WTF is a lacquered plum?” wrote the puzzled Vayniac who launched the forum. This led into a meandering but quite entertaining series of posts and ripostes such as “My thought is that the reviewer is just a jackass... ‘Lacquered plum, iron filings, ancho, cassis and a burnt-earth’...I'd like to see the descriptors of the wines that didn't make the list...”

“The only way to find out is to take a bite of some finished wood and then eat a piece of plum.”

“Lacquered Plum would be a good name for a band. So would Toasted Plum, for that matter.”

Other posters went on to question “iron filings” (“Perhaps some of his old dental work fell out at one time...”) and other fairly common descriptors such as Asian spice and lead pencil.

There is no doubt that attempts to play around with descriptors for wine can quickly turn ludicrous. On the other hand, who wants to keep reading and re-reading terms from the aroma wheel? Any wine reviewer with a shred of writing talent will eventually despair at finding new, novel, entertaining and still useful terms for tastes and smells that have no real language of their own. But that doesn’t mean you can’t try. One poster even jumped to Bonne’s defense (sort of):

“Not knowing the guy, he may very well be a jackass as insinuated here... but the fact that he uses exotic descriptors for wines should not be a contributing factor to it... we used to say that scores were irrelevant and that descriptors were the only important thing... now we want to dismiss some of them? Much ado about nothing I say.”

A new book entitled “The Wine Trials 2010” goes even further down the road of dismantling any traditional attempts at wine reviewing. Authors Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch spend half the book in a ponderously erudite critique of wine magazines, those who review wines for them, and the 100-point scale. The other half of the book – supposedly “the world’s bestselling guide to inexpensive wines” – reproduces the results of massive blind tastings of mostly corporate plonk, and comes up with a list of 150 wines under $15 that are recommended. In so doing, the book manages the near-impossible feat of being both mind-numbingly pedantic and thoroughly pedestrian.

The relentless bashing of Parker, Parker points, and any traditional wine journalism is getting tiresome to say the least. The notion that the type of “rigorous brown-bag blind tastings” that Goldstein and Herschkowitsch promote somehow liberates readers from buying expensive wines is certainly not supported by the list of 150 quaffers they’ve so arduously compiled.

Worse yet, they have the gall to attack descriptive wine writing as well. “You won’t find esoteric words like ‘elderflower’ or ‘pencil lead’ in ‘The Wine Trials 2010’ trumpets the book’s press release. Yeah? Well what you will find are totally ordinary and surprisingly unenthusiastic wine descriptions, such as this for a Chateau Ste. Michelle Riesling: “It’s aromatic and flowery, with a component that some blind tasters found almost nutty.” Woo-hoo – almost nutty, you say? I’ll have a case! Each wine also gets a label critique – the CSM riesling is called out for “pompous script [that] reminds us of a stuffy hotel restaurant. And this is clearly a case of Anglicization gone too far: the circumflex accent is missing in the word Château.”

Well excusez-moi Mr. and Mrs. “unpretentious, conversational style...” Ze accent is missing? - c’est incroyable!

Having cheerily dismissed scores, descriptors, the entire pricing structure of all wines over $15, and any semblance of meaningful wine criticism, the authors indulge in a lengthy discourse on the relative merits of Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut ($12) vs. Dom Perignon ($150), concluding (surprise) that the cheap stuff is favored by far more “blind tasters” than the real Champagne. Not that there’s anything wrong with DSM – though it’s the Blanc de Noirs bottling that really stands out in that lineup, not the brut. But better than Dom Perignon?!? Alright then, if any of you “blind tasters” would like to swap your Dom for my DSM, send me a note. I’ll pay the shipping costs.



Greg said...

Paul, I was the one in that thread who quoted your note on the same wine. You're spot on about the anti-snob angle being taken too far to the point of stupidity. But I think it's also reasonable to ask at what point a review intended for public consumption loses meaning. I cited your note since I think you (and also Steve Heimoff at WE) do a commendably good job focusing on describing structural components of wine instead of just listing adjectives. There's a balance of pragmatism and pretentiousness in tasting notes, and Bonne arguably crossed the line into pretentiousness at the expense of descriptiveness.

I am curious to ask a professional, what do you mean by graphite? Pencil lead consists of graphite and clay, and I've been told it's really the clay that has an earthy, metallic aroma. But usually the clay is volatilized while sharpening a pencil, so I'd think many people experience it as part of pencil shavings, a mix of wood, paint, graphite and clay. Perhaps in the wine lexicon graphite has acquired a meaning different from a purely scientific definition, though. Pencil shavings are clear to me, but graphite has a definite ambiguity in my mind as it could mean.

larry schaffer said...

The description of ANY wine is truly a subjective thing. All reviewers - professional and novice - will see wines from their unique individual perspective based on their backgrounds, the foods they consumed growing up, the smells they encountered in their lives, and yes, the wines they've consumed.

Is it 'wrong' for a reviewer to use terms like 'lacquered plums'? I think not, for that is what the wine smelled or tasted like to HIM or HER. I don't find it pompous at all . . . I may not AGREE with it, but that's okay too.

Wine can take all of us to a different place and a different time - I've been around people who smell a wine and immediately say it smells like 'grandma's attic' or 'a campfire at Yosemite I was at as a kid' . . . Are THESE pompous? Not at all . . .

Sure, it's great to 'simplify' the descriptors used to give the appearance that the reviewer is talking a 'common language' - I get that. Wine does not need to be complicated and for the industry to grow we need to break down the wall of pompousness and exclusivity whenever and whereever possible . . .

That said, perhaps we as an industry need to make people more comfortable in describing wines in terms THEY want to and to not be afraid to be 'wrong' in their descriptors' . . . .

Just another data point this morning.


larry schaffer
tercero wines www.tercerowines.com

PaulG said...

I don't recall ever using "pencil shavings" because it is a mix of aromas, as Greg points out. Graphite or pencil lead I associate with a somewhat dusty, metallic aroma - though not necessarily earthy, like clay. But as with many such terms, it is highly subjective. I think for a reader to find anyone's descriptors useful, it is helpful to follow that person's writing over a period of time. See if his/her impressions and palate correspond with your own. The descriptors can help, and if you are tasting the actual wine, they may guide your own impressions, much as sitting in a group tasting will impact what you taste.

Greg said...

Thanks for your insight Paul, much appreciated. Specifically I've seen kaolin, a compound in the China clay used in pencils, cited as giving rise to the 'metallic, dusty' aroma, as you phrase it. I mentioned pencil shavings since it's fairly common, both as an experience in grade school and in tasting notes--Gary Vaynerchuck uses it a lot, I think. With mechanical pencils more common now, perhaps pencil shavings will become antiquted?


sweetest job said...

I have worked in wine making and have now moved to vineyard mgt.(6 yrs) I have never been and will never be a wine snob. Who cares how people describe it, if it helps those who may be afraid to say it has burnt earth smell because they are not "schooled" in proper wine descriptors right on. Lets have some fun and get everyone talking, Along the way they will get educated(like myself) . To be involved in wine is one of my greatest achievements and if everyone feels some sort of connection with it I am all for it lacquered plum or not.

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