the invention of flavor

Monday, September 13, 2010

Did anyone write about flavor before the modern era of wine writing? Did the effort to taste and describe wine flavors lead to an appreciation for this most-neglected and difficult to categorize of the five senses? You might take this as hyperbole, but stop for a moment and consider this note, copied word for word from the back of a Häagen-Dazs Dark Chocolate Mint ice cream carton.

“A favorite flavor combination elevated by the purest mint essence and sumptuously rich dark chocolate ice cream. Flavor Top Notes: refreshing, yet smooth mint. Flavor Finish Notes: deep rich chocolate with overtones of mint.”

Hello – this is ice cream we’re talking about! But consider these phrases; this could just as easily be wine. “Elevated… sumptuously rich… refreshing yet smooth… overtones…” Did Jay Miller write this stuff? What’s next, a 100 point scale for ice cream?

The same sort of over-the-top flavor descriptors are now being applied to coffee, beer, vodka, gin, crackers (see La Panzanella: “centuries-old artisan tradition…delightfully crisp, herb-infused…”). If you stop to read the packaging on almost anything edible these days, it blathers on like an overdone tasting note. But I think it's a good thing, and here's why.

I think that wine writers may take full credit for this explosion of interest in flavor. Twenty years ago, when tasting note writing became a “thing” in the wine press, it was actually quite revolutionary. And very difficult. Even now, after writing tens of thousands of tasting notes, I try to make each one a little different. I believe that the better the wine, the better the note should be. It has forced me (and many other wine scribes) to figure out a language for flavor.

Scientists have chipped in as well, with Dr. Ann Noble’s Wine Aroma Wheel the first (and still the best) breakdown of wine flavors. The result is a much more fine-tuned appreciation for the subtleties of scent and taste, and it is clearly spreading across the entire food spectrum.

Though the marketing aspect of all this may at times become foolish (see Wine X for more on this) or seem self-indulgent, I think that the overall trend is quite positive. Modern culture is obsessed with sounds and images, and those two senses have dominated media (and hence, discourse) for most of the last century. It’s time for flavor to be recognized for its proper value, its subtlety and finesse, the vast range of detail it can bring, and the massive amounts of sensory information it conveys. Inextricably tied to scent, it often makes me wish I had the nose of a beagle (or at least a cat) so I could experience the world the way they do (without the butt-sniffing aspect however).

So raise a glass to flavor, or eat a bowl of ice cream. Whatever – let’s call September 13th Flavor Day and give thanks for this wonderful, complex and invigorating sensory universe.

A special shout-out to Josh Wade at, one of the most widely-read bloggers in the country. Josh has posted a very thoughtful review of my book up on the site today, along with a 10-minute Skype interview we did over the weekend.


Josh Wade said...

thanks for the shout out, Paul! It was a fun interview and you are a gracious guest.


Unknown said...

Loved the skype webcast. Nicely done to both of you guys.

Sondra said...

You talk about flavor in a most interesting way yet Flavor certainly is not a newly discovered feature made relevant by wine writers.

Flavor is a combination of taste and smell. What food lover hasn't mentioned both taste and aromatics? Flavor is the marriage of our chemical senses that allows word-oriented folks to describe in great, and not so great, poetry, the fabulous sensual experience.

PaulG said...

No disagreement with you Sondra, but my point remains, it is wine writing, and the attention of wine writers to the language of taste and smell, that has given rise to the increased attention to flavor that shows up in packaging of a wide variety of ingestibles. Foodies may have written about ice cream for the past 100 years, but only recently have descriptors such as those I quote above shown up.

Mike Kallay said...

I tend to think of tasting notes written in the de facto "fruit, vegetable, herb" adjectives to be simple, subjective shorthand masquerading as scientific findings, and in direct contradiction to unique & useful descriptions of wine. I also think it's contrary to the personal & exploratory nature of a relationship with a glass/bottle of wine. It's a fairly new phenomenon to be speaking in this "language," and I think we're all the dumber & less curious for it. It impedes enjoyment of wine by many, and really only speaks a very narrow language to those with the decoder rings. Anyone purporting to have a degree of precision in wine descriptions/ratings is really doing a disservice to wine drinking in general, IMHO.

Of course, this whole reply is full of white pepper, sage, black cherry, and repressed angst on the thin evolution. Sorry.


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