On Tasting Notes

“Tasting notes are a clinical approach to what is, at heart, an emotional connection.” – Ron Washam, also known as the HoseMaster

Wineries use tasting notes for – well, it’s not clear. A Cornell University study found tasting notes do not sell wine. Think about it: would you buy a wine just because it has flavours of blackberry or cola? And what if you didn’t like one of the fruits listed? Worse yet, tasting notes can be comically inaccurate. It doesn’t help that some tasting notes are written months before the wine is bottled, so that the note can be included on the back label.

Tasting notes also verge on the bizarre. Flavours of dried tobacco leaves, cigar box, and forest floor? It’s hard to imagine anyone who would willingly chomp down on a clump of dirt. And that’s not even mentioning minerality. Instead, we’re more likely to embarrass and put off consumers who don’t know the peculiar vocabulary of wine. Some aromas – smoke, tar – sound better suited to a construction site than a glass of wine, after all. If we’re “selling poetry,” we’re often failing.

On Tasting Notes

There’s also the risk of the consumer’s focus becoming the tasting note and not the wine itself. The sheer pleasure of wine is neglected; instead it becomes a desperate search to find strawberry or raspberry. If one doesn’t taste what’s described, then self-doubt creeps in. One’s tasting ability is brought into question. And this can go on for five, ten, or fifteen different flavours. To borrow a quote from the Journal of Wine Economics: “The pretense that we shall be able to discern all those tastes and aromas is pure bullshit.”

The problem is actually ours: using the “language of wine,” or insider jargon, over the vernacular. This may help to explain why consumers cannot identify a wine from its tasting note. Trying to speak in the same language as the consumer doesn’t mean we’re talking down to them. Would you insist on speaking English to a Francophone even if you were bilingual?

The truth is the wine trade often isn’t bilingual. In the United Kingdom, only 59 percent of wine consumers are aware that France is a wine producing country (!). And yet we continue to describe our wines as “Bordeaux blends” or “Burgundian.” Worse, we use confounding vocabulary (“terroir,” “cépage”) when perfectly fine lay terms could be used instead. In short, we simply can’t manage to translate our gobbledygook. This isn’t surprising: we can’t even agree on the meaning of minerality.

To be sure, wine vocabulary has a place. The trade has largely coalesced around a common language to talk about wine. This is due, in part, to the role of educators like WSET and the Court of Master Sommeliers. For example, WSET Level 3 aims to “develop to a high-level your ability to describe wine accurately” using a systematic approach to tasting. Just as problems arise when lawyers or engineers use different languages, the same can be true for wine professionals.

So, while there’s a pragmatic side to conversing in “proper” wine vocabulary to wine enthusiasts and professionals, we need to be able to communicate with the average consumer. This means moving past tasting notes and flavour descriptors to focus on style and structure. Is the wine “light and juicy” or “rich and full-bodied?” Eric Asimov, wine critic for the New York Times, makes a similar argument. More importantly, we need to emphasize and communicate our “emotional connection” to the wine. I may not remember exactly how some of my most memorable bottles tasted, but I do remember where and with whom I had them.

And this is why our goal at Phantom Creek is to move past tasting notes, and focus on the story and emotion behind every bottle.

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