Inventing The New Language of Wine Reviews

by Tim Elliott on April 3, 2009

French wine and French gastronomy are often en...

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I sat down yesterday to record another Quick Picks podcast but didn’t come up with a usable recording. No, it wasn’t due to some audio setting mishap or lack of a great wine to talk about but something more fundamental.

I didn’t want to read my review.

For some time now I’ve been struggling with this notion of how to make audio wine reviews informative but different than what I write. Too often, I default to the same sort of clinical reviews you see in the Wine Spectator and other wine pubs. Terse notes on color, aromas and flavors topped off with a rating on some scale. For almost 5 years now, that’s been what I’ve been doing. But I’ve had enough.

No, this is not the last post on this blog; far from it. And I will return with a podcast, probably today as I try some new ideas. But there has to be a way to do wine reviews that breaks out from the current print model. Ryan Opaz’ words keep going around in my brain; the internet should be different.

There has been some recent discussion on the subject from wine writers I respect and admire. Eric Asimov addressed this in his talk at the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers. As recounted by Alder Yarrow at Vinography, Mr. Asimov called for the abolition of the tasting note; an extreme departure from what we see now in wine writing and even podcasting. We seem compelled to communicate how a wine looks, smells and tastes. And at some level I think readers and listeners are interested in these impressions but I also think there is room to develop a new language for the wine review.

Both Asimov and Yarrow are correct in their main arguments. Eric calls for a complete rethinking of how to capture a wine in worlds and Alder suggests the addition of context is critically important. But at the end of the day, each writes about how a wine looks, smells and tastes.

There has to be another way.

But if we look at other criticism, we don’t get a lot of deviation from this model. Food critics may write about decor and service but they mainly focus on how the food looks and tastes. Music critics talk about how a song evokes emotion but are equally concerned with performance. Film critics are the only ones who seem to have a gig as tough as wine writers but tend to talk about more technical aspects of a movie: plot, dialogue, pacing, camera work and acting. So I don’t think there is a model to emulate.

Perhaps the answer will be found in the conversation here. But then again, maybe not. Whatever the result, things will be changing in my reviews. Because the internet will be different.

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  • Tish

    Hear here! It is definitely a point of current contention. The old models definitely are out, crinkly as the paper they are printed on, but as you say, not sure what's next. But it seems very clear that the internet has moved so much wine talk into new directions.

    A highly recommend post is Jeff Siegel's take just last week, coming at this same big question: where is wine writing headed? Check him out at winecurmudgeon.com; link to post: http://tinyurl.com/dltldw. {He also has a killer piece in http://dregsreport.com, which we are keeping up two more weeks, an entire April Fools Fortnight.}

    It's an ongoing discussion now, that's for sure. And the only place it won't be happening is in print, because the saddest thing of all about current mass media is that the theoretically leading magazines pay exactly zero heed to anyone else's opinions. They have to maintain this insulation, not to mention the built-in incredulity that comes from trying to project multiple singular palates as a collective voice. Meanwhile, the online debate is more scattered, to be sure, but cross-referential and cross-pollinating — and hence more real.

  • http://www.spittoon.biz Andrew

    Its been worrying me for ages – but what will replace the trad tasting note? Or are we looking for change for the sake of it…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

    @Tish: Will check out Jeff's post; thanks. And why only keep The Dregs Report up for 2 weeks? We need a laugh more than once a year these days ;-)

    @Andrew: I don't think we are looking for change for it's own sake. I think the medium of blogs and podcasts is different; more immediate and fluid than the print world.

  • Jessica

    As an avid wine lover who keeps a wine journal, I find my most helpful notes to be when, where, and with what we enjoyed the wine. If we open a wine for dinner but I also think it would be a nice sipper, or vice versa I write it down. Of course I give it a rank as well, but I find myself refering more to the notes when I am searching for that next wine to open.

    I think the general wine drinking population, those not overly hung up on the numbers, would find it refreshing to know "how" to enjoy any particular bottle of wine. We've all had that great Rose that makes you want to kick back on the patio, sip wine and relax versus a Rose that just doesn't shine till you throw in some food (substitute almost any other varietal for the Rose).

  • Jessica

    Cont'd from above: In my experience with my friends, they often times have picked a good wine that needs food to shine, but when they try to just enjoy it by itself, it is underwhelming as a sipper and therefore gets voted a "won't buy again" wine. They get the sense they just don't know how to pick wine and end up constantly reverting to the same old picks.

    I think a bit of focus on selling the tasters experience with the wine along with simpler explanations of what you taste and smell, suggestions for where and when to enjoy the wine and a possible pairing could go a long way. I wish I had an example, but alas my wine journal is at home…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

    Great suggestions, Jessica; thank you… this extends Alder's "context" argument past the story of the wine to a more practical place.

  • http://www.spittoon.biz Andrew

    Something I think I've been trying with Spittoon – linking a wine to a specific recipe… not sure if that is a 'fluid' as Tim sugests earlier though…

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

      By "fluid" I meant fast moving and nimble, not a pun ;-)

      I think food matching is also a piece of what I am looking for here.

  • http://www.tomatom.com Ed Charles

    I've recently realised that most wine reviews seem to be nothing more than technical descriptions of a particular wine's characteristics and, say, that descriptions between two pinots don't really say that much if they are in any way similar. Perhaps it is a time for strong opinion one way or another.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

    Sometimes it's difficult to differentiate the nuances in words, particularly if comparing wines from the same variety and region. Technical descriptions do have some value but it should not dominate the review as it does now (my own included).

  • http://www.tomatom.com Ed Charles

    Tim, true there are nuaces but often I find there are none – in Australia at least. It only really clicked with me when I wrote something nasty on Australia's best selling wine Oyster Bay sauvignon blanc. It's the sort of wine which is a transition between alcopops and wine but really very generic. Yet all the respected Australian reviewers reviewed it well. Technically it is made well and doesn't suffer any of the old world flaws, but is a fruit/acid bomb and nobody really conveyed the type of person who might want to drink it. This is a problem when it's a review in a mass market newspaper with many different demographics and the different stages they may be going through in their maturity and sophistication as a wine drinker.
    Funnily enough it is not only in the area of wine people are talking about this. At the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival the other week I was lucky enough to interview Heston Blumenthal who was talking about taste, flavour and a new language. He said: "The flavour industry has for a long time been frustrated that the language to explain flavours is very limited. And to try and find a new language because we are expanding our knowledge the way the mind works processing flavour perception. Funnily enough it is more limited in French than in English in the sense of taste and flavour. Flavour is the combination of taste and aroma. But in France it doesn’t work that way. Gout, the word taste in France means flavour. They don’t have something to describe as many of the taste elements and things that happen in the mouth."

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast Tim Elliott

    Very interesting, Ed; thanks for adding this to the mix. I still think there is a way to make wine reviews more accessible and less technical than the current standard. Exactly how to do this will take some trial and error. I'll take a run at the written version today and audio tomorrow.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/1winedude5036 1WineDude

    When all else fails, there's always the option of doing a video recording of your an interpretive dance representing how the wine makes you feel.

    We do this every year in Philly – it's called the Mummers parade!
    ;-)

  • http://www.intensedebate.com/people/1winedude5036 1WineDude

    When all else fails, there's always the option of doing a video recording of an interpretive dance representing how the wine makes you feel.

    We do this every year in Philly – it's called the Mummers parade!
    ;-)

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/andrerib Andre Ribeirinho

    Talking from a wine social network point of view (adegga.com) I see that most members of the community don't feel comfortable writing traditional tasting notes but actually participate using other tools. By marking a wine as a favourite or adding it to a wishlist they are adding value to a wine allowing then the community to know how interesting (socially) the wine might be to try.

    I would say that tasting notes can be useful and people who write them should continue to do so. There's a personal opinion on every tasting note. What they shouldn't be is the only resource when choosing a wine.

    The Web provides a much more interesting way of adding context and experience (recipes, video, photos, etc) when talking about a wine and this can be of much more value to a regular wine lover than any rating or tasting note.

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

      I agree, Andre, that the new language of wine reviews will be social. Keep up the good work at Adegga.

  • http://www.wine-road.com/ Wine Road

    It is an interesting problem. Whenever I write a review I often feel like an idiot with the terms I'm using. They (may?) make sense to wine aficionados, but it's not how the average person talks about wine. We need a more user-friendly commonplace vernacular. I would suggest asking a lot of "average" wine drinkers to describe the wine they are drinking.

    I find that when I do that I get comments like "I like it". The negatives really stand out – "I dong like it because… it's too dry, it's too bitter, it's too acidic…"

    I never get "hints of" or "notes of". Fruity happens some time. Occasionally that may be expanded to berries – but only occasionally.

    I think the trick here is lots of conversation and observation. After all, the goal of a wine review is to help promote wine appreciation to the widest audience possible. So it makes sense that we should write or describe in terms that they will understand and relate too…

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

      Whatever the outcome I think the language will be more inclusive to all. Thanks for your comment.

  • http://www.michwine.com Joel

    Late to the party, but I've been wrestling with this for my own Michigan winesite and a column I do for a general readership online paper.

    What I'm coming around to is pretty basic: audience and context trump personal preference. If we're tasting a dozen bottles of Michigan Pinot Grigio for a pretty serious readership that includes many of the state's winemakers, the only thing that makes sense to me is the traditional Parker / Spectator reviewing style, scoring and wording, which offer the granularity to differentiate one fairly similar wine from the next in the reader's mind.

    But for the general readership column, which usually reviews a smaller number and broader assortment, I'll rate on the five-star scale and head toward a writeup of something like "light, bright and lemony, with just a hint of sweetness — a great summer patio sipper next to some guac and chips."

    • http://intensedebate.com/people/winecast winecast

      I think we need to rethink how we write about wines as we enter the \\"post-Parker\\" period. My hope is we arrive as a community to a different place than we are right now.

  • http://www.wine-road.com/ Wine Road

    I agree that your have to keep your audience in mind. That's why I aim for simplicity when addressing a mass consumer audience. Love "summer patio sipper"…

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JilesH JilesH

    Hi everyone, hope I can join in this interesting topic
    Here are two ideas ( I'm working on a third, but more of that another time…)

    I know a lady who makes her own liqueurs : infusions of gin, vodka etc with herbs, fruit and other goodies – whether you like these or not is beside the point, what's interesting is the way she describes the drinks – she draws them!
    She has an artistic background – trained as an artist I believe

    Each taste suggests a sensation and shape to her: spikey, smooth, flowing, jagged, round etc etc and she then draws a corresponding sketch of each liqueur.

    Once again the point is not whether or not you feel that you would understand this approach, I feel that the point is that SOME PEOPLE DO.

    We don't all intepret the world in the same way, so many different ways of describing wine are needed whereas a lot of wine tasting notes are similar, time, after time, after time.

    I hope this has been of interest and if it has stimulated some new thoughts do take a look at my second post – I think it’s even more intriguing. There wasn't room to put it here.

  • http://intensedebate.com/people/JilesH JilesH

    Post No. 2. – describing how wine makes you feel, not just how it tasted.

    One of the guests at a dinner in Champagne was an eminent Japanese sommelier.Towards the end of the meal we were served Dom Pérignon Oenothèque 1973 . The Japanese guest was asked to comment.

    He said something like this:
    " I woke with the sun streaming through the window and I jumped out of bed, full of energy and life, opened the window and let in the glorious warm sunshine.
    I hurriedly put on my clothes and rushed outside. I ran through a meadow full of multi-coloured wild flowers whose powerful perfumes rose up all around me in a huge cloud of scent as I ran through the grass.

    I came to a lake whose still surface reflected the bright blue of the sky above. I stripped off my clothes and plunged into the pure water. I felt alive and envigorated as the chill water tingled over my skin. I swam to the far side , climbed out and lay basking on the grassy bank relaxing in the warm sun – entirely at peace."

    What about that for a new way to speak of wine?

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