Tasting Inside Out

Thoughts on note taking and wine writing

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Tasting notes may be the reconstruction of objective analysis (given the limitations of objectivity), or they may be intended to capture the spirit of the wine, and the spirit of the taster during the process of tasting the wine. I am speaking of finer wines that make us want to enhance our ability to communicate our love for them, so that we can honestly and thrillingly convey all the impressions we receive, and reveal how that experience “improves” us. Such poetic epiphanies are admittedly unlikely to emerge via the consumption of a 4.99 Pinot Grigio. The wine must speak intimately to the taster and possess an inherent quality that elevates it above the commercial norm.

Tasting “Inside Out”

Wine tastings are virtually always configured to fit one of two models. The first involves “nailing the wine” by focusing on the liquid in the glass, and through rigorous observation and examination, arriving at an objective assessment of the wine. This empirical technique is designed to describe wine purely in terms of the properties perceived by the senses. The advantage of such an approach is that the taster is not swayed by preconceptions. The disadvantage is that one tastes without context and that wines are evaluated by how many boxes they tick.

The inverse of this traditional compressed approach is a more freewheeling interactive one. Here the wine is a catalyst for wide-ranging discussion rather than an end in itself. As we taste we may be swept up in the moment: questions are asked, digressions occur, anecdotes are spun, ideas emerge, comparisons are woven. The truth of the wine here lives in the experience of the moment and in what the participants of the tasting individually contribute to that experience. It has a serendipitous dynamic wholly unlike the other tasting models.

I prefer the chaotic spontaneity of these happy-go-lucky tastings because the scenery always seems to be changing. It keeps me fresh, because, rather than revisiting old territory and going through the motions, you can constantly bounce ideas off people and generate new momentum.  The wine becomes the means to a different end.

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It certainly helps if one is able to mobilise strong words and cut through the mess of language to arrive at a kind of aesthetic truth. This collaboration between the responsive imagination and mature evaluation is articulated by Wordsworth in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads where he describes poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. Applying this to wine tasting we can say that the experience itself triggers a transcendent moment, an instance of the sublime. (I am thinking of tasting wine as a transforming experience, one that takes us to another place.) The senses are overwhelmed by this experience; the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” leaves an individual incapable of articulating the true nature and beauty of the sensations. It is only when this emotion is “recollected in tranquillity” that the poet/writer can assemble words to do the moment justice. It is necessary for the poet/writer to have a certain personal distance from the event or experience being described that he or she can compose a poem/tasting note that conveys to the reader the same experience of sublimity. With this distance the poet can reconstruct the “spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” the experience caused within him/herself.

I am saying the writing of a tasting note can be an inspirational, creative activity, akin to poetry. One might very well ask who has the time, energy or inclination for these kinds of refinements. After all, I don’t suppose we drink wine in order to perfect our writing style, but if we wish for our experiences to live again we might wish to realise their aesthetic potential.

If life is a journey where we are searching for some ineluctable truth then the recreation of beauty, which helps us momentarily to stand outside Time, is a magnificent undertaking.

Nabokov describes this sense of excitement nicely:

“Treading the soil of the moon, palpitating its pebbles, tasting the panic and splendour of the event, feeling in the pit of one’s stomach the separation from terra – these form the most romantic sensation an explorer has ever known.”

When I write tasting notes in a rush I might as well be filling it tax forms or ticking boxes. My writing denatures the wine and dissipates the romance.

A dance to the music of wine?

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Often I hanker after a form of reverse synaesthesia that would enable my tasting impressions to be instantly transformed into music, something purer, more fluid and more spiritual than words. Although I am dimly aware there is a underlying melody I haven’t got the musical vocabulary and notation skills, so rather than tabulating it thus, I try to leave myself open to sensations and jot down reactions in any order, recording the relevant – and seemingly irrelevant words – that nudge into my head. Not linking them, not forcing them into sequential order, but simply allowing them to be signposts that will guide me back when I review them later.

I wonder at tasters who can churn robotically through a hundred or so wines at a time. Such a procedure has little individual investment; one is reminded of a basking shark filter-feeding millions of plankton – it doesn’t taste anything during its meal-journey.

Nor does sitting on tasting panels add to the gaiety of my personal nation; invariably I end up disillusioned, feeling that wine is a mere commodity, existing to be judged rather than understood. In real life, so to speak, I drink wine with friends and as an accompaniment to food. And if a bottle knocks me on my ass, as we say at Les Caves de Pyrene, I will simply scribble down a few words at the time to remind me to write a tasting note at a later date. And looking at those words will enable me to retrieve the experience; of course, its original immediacy will be mediated by my ego, it will filtered through time, and ultimately coarsened by the imprecision of language . The excitement of tasting and drinking can never be truly recaptured – it is the intoxicating Dionysian moment reconfigured within a unifying Apollonian response.

Beauty comes in myriad forms; great wines can evoke great reactions and poetic impulses, they make us explore beyond the limits of our normative responses, they induce humility and elicit generosity. When tasting it is satisfying to have a responsive palate; it is wonderful though to take the experience to the next level and give something back.

Aesthetics and the Creative Response

What is truth? said Jesting Pilate. And, in the same breath, we could ask: “What is beauty?” (But we should stay for the answer.)

The appreciation of beauty is ultimately an emotional, subjective act, but the detailed and complete apprehension of beauty, especially in its complex forms such as music, art, and wine requires a body of knowledge and a set of objective observations. The two go hand in hand. Appreciation without knowledge may be pleasurable, but it is shallow. Apprehension without appreciation may be detailed, but it ignores our humanity and the truth of emotion.

We look to critics not just to analyze, but to make aesthetic judgments, and their assessments are necessarily born of the human condition: we have both perceptions and emotions, and we can no more divorce the two than we can give up our humanity. The real question is whose perceptions and emotions do we trust?
Subjectivity, Aesthetics, and the Evaluation of Wine

The intrinsic quality of any wine is capable of striking through the senses and into the mind of the taster with a feeling of novelty and discovery. Aesthetically, we are looking at the unified complex of characteristics which constitute “the outward reflection of the inner nature of a thing” – its individual essence. This feeling for intrinsic quality, for the unified pattern of essential characteristics, is the special mark of the superior taster, whose business is to select these characteristics and organise them into significant form.

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Effectively, as superior tasters, we are trying to capture in language the rich and revealing “oneness” of the wine, a Platonic notion of intrinsic pattern or design. This involves bringing forth the sensation of the interior structure or inscape of the wine– an illumination, a sudden perception of deeper pattern, order and unity which gives meaning to the objective description. So much of tasting is done at the margins of perception; it is a prosaic, phenomenological, almost ascetic activity that tabulates the extrinsic attributes of the wine when intuition and sensuality would provide an even richer understanding of the wine.

I would like this creative response to replace, to a certain extent, the evaluative aspect of wine tasting with its need to mark wine by rote. Our aesthetic judgements are prisoners to the spectral hierarchy of good/bad; it is as if the wine qua wine is less important than the validation of the critics.

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