The changing approaches to wine writing
I don’t think wine tasting notes are in “big trouble,” as this op-ed piece by Lewis Perdue suggests, but Lewis is correct to point out their inherent subjectivity and overall fuzziness. He’s hardly the first: People have complained about winespeak for generations. “Hocus-pocus,” “the double brusheroo” [love that] and “trying to make things complex and involved” were just a few of the accusations leveled against wine writers by Mary Frost Mabon, in her 1942 book, ABC of America’s Wines. Forty-six years later, the British writer Andrew Barr, commenting (in his book, Wine Snobbery) on such descriptions of wine as “strawberry ice cream,” “browned rice pudding,” “baked bananas” and “old-fashioned sweet peas…stewed in butter,” said such descriptions “merely serve to increase wine snobbery.”
Lewis, in his piece, reaches to Alice Through the Looking-Glass and Bill Clinton’s infamous “it depends on what the meaning of is, is,” to suggest how puzzling it can be for wine consumers to make sense of winespeak. He very properly points out all the reasons, genetic and environmental, why different people experience things differently on a sensory level (or at least describe them differently). But he doesn’t entirely throw the baby out with the bathwater by calling for the elimination of wine writing. He allows that “wine writing is hard.” He is aware of the “vocabulary crisis” we writers often experience: “the similarity of [so] many wines” poses the risk of every review sounding like every other review. And certainly this is an ongoing problem: when he talks about the “thesaurus writer,” I had to giggle; next to my desk is not one but two thesauruses (thesauri?), as well as dictionary. Many are the times I sought a synonym for some adjective or verb, because I’d been over-using it.
To the extent there’s a problem (and if enough people complain, then there is), what’s the solution? Assuming we want to keep wine writing in some form (we do, don’t we?), there are two alternatives: One, which we might call the “full scale ahead” approach, is suggested by Lewis: “Nailing down a specific taste or smell to an analogous real-world object requires good writing, astute perception and the ability to summon the right word.” This approach implies that there are objectively correct ways to describe wine: the successful writer simply (or not so simply) has to muscle through the mist and find the precise formula. This is certainly the rather flamboyant approach taken by many modern wine writers. Oz Clarke hews this way better than most: witness his descriptions of some of Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noirs: “more damsons in 1989, more raspberries and blackberries in ’88, more plum skins and fresh pepper in ’87.” And: “violets in 1989, …a favored kid glove thrown down on a dressing table in the ’88, toastier, deeper, becoming husky-voiced, dark and stately in the ’87…”. [Love that, too, especially while Lauren Bacall is still on my mind.]
On the other hand is the “less is more” school that prefers to hint rather than elaborate. No one is more understated than Harry Waugh. Here he is on a Freemark Abbey 1970 Cabernet Bosche, which he tasted during a visit to California in 1972 (and this is a fairly long review for him): “With this wine there has been blended 10% of Barney Rhodes’ 1970 Merlot. What a color and what a fabulous bouquet. A beautiful dark color with a fabulous Cabernet bouquet. A splendid powerful wine which will certainly make a great bottle.” No blackberries, no black currants or cassis, no fribble-frabble about “kid gloves” or “husky voices,” no window of drinkability, just Harry’s immediate, visceral reaction: Me likee.
The two approaches are as different as can be. Harry’s—the “less is more” style—for all its elegance and brevity is, I think, on the way out, if not already dead. Parker pounded the nails into that coffin. Which leaves us with the “full scale ahead” school. See you tomorrow.