Across the Great Divide
For quite a number of years after I became involved in the wine business, I remembered the taste of every wine I tried, often vividly. I kept rigorous, methodical notes, for a fairly long time, in a number of different notebooks, since I often couldn’t remember what I’d done with one or another of them.
It’s ironic, I guess; I didn’t feel like I needed the notes to help me remember the wines, at least not at first. I just wanted a record of what I’d tasted. Even in the ’70s, though, this was about scoring; there wasn’t much of a language for talking about what wines tasted like, or, more importantly, what one might say about what one’s internal experience of tasting a particular wine was like. There were only points. A certain number of points were awarded for color, for clarity, for aroma, for flavors, for balance, for overall impression. I used a scale that had been developed at the University of California, at Davis, the “20 point system.”
After a certain point (oops, there’s that word again), when life became complicated enough that I could almost never manage to keep a notebook at hand for the purpose, I stopped taking notes. I could still remember all the wines, and felt I had a clear sense of how each of them compared with the others. But it wasn’t necessarily anything I could articulate with any precision. The secrets were (safely or not) locked up inside my nervous system.
Now it’s been over 33 years since I started paying any attention to wine, and I’d guess it’s more than half that long since I began to let go of a lot of those fragments of remembered taste information about what must amount to several tens of thousands of different wines. When I’m around certain of my colleagues and associates these days I sometimes feel a little sheepish for being the only one not scribbling tasting notes when there’s something in a glass in front of me.
I am interested in how other people feel about the wines they taste, especially if it’s a wine of which I have some knowledge, but may never have tasted, or perhaps a wine I had several years ago and wonder what it might be like now. There are a number of websites on the Internet on which people post their tasting notes for others to read, and several years ago I began to scan them occasionally for notes of interest. (The scanning led, quite naturally, to reading innumerable discussions about various things wine-related, and wasting inordinate amounts of time, some of which I thoroughly enjoyed.)
So many tasting notes seem to read as though they exist entirely unto themselves, as though they replicate, somehow, the “objective” taste characteristics of a wine. As though the writer may have forgotten that it took both the wine and the taster to produce the notes. And as though the reader of those notes will know just exactly what the writer’s experience was, even though the writer has rendered this “objective” description, as though his presence hadn’t really been necessary. No surprise, perhaps, that such notes so often seem to be largely devoid of a recognizable sense of anyone’s presence. The lights are on, but there’s nobody home.
Even after all these years, then, the question that remains paramount for me is: how do you convey the experience you have when you taste a particular wine? Does it mean comparing the smell of a wine to apricots or blueberries, hazelnuts or guava? It’s a place to start; I think the more precisely one can draw those comparisons the more meaningful the comparisons are likely to be. I’ve spent some time tasting with vintners in France with whom the discussion of what was evoked by the smell and taste of the wines was a process that generated great excitement and enthusiasm. Does it smell like peaches?
“Well, yes, but what kind of peach?”
“A white peach, of course, just a few days before it’s ripe!”
“A white peach from East of the Dentelles, near Vaison, exactement!”
“Not the peach, but the peach skin, from the orchard next to the lavender field at the top of the hill, above the autoroute!”
“Ah, yes, but only from a cool year, like ’96!”
“Oui, d’accord! Exactement!”
Each little move, closer to precision, also becomes a move closer from one taster to the others. Becomes a way to move closer to just what the other meant. It seems to be a way of communicating that feels sadly absent from common discourse in our busy culture, these days. Tasting notes don’t often fill that void; it’s that give-and-take that’s missing.
One can, and does, find personal disclosure in tasting notes, and I usually find myself really sitting up and paying attention when I encounter that. Some emotion is aroused, some impact is felt, at a more or less deep level. I noticed a note this morning from someone describing a wine from a very well-known and much-heralded German producer as seeming “artificial”, and complaining that this producer’s wines have never given him “much emotion.”
I think I can count on one hand the times, in the past 33 years, that I’ve seen tasting-notes that suggest the importance of personal feeling or emotion in the experience of tasting wine. Odd, isn’t it? When I’ve heard people’s stories about how they became interested in wine, the story almost always includes the tasting of a wine that startled the taster in some powerful way that seemed unexplainable, that seemed to be more than just the way that the wine smelled and tasted “good.” There was something in the wine that they felt instantly connected to in a way that was not possible to resist or to shut out. Not at all unlike the powerful way that a musical passage, or a great painting might grab you, and not let go. It’s the story of a meeting, between the wine, and the taster. Each wine tasted, each sip of each wine, becomes a new meeting.
It’s not necessarily a solemn thing; sometimes it’s anything but. When I first drank good Cru Beaujolais, the incomparably joyous wines the Gamay grape produces in that blessed region, I felt completely seduced. I wanted to take my clothes off. (Perhaps you can see, here, what’s behind the wine I call Bone-Jolly, and why I couldn’t resist the impulse to plant the Gamay in California, in spite of myself?) It has been, therefore, of considerable interest to discover, recently, a tasting note (though not about Beaujolais) expressing a similar impulse; the wife of the note’s author, while drinking the wine (a Riesling from Alsace) “begins singing, reciting poetry, and disrobing.” Ooh, la la…Exactement!!!
Tried to keep my hands to myself;
They say it’s a must, but who can you trust?
(copyright © 1969, 1997 J.R. Robertson)