Recently I was listening to Michael Krasny interview wine importer extraordinaire Kermit Lynch on the local Bay Area NPR radio affiliate. At the end of the interview Kermit took calls from listeners and one of the callers complained bitterly about wine writers and how they describe wines in florid detail using terms that, according the caller, were complete nonsense. Kermit soft-pedaled his answer saying that yes, writers can sometimes go off the rails when describing wine and that yes, everyone’s palate is different so you can’t expect to agree on everything you read in a wine review. But Lynch’s response made me pause because I’ve heard this complaint all too often; that wine descriptions and reviews are in some form or other nonsense and that wine writers frankly make things up. So I’d like to address this personally, even ecumenically, if you will.
Odds are wine writers as much as you may want to believe it are not making things up. Sure there may be the odd hallucination now and again but usually they’re simply trying to tell you what wine X, Y or Z smells and tastes like to them. Emphasis on THEM. Beyond that we often hear the phrase “everybody’s different” when it comes to wine and that is correct across the board. Here’s how we’re different. In short, here’s the deal:
We all have the same hardware in the form of our brain and neurology. But after that all bets are off. What’s different? Simple answer: everyone’s memories. So your take on Meyer Lemon is going to be different than mine because my experience in the form of my internal pictures, movies, sounds and feelings associated with Meyer Lemon throughout my lifetime is unique and not yours. And while we may agree that there’s something sour and citrus-like in the wine we’re sharing we’re never going to have the identical experience collectively known as Meyer Lemon. You may think it smells more like pink grape fruit or a catcher’s mitt or a freshly painted garage door for that matter. Further, the wonderful bouquet of flowers I adore in a glass of glorious Grand Cru Alsace Gewurztraminer may utterly repel you because it’s entirely too close to your memory of a tragic drive-by at a Macy’s perfume counter at some point in the distant past. Personal likes and dislikes are important and those are based on memory too.
Context is also important. The how’s, who’s, why’s and when’s you taste/drink a wine collectively form the trump card in any wine experience. That magic bottle of whatever you enjoyed when your boyfriend proposed will forever be your favorite wine in the whole entire universe and just the mere thought of it will send you around the moon and back to that magic moment–until the divorce. Then it becomes the most cursed s#@*&% bottle of wine in the history of mankind. Yes, friends, context is important. Remember that.
Remember also that wine tasting is marginally about actually tasting. It’s primarily about SMELLING as smell accounts for over 85% of the sense of taste. So if you’re passing by the nose on your evening goblet of Cabernet going right in for the big slurp the proverbial cow is already out of the barn. In fact, the cow is so far out of the barn that it took your car to SFO and is now headed to Fiji. On your credit card. Moo.
That is to say olfactory memory is the most powerful form of memory we have because aromas from the glass or any other source go right up our nasal passages directly into the cerebral cortex. That means when such-and-such wine writer rambles on about how the pepper and herbal notes in a Chateauneuf-du-Pape remind him of the cassoulet his grandmother used to make when he was a kid during the holidays, guess what; it probably does and that means you shouldn’t wig out over said writer’s musings but should instead try to get to your own memories of pepper and savory herbs to better understand what the writer is trying to express about the wine. Hopefully the next time you taste the same wine or a similar wine you might experience them too unless, of course, you find something completely different. Because after all, it’s what the wines smells and tastes like to you that actually counts.
As for the sense of smell, we as a culture generally suck at olfactory memory. It’s not important to us so we don’t practice it and we’re not very good at it. Other than a smack-me-on-the-side-of-the-head tsunami of cow pasture, raw garlic or did somebody left the burner with the gas stove on, we’re generally not tuned into the olfactory world. There are definitely exceptions and those individuals tend to be in the perfume, wine and spirits worlds or other professions where one’s expertise is largely determined by smell memory. It’s not surprising then that when someone with a highly developed olfactory memory writes about their subject in depth it’s viewed with great suspicion.
But it’s easily understandable that the poetic meanderings/descriptions of wine writing can sometimes leave one puzzled, forlorn and even verklempt. This because wine has no inherent vocabulary leaving us wine professionals to borrow, often tragically, nomenclature from completely unrelated fields. Adjectives such as “murky,” “bold,” “dense,” and even something comical like “explosive” find their way into wine descriptions not to mention any number of fruits, herbs and spices (road tar is among my favorites). But when you read that tasting a rare old vintage made some famous wine writer start weeping you should definitely have serious misgivings. I would.
Know that wine professionals taste a lot of wine as in potentially thousands of bottles a year. If someone is tasting that much odds are they’re pretty good at it and they should also be proficient at communicating about it in a meaningful way even if they are limited to nomenclature that may seem like Martian to the novice. Keep in mind that this is tasting and not drinking. A professional tasting may sound like fun to you but it’s hard work requiring a hell of a lot of focus, concentration and inevitable palate fatigue. Still think it sounds fun? Imagine tasting 45 different coffees in 90 minutes, taking notes and then writing about the qualities of each one. I rest my case.
Finally, if the florid wine descriptions still give you agita consider giving wine writers a break. Even with the zillions of wine blogs and everyone pretending to be a wine expert these days there are more good writers than ever. Find one whose prose you can live with—even like—and follow them. Chances are their likes and dislikes are similar to yours. But above all remember that your palate—and what you like to drink—is the bottom line. Because after all, I made all this up.