From week to week, guests queue up at the Formaggio Kitchen tasting table to sample a few wines from our shelves, chat about their respective merits and demerits and decide what they might enjoy taking home. It’s a ritual we count on to introduce guests to wines that we think are worthy of their dollar. After all, if they’re in our shop, it means we thought them worthy of our dollar.
How someone makes a decision about a wine may be a closely-guarded secret, but listening carefully to the way a guest talks about wine provides some clues. I’ve noted at least three schools of practice. Here’s how I parse them.
The boo/hurrah school. Students of ethics have long been confronted with a problem that goes something like this: When we describe one behavior as good and another as bad are we making objective judgments about the state of things in the world, or are we really just shouting out our personal preferences? If we take the position that ethical judgments are really just expressions of our attitude rather than statements of fact, we’re engaging in something moral philosophers call emotivism.
According to this view, saying something is good really just means we approve, like, or enjoy it – we give it a “hurrah.” To say that something is bad implies the opposite, and we give it a “boo.” The technique is emotive because we’re reacting on an immediate, instinctive level. Often, we’ve decided to like or not like even before we’ve had time to engage in any thought process at all.
If you’re expecting me to give this approach a boo of its own, you’re half right. There’s value in taking note of our immediate non-reflective reaction, in part because once the thought process is underway it becomes easy to talk yourself into or out of love with a given wine. Maybe you met the winemaker once and recall that you liked her; or, you discover you’re drinking California chardonnay and start wondering whether maybe you shouldn’t like it even though you do.
How someone makes a decision about a wine may be a closely-guarded secret, but listening carefully to the way a guest talks about wine provides some clues.
On the other hand, the thrill involved in tasting the latest release of a vintner whose commitment to natural winemaking has made him a Brooklyn sommeliers’ darling may incline you to be pleased with something that frankly doesn’t strike you as tasting very good. Initial reactions are often free of things that can amount to simple prejudice, one way or the other.
Still, it troubles me when I like it/ I don’t like it is the only resource a guest brings to the tasting table, especially when it preempts conversation about what may be interesting in the wine that’s not obvious at the first sip. I’ve often implored tasters to be a little more understanding of a wine that doesn’t arrive with a smile full of perfectly aligned teeth.
The fruits and vegetables approach. A dramatic departure from boo-hurrah, fruit & veg tests the taster’s skill in teasing out individual flavors and aromas and enumerating them with precision. It requires quite a lot of experience with the smells and tastes of other things in our world (not all of them edible or necessarily pleasant) and taxes the memory to identify each with accuracy.
It makes sense that when you’re working hard to understand something new you scan the data for elements you recognize and can make sense of. Identifying a familiar scent or flavor gives you something to say about a wine when you might otherwise not know how to respond to. But it easily gets out of hand.
Here’s a sample tasting note from one of the English-speaking world’s highest performing F&Vers, David Schildknecht describing the Soter 2011 North Valley Oregon pinot noir: [S]weetly ripe though tart-edged and piquantly pit-inflected fresh red berry fruit is garlanded with freesia and wisteria, but also tinged with smoky black tea and pungent green herbs. F&V has long been the preferred approach at the Wine Spectator and similar publications.
When I was new to wine I discovered that I was rather good at the smell and taste identification part of it and was pleased as punch when I could pre-empt a group of tasters by nailing a few discrete impressions with the result that others immediately experienced them too.
I’ve often implored tasters to be a little more understanding of a wine that doesn’t arrive with a smile full of perfectly aligned teeth.
As I got better at this I told myself I was making splendid progress, that I had broken the code. Over time, tasting with more experienced people made me realize that this was an illusion. Being able to connect a flavor in wine with the flavor of some other thing in the world didn’t help me make judgments about the quality or character of wine because these elements weren’t values, the things I now think really matter.
The values technique. British wine writing emerged in the early 19th century out of the tradition of note-taking by broker-shippers in Bordeaux and elsewhere. These were the days before estate-bottling was common and most wine was bought in barrel by brokers who then blended various lots to make up a fairly consistent house style and sold these wine under their own label. Under these circumstances the aspects you pay attention to are those that will make the most meaningful contribution to the shape and temperament of the finished wine.
In the end, this will depend not on a list of individuated scents and flavors so much as what I would call values. To get at them, you will ask questions such as these: Is the character of the wine indicative of its source? Is it well-structured and shapely? Does it have steady fruit and adequate acidity? Is there an appropriate amount of flesh for its frame?
A focus on characteristics like these is what distinguishes British and continental wine writing to this day. Here, for example, is a recent tasting note from London-based Jancis Robinson on the 2006 Alessandria Gramolere Barolo:
Blackish with vague hint of rust at the rim. Very heady and opulent on the nose. Some freshness counterbalances the richness. Dry finish. At the moment embryonic. But it should get there. Relatively modernistic.
No boo/hurrah; no fruits and veg. If the object in view were a house Robinson would be giving her attention to its architecture. Schildknecht would be focused on the color of the pillows on the sofa.
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