It was seventeen wines in all, and the tasting “report” runs to more than four thousand words. I like being fully immersed. In the coming weeks I will steep in similar experiences with Diel, Schloss Gobelsburg, and Ziereisen. I am grateful for the chance to let time expand to fit the wines, and to let the wines expand to fit the fluid time.
I didn’t really think I had a model for writing in an “essayist” way about wines, but in the last few days I’ve remembered Andrew Jefford’s columns for World Of Fine Wines. Jefford is a fine writer of “the tasting note,” not to mention he is far more erudite than I am, but it’s in his compact little essays that I get to watch his mind stretch and squirm. This is valuable to me.
I find myself on a balance beam between two atmospheres that seem to wish to mingle. One is the strict accounting of “how the wine tasted,” and the other is a rumination on “what it was like to drink it, taste it, or just to be with it.” Let me be clear; such ruminations are merely self-indulgent without a clear accounting of how the wine tasted. Yet that accounting is bloodless if all of its overtones are excluded, and not only bloodless, but also flat, denuded, without peal or context or depth.
You shouldn’t force it and I don’t. Some wines send me off into the zone, only to emerge again hundreds of words later. Other wines, you taste them and log it down and you’re finished. The point is to offer a wine what it seems to be asking for. And when you taste seventeen wines, all of which have issued from someone’s soul, there is a story to be told that is both greater and truer than a collage of tasting notes could ever be.
I try to be good at tasting notes but sometimes I think they’re a necessary evil. Observe the current kerfuffle about associations familiar to one group of people but alien to another. I call this the “No one from Laos has ever eaten a gooseberry” effect. True as that may be, I’m not sure why it’s anyone’s responsibility to ensure her notes are universally accessible. If the Laotian person’s tasting notes has associations I don’t know, it simply makes me curious. My Laotian friend is not responsible to ensure (s)he only uses associations or analogies or even just words that I know halfway across the world. Each person tells the truth they know. It should be understood that we haven’t been exposed to the same things. Who needs homogenized tasting language? Taste language is hard enough without attaching specious cultural baggage to an already awkward task.
I buy tea from a few Chinese tea merchants. Through them I discovered osmanthus. The flower, I’m told, is common in China. Everyone knows it. The tea shops I patronize sell teas flavored with osmanthus, and many of them sell dried osmanthus flowers with which I can make a tisane or make my own blends by adding the tiny blossoms to a tea I find insufficiently flowery. I like osmanthus, and it’s an aroma I often find in white wines, and when I find it I put it in a tasting note. I can’t help it if you don’t happen to be familiar with it.
I used to buy ice cream from a shop owned by a couple Jamaican guys, and they sold a lot of unfamiliar tropical flavors. I came to like soursop, which is quite particular, and if I found it in a wine I put it into the note. If you’ve never had soursop, my use of it as a sense-association will seem esoteric, obscure or even affected. Which brings me to this observation: If I am writing about the taste of a wine, I have two responsibilities that may be irreconcilable. One is to communicate to you. The other is to be as faithful as I can to the impressions I received. Sometimes I can’t do both at once. And then, feeling that I need to choose, I will use the language I feel is most exact, and if it’s something you’re not familiar with, I’m sorry but it can’t be helped. It shouldn’t have to be helped. I want anyone who writes about wine to speak the best possible truth, instead of worrying that someone, somewhere, won’t know some word she’s using.
I’m not sure we ever need to demand exactitude from tasting notes at all, no matter what. An impression of what it was like to taste or drink that wine is as much as I require, especially if the writer is intelligent, imaginative and disciplined. I aspire to those things and hope I attain them most of the time. An authentic wine carries many stories with it, and if I hear them chime I want to pass them along. I don’t insist that an essayistic way of wine writing is “the best” way, but I do insist on the liberty to use it when it brings me closest to the truth.
And so to Christian Dautel and his seventeen wines with which I lived for most of a week, and came to know more companionably, more fully and more deeply than would otherwise have been possible – it was a delight to have been so immersed, a delight for those wines to have kept me company, a delight to feel Christian’s presence almost tangibly, and more than a little wistful to observe the empty bottles after all those days. I hope you enjoy the stories, and also the Story.