Search

THE LANGUAGE OF TASTING

There’s a famous saying in Zen studies (so famous that even I know it; I do not study Zen) that to hit the target you don’t aim for the target, you aim through it.

If you’re a musician you will appreciate this bromide: don’t get so caught up in playing the notes that you neglect to play the music.

Lately I read that a language exists that has a much larger vocabulary than ours does for describing tastes. Assuming this is accurate, whatever that language may be, it’s not English. (And I imagine a remote island nation suddenly besieged with visa requests from every master somm….) For my present purpose, we have to assume that flavors are a bitch to describe.

This divides us, people writing “tasting notes,” into various camps. There are the literalists, who seek to deconstruct the wines they taste so that they can delineate every possible (and some impossible) associations. These folks are “tasters” who happen to write, or happen to have to write, for one purpose or another.

Then there are writers who happen to taste. I like this group better – big surprise – because they haven’t surrendered to the limits of language by trying to game the system with spurious exactitude and laundry lists of associations. They use the obstacle of language as a jumping-off point for their imaginations to reign freely. The results describe wine on levels both deeper and more vivid. This can drive certain readers mad, if they insist on knowing exactly whether a wine smells like blackberry or huckleberry. I’d rather read “I walked near some hedges and the berries were so swollen with ripeness they were swooning onto the ground and oozing out their sugars when the soft skins had no choice except to burst open.” I want to drink that wine. Fuck your huckleberries!

Some writers are really good at it. I mean, they are effective writers trying to grapple with the evanescence of an experience by sinking down into it and saying what they see. Jacqueline Friedrich comes to mind. Jackie is one of those wine writers who’s found her way to the monastery hidden in the mountains. She tells us about it with great care and charm. She’s a “good taster” as far as that goes, but she’s a fine writer-about-tasting. Alas, having found the monastery, she eats the peach they give her, which erases her memory of how she got there. And this is a good thing. Because it means that each time is the first time, and it’s that dilated availability to experience that makes her so lovely to read.




More recently I’ve really been loving Tamlyn Currin’s notes for Jancis Robinson. Tam’s always on the edge of her superbly sensitive nerves; her palate seems to squirm among the wines with a visceral happiness, and her language jabs and sighs and pinches and caresses. You never thought of wine that way; she makes you want to hurry to open the bottle she’s telling you about. She not only brings the wine to life, she brings you to life.

And then there’s my friend Deborah Hansen, whom you read about on this website a few months ago. In common with Jackie and Tam, Deborah checks all the boxes for being (what’s called) a “good taster.” She can do the usual tasting-note thing if she has to. But why should she have to? Reading her words, you are eavesdropping on the delights of a fellow human you want to know better.


I think that to write well about wine, you must be available to be overcome. In Rilke’s words, you have to be ready to be “defeated, by greater and greater beings.” But this doesn’t mean that overwhelm is the condition you pursue. That never works; it flees from you if you try. But when you don’t shrink from the ecstatic, you build a sort of liberation from having to compete against a wine, to make it confess. You can join with each wine and follow it where it wants to take you, and you can use the language that appears spontaneously. If it’s a mundane wine, if it’s an ordinary-good wine, if it’s an aloof or pedagogical wine, you write what seems to be apropos. And if you can, you don’t think about it consciously. Engaging with a wine cannot only be a vehicle for displaying your talent. Just try to be faithful to whatever this experience is, what this moment asks of you.


When I start tasting the samples in a month or so, I’m going to approach them tabula rasa. I’ll use the words that spring to mind, whatever they are. Of course I will consider you, my reader, because I know that you’re looking (in part) for evaluations and descriptions, but mostly I’ll aim through those targets and try to impart a sense of what the wines are like. This can entail a certain vagueness. That vagueness is useful. If it also arises spontaneously then it might tell you of a wine that seemed to be slippery, that wouldn’t hold still, that hovered of its own volition.

I often think in metaphors, which is almost inevitable when an exact vocabulary is unavailable. Again, I’ll use the language that arrives. I don’t issue invitations to metaphor. I don’t know who’s coming to the party. If I find myself thinking in terms of synesthesia or other para-sensual images, then so be it. If I think in human metaphors, speaking about a wines “posture” or “diction” or “carriage” or whether it’s a mesomorph or an ectomorph, or whether it seems demure, bashful, rowdy or boisterous or considerate or modest or assertive, or whether it feels burly or filigree or lacy or martial or Romanesque or rectilinear, or whether it’s baroque or romantic or impressionistic….you know what? I reserve the right!

And sometimes, maybe even more than sometimes, I’ll produce the garden variety tasting note, because that’s what I felt like producing at that moment for that wine. My ego is not bound in trying to force “creativity.” I shall simply respond to the wine.

This is a recipe for “literature”, I am well aware, and I believe that literature is the ultimate aim of wine writing. For readers looking for a kind of “Consumer Reports” approach, there’s more than enough material out there to fill that need. I myself have no objection to thinking in those terms, if it comes naturally as a response to (here it comes again….) that moment for that wine. If you quake from the idea of “literature” in wine writing, finding it perhaps twee or effete or pretentious, then by all means ignore it, and me. But I do not want to meet the fullness of a wine’s being with an emptiness in my own. It makes no sense. It produces nothing of value.


Some of you have had, let’s say “ample” experiences reading my wine descriptions in all my many catalogues. (And yet you’re still here!) These new writings will resemble them, as it can’t be helped, as me is still me. But one thing is different.

Those were the notes for the few hundred wines I culled from tasting a few thousand. They were the wines I liked enough to want to persuade you to buy them. They had a purpose, to convince you, and behind whatever lyrical effusions they might have included, they were fashioned as sales tools. They were sincere, but of course I was involved in the business of convincing, and of selling.

I am free of that now. And yet I still want to praise that which is praiseworthy, and I’m not interested in grumbling that a few of these wines didn’t come up to my gorgeous standards. For any of you who never read a negative tasting note of mine, believe me my notebooks contain a boatload of them. I do have a nasty streak. I get pissed off when wines might have worked but didn’t. If that happens now, and if the wine isn’t being offered commercially, then I won’t print an attack. Who needs it? I will, though, convey my impressions in such shadings as are appropriate. Nobody gets a trophy just for showing up.

Being free from the desire to sell a wine gives me wherewithal to know it more deliberately, to set up house in it. I can approach the wines as a novice, a pilgrim, liberated from the need to create an offering. I don’t know how it will affect the writing – maybe not very much – but I’m curious to see.

I will have a deliberately vague (but entirely satisfactory) system of relative evaluation. But no points. As for blind, never mind. Blind tasting is a game for chumps. My method will be, in Jacqueline Friedrich’s coinage, “slow-tasting.” In that way alone it will be a radical change for me. I got good at tasting under (time) pressure as a professional merchant, but now I won’t have to. This more relaxed type of tasting could also wiggle the language knobs, or maybe it won’t – we’ll see.

To conclude, I’m going to tell you the best truth I can about how the wines tasted and also about what they were truly like. If some wine is riding a unicycle, juggling three bananas with a Capuchin monkey on his shoulder, then baby that’s what you’ll read. If a wine is like a small child digging a little grave in the back yard to bury his pet goldfish who died, then I’ll tell you so. If a wine makes me think of episode 3 season 1 of Chapelle’s Show, then I’ll probably put the glass down and go watch TV. And we’ll never, ever know, how that poor doomed wine might have tasted….




748 views12 comments

Recent Posts

See All

©2020 Terry Theise