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The tyranny of the tasting note

Last week during The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers New York Times chief wine critic Eric Asimov called for an end to tasting notes.

At least if I read blogger Alder Yarrow (Vinography) correctly. Yarrow, who is one of my favorite wine writers, nicely recaps Asimov’s presentation called “The Tyranny of the Tasting Note,” mostly agrees and then disagrees a bit. He also has a link to another of his own posts you must read: Messages In a Bottle: Appreciating Wine in Context.

But back to what Asimov had to say, channeled through Yarrow:

The biggest barrier to increased wine appreciation amongst the general public, Eric began, lies in a chronic anxiety that marks most novice’s relationship to wine. This anxiety arises from most people’s assumption that to enjoy wine they need to know something about it, and manifests most obviously in the conversations that they have with wine critics and writers whenever they meet them, e.g.:

“I know I should know something more about wine, and I really would like to learn. I’ve been meaning to take a class…or is there one book that you really recommend?”

In short, most people assume that the key to enjoying wine lies in the path towards connoisseurship, rather than simply drinking wine with a meal as if it is just another food group. Most people, it seems, wrongly put wine on a pedestal, according it some status that is not reserved for anything else.

Not a place we should want to see beer headed. To understand what I mean make sure to read the comments, like this one:

When two or more people get together in the same room with a glass of wine, the same peculiar dance begins. One or more folks will swirl it and make a comment on the legs as they perform the Viewing of the Wine; one or more will wave the glass under their nose and raise their eyebrows as they enact the Smelling of the Wine; one or more will take a drink and immediately swallow in the Tasting of the Wine. Then, almost synchronously, a quiet reflection will come upon the room as the entire gaggle, even those who have not performed The Tasting, engage in the Judging of the Wine. Some will over-emphasize the importance of the Tasting of the Wine and not enough of the Judging; those folks will often follow up with the Spilling of the Wine, and sometimes (sadly enough) the eventual Purging of the Wine.

My point is that this is not natural human behavior.

Beer — or at least those who brew it, who sell it, love it and speak on its behalf — would like to be afforded the same respect as wine. But it is one thing to be taken as seriously as wine and another to be taken as seriously as wine.


11 Responses to The tyranny of the tasting note

  1. SteveH February 24, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    “Some will over-emphasize the importance of the Tasting of the Wine and not enough of the Judging”

    Hmm, and I was thinking that the “judging” (at least in an over-extended dissertation) might be the step to lose — in both wine and beer. Good or bad?

    The thing about tasting beers (and wine) is the focus on flavors that I genuinely like in different styles, and try to impart on others who (say they) like beer, but there’s no strong “seriousness” (didn’t know that was synonymous to pretentiousness) to my side of enjoyment — at least not in the sense of the seriousness with which I take the direction of my life!

  2. The Beer Nut February 24, 2009 at 7:56 am #

    The term “natural human behaviour” is, at best, meaningless. Especially when it comes from someone wearing clothes.

    People enjoy things in different ways, and this issue is really just a question of social cop-on. Regardless of what you’re eating or drinking, there’s no point in going into full-on appraisal mode if you’re not in company who speak the language.

    With any specialist interest there are always going to be people who take it too seriously. I don’t think this is more prevalent among wine people than beer people, it’s just that there are more of them.

  3. Alan February 24, 2009 at 10:24 am #

    My point is that this is not natural human behavior.

    Isn’t the illustration showing that this is exactly natural human behavior – just that it is a behavior we do not admire or want encourage in each and every setting? People want to understand, especially when the thing being exposed to is something as initially unpleasant as wine or even beer. Those not exposed to alcohol do not often immediately say “yum” so much as “blech” due to the intensity of flavour, though it is also often because the entry example of the drink is of a bad wine or beer.

    That being the case, as with the new and off-putting like cricket or parachuting, the natural human behavior is either to avoid or explore intellectually. But, as when one finds oneself next to a Star Trek fan in the wrong context, it can be extremely irritating to be part of the unwanted learning curve of another.

  4. Mario (Brewed For Thought) February 24, 2009 at 12:27 pm #

    “I know I should know something more about wine, and I really would like to learn. I’ve been meaning to take a class…or is there one book that you really recommend?”

    I’ve had beer tastings for novice beer drinking friends and they have a similar attitude. They were concerned with being wrong, but I told them to just taste it, and if they noticed familiar flavors, to take note of it, or not.

    I agree that beer should be given the respect of wine, but drinking a beer and simply saying “I like it” should suffice in most cases.

  5. Joe S. February 25, 2009 at 5:38 am #

    “drinking a beer and simply saying “I like it” should suffice in most cases.”

    Amen. Unlike wine much of the time, I hope beer is about having fun and not about status. I mean, I’d prefer it to stay that way. Hedonism not intellectualism.

  6. The Beer Nut February 25, 2009 at 5:43 am #

    Some of us don’t find the two to be mutually exclusive. Especially us paid-up members of the Drunken Pontificators and Pub Philosophers’ Guild

    Drinking beer, or wine, for status reasons just makes you look like an idiot, IMO. This is far more about the drinker than the drink.

  7. ethan.john February 25, 2009 at 7:14 pm #

    I have to agree: The only use for tasting notes should be to describe the kinds of brews that one likes, so that we can better appreciate what others like, and better help guide each other toward better brews.

  8. Daniel Bradford February 26, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    While I generally agree with the drift here, I do think it’s valuable, if not important, to understand the origins of flavors, both on and off, and have a healthy respect for styles. I say this after a decades long career of trying to introduce people to good beer through publications, events and associations. I really think it’s valuable to gather together and distribute beer knowledge without “gourmeting” beer in any form. I like helping people to understand what they like and why, so they can go out and explore more of the breadth and variety of beer with a better sense of their own preferences. Something beyond “I like hoppy beers!” Anyway, that’s what’s behind my new endeavor, which is still staggering around in circles.
    Cheers, Daniel

  9. Stan Hieronymus February 26, 2009 at 7:59 am #

    As long as I’m leaving wine links, he’s the “other side” of the tasting note discussion:

    When egalitarianism becomes elitist: In defense of purple prose


  1. Death to Tasting Notes? A Question of Context « Nectar of the Gods - March 1, 2009

    […] and into the blogging world. [Thanks must go to Stan Hieronymus for several of the links found in his discussion of Asimov’s speech.] Wine writer Alder Yarrow has generated a great discussion on his blog […]

  2. Notes and Scores « Beer Blog - February 20, 2010

    […] back, my friend and fellow scribe Stan Hieronymus posted on his Appellation Beer about the “Tyranny of the Tasting Note,” cribbing, and attributing, liberally as he did. And, indeed, there is much to learn about […]

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