Jefford on Monday: To Note or Not To Note

The scene: a special dinner. The company: wine lovers, gourmets. You’re seated next to other guests you know only fleetingly, if at all. The coming two or three hours will give you the chance to try half-a-dozen or more grand wines, none of which you have ever tasted before, and none of which you are ever likely to taste again. They bottles promise to be far better (in the form book, anyway) than three accumulated months of your ordinary drinking. Great!

Jefford on Monday

Do you take notes? And if so, do you jot a few words on the back of the menu card, mutter descriptors into an iPhone, scrawl in a Moleskine, or fish out an iPad or a laptop and start tapping away?

I challenge anyone to talk engagingly to their neighbour and take worthwhile tasting notes simultaneously, so time spent writing may involve your neighbour gazing wistfully into the middle distance, and wishing he or she had sat next to someone a little more interesting, and a little more giving of themselves.

Two things put me in mind of this. The first was hearing a wine producer’s frustration concerning wine journalists who are obsessed with clattering down notes on to a computer rather than talking, discussing and sharing. And the second was having my annual summer clear-out, and dumping (among much else) several kilos of tasting notes which I had made under similar circumstances. They were, I’d guess, 90 per cent unread since written.

Would I not have done better to have spent the entire evening engaging with my fellow guests? Would discussing a wine with other minds and other palates not, in fact, be more revealing than taking a solipsistic note on it? In any case, isn’t the only knowledge which really matters that which you can carry in your head? That’s the juiciest raw material, while the reams of tasting notes tend to gather dust until the fateful bin beckons.

Away from the meal-table, of course, note-taking is absolutely essential for any journalist. The fewer notes you take, the more you run the risk of getting your facts wrong, or misquoting your interlocutors. The lineaments of a wine’s aroma and flavour, moreover, are facts about a wine, or statements made by a wine: no matter how good a taste memory you have, maximum exactitude means working with that material as close to the encounter as possible. The way a wine drinks, furthermore, is far more important than the way a wine tastes on a bench, unconsumed. For all of these reasons, the dutiful part of me still scrabbles for scraps of paper at table.

Yet … a meal is a meal. Unless you’re a restaurant critic, it’s a break from work. The moment is one of shared human vulnerability, of shared need, of shared enjoyment; wine makes such moments uniquely convivial. Wine’s duty, indeed, is to animate the occasion. There’s something vaguely onanistic about taking such a moment and appropriating it to yourself, even if you have professional reasons for doing so. It’s hard for those with whom you are sharing that moment not to feel slighted.

In any case, talking about wines with your fellow guests is not an easier or less insightful option. This experience involves inner revelation as well as objective assessment. In discussing wines, we reveal something about ourselves and our own sensual universe, as well as laying claim to analytical skills, and demonstrating our own articulacy (or lack of it). That makes three psychological hurdles to jump before we’ve uttered a word.

If those with you feel comfortable about making these revelations in your presence, that is a tribute to the sense of ease you have jointly succeeded in creating in the encounter. Not only will your own perceptions be enriched by those of others, but the effort involved will engrave them on the memory. All of this matters.

So … I’m trying to kick the note-taking habit at mealtimes. It’s not difficult to find five minutes afterwards, when the social occasion is over, to gather your thoughts about what you have drunk and commit them to paper or the screen, and the act of recollection is a useful refining filter.

Just sometimes, the doing is more important than the recording – even for those whose job it is to record.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com

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