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Jefford on Monday: Whither Tasting Notes?

The distinction between wine writing (entertainingly educational, embracing all of wine’s cultural depth) and wine criticism (a consumer service, concerned with the description and assessment of individual wines) seems a useful one.

Tasting notes are the kerosene of wine criticism: they have powered its ascent, and keep it aloft. If scores matter, they do so because they are a shorthand for the note itself, but it is the tasting note which builds a critic’s reputation, not the score. The score of a critical nonentity is of no interest to anyone, and a score unaccompanied by a note is both quaint and vaguely suspect.

As three new note-issuers climb aboard the wine world’s most influential critical platform (Jeb Dunnuck will now cover the Rhône for the Wine Advocate, while appointments for Italy and Hispanophone wine countries are imminent), and as we strap on our lifebelts to cope with the incoming tide of notes on 2012 Bordeaux, it seems a good moment to consider the state of this art.

Is it art, first of all? Not often — but nor is it meant to be. A well-written tasting note has practical worth, in that it communicates a sensual experience via metaphorical and analytical means, and puts that experience in its appropriate context. This helps the reader assess the achievement involved in the wine’s creation, and calculate its true value in relation to the wine’s asking price.  

Notes for more expensive wines therefore matter more than notes for cheap wines. Once all of the wine in question is drunk, the note is trash, whereas notes for Mouton `45 remain (for the lucky few) useful. Moreover no one risks much with an inexpensive purchase, so the avuncular note is barely necessary, whereas if you are fluttering £1,500 or more on a case of a top 2009 Bordeaux second growth, you want as many uncles as possible advising you. It’s no accident that sommeliers are among the most avid subscribers to wine assessment websites and newsletters, as they constantly need to replenish stocks of assorted fine wines and will then triple the purchase price before re-offering them, so they’re keen not to dump duds on their customers.

I wish Dunnuck and his colleagues-to-be luck; they will be aware how fortunate they are. It’s rare for writers (most critics begin as writers, and all remain writers at least in part) to be given the chance to carry out critical work at length and under their own terms, and still rarer to be paid properly for doing so.  

Few consumers, too, can afford multiple subscriptions, so the note-issuing field is one where a small number of winners take all, and a crowd of often meritorious also-rans lose money and burn out. The Advocate, despite its shambolic part-sale and spotty history of reviewer-retention, remains the world’s most followed issuer of tasting notes, so they’ll have an instant global following. But they’ll also be aware just how difficult it is to write a good tasting note, since even well-known names often turn out inadequate, boring, incoherent or risible notes.  

Parker’s own notes seem to me to remain the gold standard. They are lengthy enough to do justice to the wines he is writing about, and while not polished in any literary sense convey the character of the wine with great deftness, are internally coherent, often position the wine in the frame of past vintages or other wine contexts as well as being subtly predictive about its evolutionary trajectory, and bubble with the kind of energy and enthusiasm that can fire the reader into a purchase. The fundamental catholicism of his palate is also impressive, and his scores are courageous, sometimes to the point of recklessness. You may not agree with his judgments – but that’s a different matter; he makes his case supremely well.

It’s a shame Parker and Antonio Galloni have parted company (the court case suggests it was an ‘Et tu, Brute?’ moment), as Galloni seemed to come nearest among recent Advocate reviewers to incarnating that ideal. Neal Martin writes lengthy, articulate and coherent notes, but (like many European tasters) he seems to have an enthusiasm problem, and his scores often lag behind the words; while David Schildknecht’s notes are so lengthy, intricate and copiously allusive as to strain credibility, though his remarkable scholarship is always evident. Lisa Perrotti-Brown writes thorough, dependable notes, though they sound rather like the house style sheet and she doesn’t as yet seem to have the individual ‘voice’ of the other team members.

What about the notes of other celebrated English-language critics? I don’t think Jancis Robinson’s tasting notes are the greatest of her many gifts to the world; even her notes for the finest wines can seem abbreviated, staccato, occasionally capricious and lacking in internal coherence, as if she grew a little bored or impatient as she wrote them and was keen to get on to the next wine. Stephen Tanzer’s notes are measured, trustworthy and well-organised, but rarely thrill; while James Suckling’s often seem cursory compared to the Advocate standard, and one way to establish tasting authority is through a carefully argued, in-depth note. This is a lesson obviously not lost on Allen Meadows, whose notes tend to be goods-train length accumulations of adjectival matter, often desperately in need of syntactical decoupling and some emergency punctuation. Meadows’ scores, too, tend to be closely bunched, dissipating the critical ‘cut’ of his work.

I’m still immensely grateful to all of the above for their labours and insights, of course. Not only are tasting notes intrinsically ephemeral, difficult to craft well and demand a breadth of experience which takes years to acquire, but they are also immensely time-consuming, expensive and laborious to enable, to make, to edit and to put onto the page or screen. If you think you can do better, go ahead.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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