It Was a Dark and Stormy Wine

April 6, 2013

“It was a dark and stormy night,” wrote Edward Bulwer-Lytton in the first sentence of a novel whose name nobody bothers to remember; “the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scantly flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness”—thus reverberating through the ages and inspiring the world’s preeminent annual awards ceremony for bad writing. The Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, now in its 31st year, challenges writers to compose “the opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels.” I think the 1997 grand-prize winner was among the best at capturing the spirit of the contest:

“The moment he laid eyes on the lifeless body of the nude socialite sprawled across the bathroom floor, Detective Leary knew she had committed suicide by grasping the cap on the tamper-proof bottle, pushing down and twisting while she kept her thumb firmly pressed against the spot the arrow pointed to, until she hit the exact spot where the tab clicks into place, allowing her to remove the cap and swallow the entire contents of the bottle, thus ending her life.”

But I’m not sure that Bulwer-Lytton or any of the illustrious winners of the contest bearing his name ever strung together anything quite as self-indulgently prolix, pretentious, and riddled with clichés as the typical wine tasting note. Here are just some of the stock phrases and fifty-cent words that aspiring and imbibing Bulwer-Lyttonites pack into their tasting notes as compulsively as someone refreshing his email or Facebook feed while sitting and waiting for his number to be called at the DMV—but which, if you really think about it, either don’t say anything, or say a whole lot that isn’t true.

All that hedonism. — There is probably no single word more misused in the lexicon of tasting notes than “hedonistic.” As of this writing it appears in no fewer than one billion Wine Advocate tasting notes and is essentially Robert Parker’s shorthand for everything he loves to see in wine—unctuous concentration, syrupy fruit, and minute-long finishes. Whatever the merits of these attributes, they are not, I am almost embarrassed to have to point out, what anyone customarily associates with a life of hedonism. It is quite impossible to imagine the Emperor Caligula admiring the viscous legs of an oily-black grenache in his Riedel glass in one hand and an hourglass in the other to time the finish while bored concubines file their nails in the background wondering what they bothered getting naked for. No, the wine you would want to pair with a Roman orgy is one you can guzzle with such abandon that 750 milliliters is a woefully insufficient single serving. It should be juicy and full of energy and capable of delivering a visceral joy, not an analytical project—I think of something like a Clos Roche Blanche gamay, Peter Lauer’s “Senior” riesling, or even a fun, tingly little dolcetto. Frankly, if you’re writing a tasting note at all, which is basically a flowery lab report, the wine probably wasn’t all that hedonistic. If, on the other hand, you put down your pen and had to resist the urge to execute a Gatorade dunk, then you’re getting much closer to hedonistic territory.

The fruit salad. — Let’s be clear about this. Cabernet sauvignon does not taste like currants. Pinot noir does not taste like cherries. Riesling does not taste like apples. They taste like what they are. Cabernet tastes like cabernet, pinot tastes like pinot, riesling tastes like riesling. The analogies to other fruits are, perhaps, of some arguable potential use to someone who’s never tasted a grape before, the same way describing a zebra as a horse with stripes is helpful to someone who’s never seen a zebra but extremely unhelpful if you are aspiring to describe what is notable about one particular zebra. But that’s where the usefulness ends, and I’m not sure it even goes that far. Nobody has ever bit into a cherry and remarked that it tasted like a Gevrey-Chambertin, a fact which ought to prove conclusively that any Gevrey-Chambertin’s resemblance to a cherry is so distant it’s barely worth noting. One hundred pinot noirs in a horizontal tasting will all resemble each other more than any one of them will resemble cherries (even if you include some Griottes!). If you had to comment on just one of them, saying “textbook pinot noir” would, more often than not, exhaust almost everything that needs to be said about its fruit. But this is not a viable option for someone who is paid to taste a hundred wines in one sitting and comment individually on each one of them. The critic cannot spend very many column inches talking about what they have in common. Nobody would have the patience to persist through so much redundancy. The alternative is to dwell on the differences, even if those differences don’t have very much to do with what makes each wine what it is. Thus comes the cavalcade not just of cherries but of maraschino cherries and kumquats and pomegranates and hermaphroditic Himalayan elderberries. Obviously, each of these lists is a completely irreproducible result. I do not believe for a moment that there is a human being alive who is capable of tasting the same wine and composing the same fruit salad twice even within ten minutes of each other, to say nothing of what happens when two different people attempt the exercise.

“Literally.” — Poor Antonio Galloni has tasted wines which “literally hover[] on the palate” (2010 Jadot Clos St. Denis), “literally float[] on the palate” (2009 Comtes Lafon Volnay Santenots-du-Milieu), “literally wrap[] around the palate” (2008 Montepeloso Nardo), “literally explode[] on the palate” (2009 Grivot Clos Vougeot, 2006 Cerbaiona Brunello di Montalcino, 2006 Voerzio Barolo Sarmassa), “literally burst[] from the glass,” (2009 Shafer One Point Five Cabernet Sauvignon, 2004 Geoffrey Brut Millesime), “literally fill the room with intense perfume” (2005 Aldo Conterno Barolo), and “literally send shivers down my spine” (2006 Ornellaia). But does the 2009 Jadot Puligny-Montrachet Folatieres, which “literally fills out in every dimension,” fill out the fourth dimension as much as the 2006 Gaja Sperss, whose finish “literally lasts an eternity”?

“Painfully intense.” — This is apparently supposed to be a good thing (at least when it’s not literal!). Intensity is good, so “painfully intense” must be better, and “excrutiatingly intense” better still. Wines used to perform actual waterboarding are automatic 100-pointers.

The “deft” use of oak. — Putting wine in an oak barrel is not origami, or a close-up magic trick, or a maneuver on the uneven parallel bars. Doing it deftly just means one didn’t spill. In tasting notes, deft oaking tends to mean that the wine doesn’t taste oaky, or that it does taste oaky but not too oaky, or that it tastes very, very oaky, but expensive oak.

Gratuitous French. — “Pain grillé” means “toast,” “cassis” means cherries or currants, and “en magnum” means that someone, for some reason, not only felt it vitally important to let the world know he has a big, swinging bottle, but that everyone else’s big bottle is a country hick in comparison. My magnum did a semester at the Sorbonne, and can order in French. (As long as it doesn’t have to speak any more French than a two-letter preposition.)

Timed finishes. — As much fun as it is to imagine fat wine critics wearing stopwatches around their necks in gym-teacher lanyards to time all those 55-, 65-, or 75-second finishes with the requisite precision, science says that those finishes have pretty much nothing to do with the wine and everything to do with how much bacteria is living in one’s mouth. In any event, those with a fetish for long aftertastes can forego the wine and eat some garlic. The finish will go on for hours!

Kudos.  It’s the emptiest of empty surplusage, tacked to the end of the note when a critic fears that even the purplest prose is insufficient to convey the magnificence of the wine in front of him. “Kudos to proprietor Frenchie McFrenchman for fashioning such an extraordinary effort!” It took me awhile to realize why I find it so grating (other than sheer overuse), but I finally put my finger on it. It is a nice thing to happen upon a wine that one enjoys. It is quite another thing to presume that one’s own personal enjoyment is such a universal moral imperative that catering to it represents some kind of heroic struggle against adversity for which honorifics are due. Ezekiel 25:17. The path of the righteous winemaking consultant is beset on all sides by the inequities of precious sommeliers and the tyranny of the anti-flavor elite. Kudos to he who, in the name of high scores and price hikes, shepherds the grapes through the valley of reverse-osmosis machines and 100% new oak, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. . . .

I am sure I have overlooked many other worthy clichés. Readers are hereby invited to comment with their own nominations, preferably in the form of fictional tasting notes for the worst of all possible wines. There will be a prize for the winner!

References and further reading: Bulwer-Lytton’s Paul Clifford . . . Winners of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest . . . The Oregonian on “Retro-nasal wine appreciation” . . . Andrew Jefford on tasting notes at Decanter.

33 Responses to “It Was a Dark and Stormy Wine”

  1. charlie carnes said

    SO good Keith. I just looked up some stats. Happily I have never used the word deft in any of my tasting notes. Sadly -I am ducking my head as I state this- I have used the word unctuous 10 times in notes. I don’t think I have ever used it in a sentence at any other time for any other reason. At least it has been a few years. I used to be so steeped in that language that some permeated through and made it into some of my past notes. Yuck!

    I once heard a girl say, “She literally crapped in my face!”. To which I replied, “Are you sure about that?”

    Keep ‘em coming.

  2. R. Alfert said

    Very enjoyable read! I’m guessing most of us have dropped some pretentious tasting note bombs from time to time (as in, often). This column struck a funny note with me, as on our cycling club website, some of us intentionally write OTT ride reports that would make Edward roll over in his grave. I recall boasting once about a night of hard riding where my prowess on the front lined the road with the carcasses of the dead and demoralized . . . . Now I just boast about what I once was, as I sit at home drinking more than riding, which of course, is far more civilized.

    Unlike Charlie, though, I do not think I have ever used the word “unctuous”. ;)

    PS. I better go do a quick search to see if I embarrassed myself.

  3. bags said

    well, as you warned elsewhere about someone criticizing Texier, it will come back to haunt you. The very first group of your CellarTracker entries I clicked on completely randomly (honest!), April 2009, near the very top of your entries (I did not go further) contains the descriptors “cassis-like” and “liquid pastry.” Even Shakespeare slipped once in a while, I guess.

  4. Cute Keith, and mostly right on…but, there’s always a but.

    From the standpoint of chemistry, many fruits host many similar components; hence, the memory of one fruit might come up with the taste of another. Not an excuse for overused descriptors, just an explanation of how our taste memory correlates.

    • True of course, but the way I see it is that the rubber hits the road in the actual tasting, at which point, 1) when it comes to detecting compounds at the part-per-zillion level, the human palate is not nearly as powerful a piece of machinery as the human imagination, and 2) the question isn’t whether this-or-that compound is there, but whether it’s material—which is sometimes the case… but not very often.

  5. Steve M said

    Does “cassis”refer to cherries, or to blackcurrants? I thought I was supposed to use “cerise” when waxing pedantic.

  6. Aaron said

    I thoroughly enjoyed this, but I have to ask… if reading this drivel works you up so much, why read it at all?

  7. Andrew Hall said

    Pretentious from a removed pov? Sure. Any subculture comes across that way. While amusing, your piece talks around that, like any subculture, the language is a social construct and words don’t have the same meanings as in broader contexts.

    Most of the writers of tasting notes use words they learned not from experience with the object of comparison (eg cassis – which saying the same as currants is like saying that grapes taste the same as wine), but with other tasting notes like RPs. The essential bit being communicated is a shared experience. When someone says ‘cherries,’ they are really saying they are tasting the same thing that (nearly) everyone else tasted. Some examples are close to accurate – there is malic acid in wines like Riesling. Some are fanciful as you have rightly noted. The fundamental concern is that I, you and pretty much everyone else in the readership, via the socialization of wine culture and of TNs, understand pretty well what is meant. Wine appreciation is learned. So is the language of it.

    Is there bad writing? Sure. Are there cliches? Yep. OTOH, the existence of those cliches is clinching point to defining the subculture and the language. They are precisely cliches because they perform the function of cohesion within the group. (And some like ‘literally’ are a broader misuse in no way limited to wine writing.) Not using them or using plainspeak (toast vs pain grille) will mark the writer as an outsider unless care it taken to point out the use is in response and the writer does know exactly what ‘pain grille’ means in this context.

    The criticism you make are akin to criticizing the game of football for being an inefficient way to move an ellipsoidal object from point A to point B – true, but wholly missing the point (while enjoyable and amusing.)

    • Andrew, I think you’ve absolutely nailed it with the observation that “Most of the writers of tasting notes use words they learned not from experience with the object of comparison . . . but with other tasting notes like RPs.” This was pretty much the same point Joe Dressner was making in a post a few years ago which probably had more influence on my thinking about this issue, and wine in general, than any other piece of writing I can remember. He put it this way:

      “So few people now are being trained to taste a wine in context, for where it came from, what it expresses and how it interacts with food and the real world. Instead, we have an external construct of fruit/wood/earthy flavors and aromas and we try to pigeonhole a wine into the confines of these external evaluators. We do not taste and drink the wine for what it is, but for what it approximates in wine tasting lexicon.”

      So Robert Parker tastes something and calls it kirsch or camphor or whatever; someone else comes along who has no idea what kirsch or camphor is, but think he’s tasting whatever it is that Parker was calling kirsch or camphor, so he uses it in his own note. At this point we’re now two metaphors removed from the actual sensory experience, and we get to three, four, and more degrees removed once this terminology migrates to the general lexicon.

      Once we recognize that, we can go in one of two directions—either defend the lingo like you’ve done on the theory that even though the words are all misnomers, everyone knows what they mean so it’s all OK, or you can end up where I am, and think that once these words become cliché from overuse and so many generations removed from an actual sensory experience, it’s worth reflecting on our language and thinking about whether there might be a clearer way to communicate what we think is worth saying.

  8. L.P. said

    Serious comments on a (mostly) whimsical post. Call me crazy, but didn’t this end with a mock-TN challenge? I’m diving in with a riff on the most overwrought and inappropriate of TN cliches: “sexy”. How’d you leave that one (as well as its equally offensive partner “voluptuous”) out? Wine’s been known to make people feel sexy, but if the wine itself is the object of your sexual desire, you’re probably a pervert. So here goes:

    “This sexy Santa Rita Hills Pinot is bursting with voluptuous red fruit. The stiff tannins are beautifully balanced with a silky, creamy palate that just won’t quit. The finish goes all night long. This slutty red is drinking so nicely right now, it would literally give Jancis wood (American oak, at that!).”

  9. John Proctior said

    Excellent thoughts and very well written. A fun and informative read.

  10. Andrew Hall said

    @keith

    Do you realize that your position is self-contradictory? On one hand, you are criticizing the generic use of something like ‘cherry’ to describe wine and then you mock attempts to be more specific with descriptions like Queen Anne cherry or ‘Boone’s Farm Northwest Exposure Rainer Cherries Harvested on a June Morning and eaten that night at 11:34.’ The latter is an attempt to solve the problem of the former. It is also quite likely a personal sensory experience and, as such, utterly useless to anyone else but the writer and (hopefully) the one they got a leg over on while eating said cherries.

    That problem of both extreme subjectivity and the inherent inability of language to 1-to-1 map with senses (and a language that did so would be useless) is exactly why we use common terms to describe experience. Furthermore, I will submit that a description of ‘cherry’ in a Cabernet is more accurate and more efficient at communicating that relating the taste of an actual cherry. The commonality of the relatively limited palate of cherry/Cabernet makes it more likely to communicate we tasted the same thing (insofar as we can) and avoids extreme word-salad of specifying type of cherry and more. A reader understands ‘cherry’ as a simulacrum of flavor, encompassing the common elements of cherry coke, real cherries, cherry pie, cough syrup and all the other things that create our perception of taste to the referrant of ‘cherry.’

    Dressner posits a fantasy land where we all live in the isolated village and act like robot recitators of both our perceptions and our limited shared experiences. It sounds charming (not) and I know while you might think it is, you don’t act that way. Your perceptions of wine and your opinions of wine (down to what wines ‘ought’ to be – a favorite trope of yours and one I share) are the exact opposite. Wine is a cultural object in our worlds. The moment the first person set reed to papyrus to record their thoughts beyond a roman-a-clef, it became an object of fetish and inextricably linked to a cultural web that includes language in a dominating fashion. Simply put, the Dressner position doesn’t exist* and didn’t really exist. He is simply making an arbitrary judgement that his preferred context for wine is superior to others.

    I think there is a meta-position you are working from, stripped of prescription of how people ‘ought’ to do something that is seldom acknowledged and is an anathema to most of the tasting note writers and their acolytes : Wine appreciation is a shared social experience inseparable from the people and their language (and their biases, opinions, prejudices and loves.) The worst service RP ever did to that world is promulgating the self-servicing meme that there *is* an objective truth about a wine. Kind of like the NYT self-serving motto of ‘all the news fit to print.’ It creates the market-making position of being the expositor of Truth vs a voice in room of voices (even if a dominant one.) The social aspect, the apprenticeship format and the interplay of language with taste is an absolutely fascinating topic to me, but one of virtually no interest those immersed in that demimonde.

    As an aside, flavor descriptors like ‘cherry’ are not metaphor or simile. They are an attempt to describe that one’s neurochemical reactions are very much the same to this object as they were to another.

    * That world does exist – in the tasting labs of large flavor and food companies. Using controlled methods and applying statistics, they do tease out what is perceived by the consumer. It is fascinating, but the exact opposite world of what we are discussing.

  11. Marcus Stanley said

    I think Andrew is kind of right here. Wine writing includes a process of constructing shared terms of reference to allow intersubjective communication that is important to wine culture and should be distinguished from commercial wine porn. When a writer refers to ‘cassis’ for Bordeaux vs. ‘red fruit’ or ‘cherry’ for Burgundy I know what he means, it’s ‘that Bordeaux flavor’ vs. ‘that Burgundy flavor’. Likewise, when someone uses a red fruit descriptor for Bordeaux I understand that it’s a little more cranberry-ish and less black-fruited than other Bordeaux. There’s a very interesting back and forth between descriptive terms and the experience of the wine that shouldn’t be just dismissed as necessarily inauthentic. I can’t be the only person here who has had all the ineffably complex flavors of a good wine suddenly snap into a different focus when someone used a really good flavor descriptor for it. (Latest example was someone saying ‘cocoa powder’ for an aged Barolo — it brought a particular flavor component into high relief). Why is that bad? Wine is a social experience and language is the medium of sociability.

    From this perspective the problem with bad wine writing isn’t that it puts words on the ineffable but that it does it badly — it lacks either the appropriate modesty of description or the originality that would justify metaphorical leaps. Bad wine writing all too often combines the worst of both worlds; it’s horribly clichéd and at the same time ridiculously overstated.

  12. Marcus Stanley said

    But the earnest stuff might be beside the point on this post, which was meant to be funny and is. Where are the ‘hot stones’ though? And Jeff Leve’s collected works are a good source as well — he has a penchant for chocolate-covered fruits that explode in your mouth like hand grenades.

  13. Ron Levenberg said

    Here’s an actual description of DOMAINE DES CASSAGNOLES COTES DE GASCOGNE posted in “Pour” in NYC: If you are married to Sauvignon Blanc, look the other way, because this hot little number is going to steal you away! These lip-smacking grapes form a ménage-a-trois of sorts, melding together to form a partnership of zippy acidity, alluring texture, and complex flavors. Elements of orange zest, minerals, and sweet tarragon intertwine with a glorious freshness. Pair this scene-stealer with crab cakes, horseradish-crusted pork loin, Caesar salad, and goat cheese!

    Well, that description goes over the top, but I do think that comparison of a wine to a well-known aroma or flavor helps others to know what to expect. I just never seem to smell cherries or pineapples or vanilla or … in wine.

  14. [...] a hilarious post, Keith Levenberg highlights some “of the stock phrases and fifty-cent words that aspiring and imbibing Bulwer-Lyttonites [...]

  15. [...] writes about wine purely for recreational purposes, which makes his work all the more impressive), posted an item the other day poking fun at tasting notes and some of the more ludicrous phrases and clichés that [...]

  16. Paul Hagerman said

    The first word that came to mind, to add to the list, was, “Prodigious”

    Over the top words, are terrific in my view….it clues the reader that the tasting note writer has lost their senses along the path of their wine travels, and may have forgotten to enjoy wine for the simple thing it is.

  17. [...] still laughing over this article, and hence will try not to bore you with stuffy or overwraught descriptors, even if this is entry [...]

  18. gabe said

    fun post. i literally died laughing.

    i have two favorite over-used tasting cliches. One is anise, because I apparently have the maturity of a 12 year old. The other is ‘meyer lemon’…as in “it doesn’t taste like lemon, more like meyer lemon”. While I can accept that a wine tates more like cherries than strawberries, I find it hard to believe that anyone could pick a meyer lemon out of a blind lemon tasting.

  19. Steve R said

    Insightful and entertaining post! I too run afoul of the fruit salad cliches from time to time, but I do find them helpful at a basic level. To me, Merlot tastes more like fruitcake than a Sangiovese. Given that, I am much more forgiving of a basic fruit-oriented descriptor than I am of pretentiously obscure terms. I think it’s okay to say that are flavors of pears in Albarino, then add notes to that base to build greater insight But Bosc pear? Meyer lemon? Really?

  20. [...] notes, popped up again last week among luminaries of the wine writing guild. Keith Levenberg started the discussion with an over-the-top complaint about over-the-top wine descriptions. Comparing tasting notes to [...]

  21. Zack S. said

    Speaking of cliches, are the terms masculine and feminine. At least voluptuous has a physicality that you can make some synonymous reference. But feminine? Mostly I can figure descriptors out, but sexy? Masculine? Feminine? Really? Is that who’s supposed to like the wine? Or how about virile? Will this wine impregnate me?

    I think wines descriptions that actually get back to what you taste, rather than what you make up to be wine descriptors. Even the concept of “fruitiness” which is more of a layman term most people just don’t get. So what would these social constructions on top of social constructions do for most people. I couldn’t care less about.

  22. Felipe Méndez said

    I see your point (and had fun reading it), but there are some descriptors that seem pretty honest and straightforward to me. Say white pepper in Cornas, or “flowers” in Alsatian Gewurz, horseshit in Maipo Alto Cabernet, plum in ripe Mendoza malbec, petrol in not-too-good mosel riesling, pear in Salta torrontés, dried blood in old right bank merlot, dried apricots in many sweet wines, nail polish in Chateau Musar, lemon zest in Chablis…
    Or, as the Rolling Stones said, it’s just my imagination?

  23. Jessica said

    Hey Keith! My name is Jessica – I come from WinesTilSoldOut (the first and largest online flash wine website, selling one wine at a time 30-70% off, until sold out!) We wanted you to know that we are big fans of your blog! Keep up the good work – love the references! Cheers man!

  24. Great post, Keith,
    Please e-mail me at natdecants@nataliemaclean.com. It’s about wine, of course :)
    Cheers,
    Natalie

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  26. […] (Senior) erottavat viinit toisistaan. Tähän viiniin tartuin jenkkibloggaaja Keith Levenbergin mainostuksen […]

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  28. Robert Sandy said

    After reading this blog I was inspired to look up tasting notes on wine I had the night before, Clos de L’Oratoire Des Papes Chateauneuf-du Pape 2009. If you read enough of tasting notes sometimes there are actual descriptions of something in the wine. For example, this wine had a taste I would describe as syrupy and medicinal. The same element have been the “plum sauce” I found in one review and the “soy sauce” in another. Or maybe after reading enough reviews the overlap was pure chance.

    The following is a real tasting note of this wine, its source left off to spare its author embarrassment.

    “On the palate the wine has an incredibly smooth and sexy texture and soft tannins for such an amazingly young wine. I have had the bottle open for about 20 hours after uncorking it, and the wine has continued to transform into the ultra urethral concoction that it is currently. I get flavors of ripe black cherry, coco powder, sweet tobacco, tea leaf, dried red currants, and crushed stones. This wine is amazingly delicious and super long and savory on the finish. It has all the complexity and seduction of a great Chateauneuf, but drinks with the ripeness and deliciousness of a new world wine. Wow……this stuff is bonkers. 95+ points

    The winner for the worst descriptor is the “ultra urethral concoction”, more commonly known as piss.

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