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.