Do consumers understand what wine writers are saying?

Do consumers understand what wine writers are saying?

Earlier this autumn, Andrew Jefford wrote a short piece about ‘how to write tasting notes’. It was - rather like a good tasting note - short, to the point and full of useful advice: Go easy on the ‘fruit salad’ descriptors, talk about structure and balance as well as flavour, let us know whether you like it, etc.

Yet oddly, after reading it, I felt rather deflated – as though I’d asked Shakespeare for advice on writing a play and he’d said: "Always leave room for the surprise ending, son – people love a surprise ending".

Jefford is, in my humble opinion, one of the best writers on wine we have. I remember ten years ago a PR company ran a competition for hacks to write a wine-world-related poem. My entry was vaguely satirical doggerel about the comic attempts of some French paysans to repackage their wine for the UK. It was thrashed into second place by Jefford’s tasting note for Laphroaig written in the form of a haiku: Clever, precise, intelligent and as polished as a copper still, it was utterly brilliant. One of the things that made it so brilliant was that it was different. It had not just accuracy, but imagination – which, I think, is the missing ingredient in probably 99% of tasting notes out there today.

But why? Is the wine trade inherently less creative than other industries? 

I doubt that. I suspect it may be connected to the fact that so many of those who set out in the world of wine now take some kind of wine course early in their journey. Wine courses are, indisputably, a good thing, imparting vast amounts of knowledge in a short space of time, and giving neophytes the chance to enter a complex world without drowning in ignorance. Obviously, one of the key elements of any wine course is learning how to describe the contents of a glass, and the structured ‘colour, nose, palate, finish’ technique is a tried and tested one. Once learned, it provides a quick, methodical way of analysing a wine.

But it comes at a cost.

Structured tasting notes are great if you are at a busy tasting with limited time, but they actively discourage originality. And, by having a growing number of trade folk trained in this way, we are in danger of creating an industry full of well-educated, well-meaning automatons. A few years ago, I was doing a tasting of whiskies with a couple of highly-respected bartenders in London. These guys had never been on a course in their lives, and you could see the differences in our notes. 

Mine were solid, by-the-book – and desperately dull. Theirs were chaotic, erratic – and fizzing with inspiration. I still remember one of them describing a 12-year-old malt as being "like walking through a dew-covered garden on a spring morning" – a sentence that absolutely nailed the product and also, crucially, made me want to drink it.  

And this, I think, is where the problem lies. Our structured approach to writing tasting notes is designed to strip visceral reaction out of the process – or at least to minimise it; to render our judgments coolly analytical and free of the distorting effects of emotion.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing when it comes to writing 80 tasting notes in a day that are going to be used purely for your own edification, but it really isn’t the right way to talk to the general public. If we accept that the vast majority of wine drinkers are insecure about their wine knowledge, it makes no sense at all to try to explain a product that they already find confusing by using language that they can’t understand.

The trade forget that, before they studied their wine courses, most of them only had a hazy idea what tannin, acidity and oak meant in wines. Yet, once in the industry, they throw these terms around with abandon, maintaining the divide between those with the knowledge and those without.

This, it must be said, is a very wine-trade thing.

Moreover, if we accept that tasting notes (when written for the public as opposed to being for oneself) are essentially selling tools, why would we want to strip emotion out of them in any case? Surely, as a trade we should be doing the opposite? The reason that we don’t, I suspect, is two-fold. Firstly, as I’ve suggested, we’ve been told that this just isn’t the way that tasting notes are written; that, broadly speaking, poetry is bad and rational analysis is good. Secondly, explaining a wine in terms that make sense to the layman is incrediby difficult.

I once challenged a group of highly-respected sommeliers to describe a range of wines in terms of references that ‘ordinary’ people might understand, such as what sort of a film star, piece of music or car it would be. Consumers might not, after all, know what tannin is. But they understand what you mean if you say a wine is as elegant as Audrey Hepburn, as balanced as a Mozart piano concerto or as chunky and powerful as a Monster Truck. While one or two of the sommeliers rose to the challenge, the majority were unable to strip a wine back to its bare personality, then re-reference that personality as something else.

And yet, as an approach, it works. I’m writing this column straight after having hosted a wine tasting for a group of consumers. And, while they listened politely to talk about acidity and tannin (yes - I’m as guilty as anyone) my description of a Gewurztraminer as "the kind of tarty wine that puts on its make-up, then slaps on an extra layer before going out just in case" was what they were talking about afterwards. It was an engaging image that they could apply to what was in their glass.

Why didn’t I describe every wine in such terms? Because, as I said, it’s damn difficult – and we’ve been preconditioned not to.

None of which means we shouldn’t be trying. The wine trade has long bemoaned how hard it is a) to pull in new consumers, and b) to immerse them in the category. Maybe a few more of them would stick around if we actively encouraged people to write about wine in a way that doesn’t just describe, but actually inspires.