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Should I Drain My Swamp Of Winespeak?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 7, 2008 10:48am ET

A recent article about the influence and manipulation of wine consumers was brought to my attention, as apparently one of my tasting notes was printed in it.

The article claimed (among other things) that wine consumers are faced with “an impenetrable swamp of winespeak” before quoting the following note, penned by yours truly:

“Dark and rich, with lots of fig bread, mocha, ganache, prune and loam notes. Stays fine-grained on the finish, with lingering sage and toast hints.”

[For the record, the wine described was the Familia Zuccardi Zeta Mendoza 2004 (87, $45), a blend of 70 percent Malbec with Tempranillo.]

Normally I try to avoid any back and forth quibbling over the review process we use at Wine Spectator—the evaluation of wine is subjective, so debating one person’s method versus another’s is rather useless. But I took a little umbrage with this particular swipe for a couple of reasons. First, the author is also a critic who uses a fair amount of "winespeak" when writing his own tasting notes, and though he typically takes a contrarian view when dealing with wine, he's consistent in his views and worth a read. Second, I’ve always stressed to readers that the tasting note itself is even more important than the score attached to it, because a wine’s style and flavor profile are the ultimate determinant for whether someone will like the wine. Assuming the critic in question is consistent, then consumers can calibrate themselves to the critic’s palate and get a clear and consistent read on the wines the critic reviews.

The key questions that a wine critic is helping his or her readers to answer is, do they want a rich, figgy, loamy wine? Or perhaps a brighter, fresher, more floral version? And in describing two different-styled wines in those terms, is there anyone who would really be confused?

In this case, I think the wine in question is a fairly dark and rich style offering very good quality (scores in the 85-89 range are "very good" on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) for its type. Read the note and I'm sure anyone, novice or connoiseur, would get a strong mental picture of the wine. Or am I being naive?

Yes, the wine lexicon can seem a bit lofty to beginners, but with one tasting, I’ve found all mystery is easily dispelled. When I taught beginner wine classes many moons ago, I would get attendees to play a game with wine descriptions—use movie stars, cars, fashion designers—whatever they were comfortable with, to describe the differences between wines. When there's a Pamela Anderson wine next to a Gwyneth Paltrow wine, suddenly the “fig and loam” versus “bright mineral and floral” clicks. It usually took about five minutes or less for folks to get comfortable with "winespeak," hardly what I would call an "impenetrable swamp."

The article also goes on about recent studies that showed how easily consumers were influenced by the price of a wine (a silly study quickly debunked by my colleague James Suckling), but the article doesn’t mention our magazine’s policy of tasting wines blind, and thus removing price from the equation: $45 isn’t cheap, and I suspect most people would expect more than just 87 points for such a wine. Heck, according to the study, at $45, most people would quickly pronounce it to be a great wine.

I guess had I tasted the wine knowing it’s price while also aiming to trim my swamp of winespeak, I probably would have come up with this: “91 points. Big wine. You'll like it.”

That might be easier for folks to understand, but would it be accurate or any less subjective?

Kevin Dalton
Phoenix and Paris —  May 7, 2008 1:08pm ET
I just read the "Tasting Notes" blog with comments contributed over August. I found much to appreciate there but did not see any mention of what I feel to be the most valuable element of a tasting note: "Tasted twice with consistent notes." A tasting note drawing from blind samples of two different bottles seems to me the gold standard -- surely that information is useful to everyone.
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  May 7, 2008 2:00pm ET
Apropos of your comments, I would appreciate your view of the Eric Asimov article on the New York Times website today titled "Wine's Pleasures: Are they all in your head?" Asimov makes many of the same points you do, referring to studies that show the variables that can affect one's opinions of the wine he or she tastes.
Brad Kanipe
Atlanta —  May 7, 2008 2:02pm ET
I do think many TN in general are overdone and contain many obscure sensory descriptors that the majority of the readers cannot relate to. I'm able to get a sense what you are describing in your example, but I've never had fig bread so that really doesn't help me much and loam in general is not something I would assign a positive association to. Another TN concept I still have trouble wrapping my head around is when a wine's descriptors are made up of things I don't necessary find very enjoyable, let alone would want to put in my mouth. For example a TN consisting of pencil shavings, tar and old saddle leather is many times used in positive terms, but when you take a step back, who really likes the smell of those components let alone would search them out to taste? I enjoy many of those wines, but just don't find the adjectives used to describe them very appetizing.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  May 7, 2008 2:11pm ET
Personally, I subscribe to WS so I can hear about fig, mocha and fine grained finishes. If I want Pamela Anderson I can turn on the TV. Perhaps you could give us wine notes in Shakespeare??
Steve Kirchner
Huntington —  May 7, 2008 2:11pm ET
there are so many different wines available. i can't taste all of them (there are limits to my budget and my liver). so some kind of recommendation really helps, and yours are as good as any. that being said, i think it would be more helpful to me if you guys pointed out similarities between wines. for example, what's a good, fairly cheap wine with prominent 'loam notes'? or just categories (this one's like Ridge and that one's more like Silver Oak). Finally, the wine/women simile only makes the swamp more impenetrable (unless you've had too much of one, and not enough of the other).
James Molesworth
May 7, 2008 2:12pm ET
Kevin: Just to clarify, we add "Tasted twice with consistent notes." whenever we taste a second bottle after feeling we need to confirm an initial impression (based on a different bottle of the same wine). This is usually done when the taster feels the first bottle was in some way out of character for the producer/vintage, etc - either good or bad. We don't taste every wine twice, but we do want the reader to know when we have...

Brad: That's fine if you don't dig 'saddle leather' in your wine. Then when the term is used by a critic, assuming they are consistent, you then know that wine isn't for you...
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  May 7, 2008 2:57pm ET
The tasting notes are very important. Example, For the wine above with "toast hints", I would expect the oak to be suttle on the finish. Other notes may point to primary flavors of vanilla, which often means one is spitting oak splinters after the tasting. I agree with Kevin that bottle variation is a huge problem. However, with all the wines for you guys to taste, I can see where getting back around to repeats can be difficult. Reading JL's blog from yesterday, it also sounds as if there is a large number of 06 CA pinots he never wants to taste again.
Neil Koffler
New York, NY —  May 7, 2008 3:37pm ET


You are right that tasting largely dispells the mystery of the descriptors. However, some definitely go over the top and most remain ripe to ridicule by those not partaking. Our children frequently say, "how can it have all of those other flavors when its made of grapes?"

Jeremy Sharib
San Francisco  —  May 7, 2008 4:22pm ET
As long as we are on the topic. Can anyone clarify what the term "racy" means in a note. James, it seems that this term is used more by your colleagues but maybe you could clear it up for me. Thanks and great blog
James Molesworth
May 7, 2008 4:32pm ET
Jeremy: I use the term 'racy' often myself. It typically refers to a wine that is fresh and bright, enlivened by acidity or really fine, pure tannins - the wine 'races' across your palate. It's basically the opposite of heavy, grippy, muscular, etc.

Some wines - great ones in my mind - can be both powerful and racy at the same time, like '00 Bordeaux, '01 Chateauneufs, etc.
John Wilen
Texas —  May 7, 2008 6:46pm ET
The annual I Spy award --- given to the wine critic or winemaker who can find (and correctly use in a sentence!) the most flavors in a single wine. Winner of this year's coveted award is:

A rich, fruit forward wine with the ripe berry characteristics of the 2003 and the balanced structure of the 2004. Aromatically it may be the most complex and evolved vintage at this stage. The nose of this delicious wine is sweet, ripe, quietly smoky and very attractively fruity, as hints of licorice root, black tea, vanilla and coffee toffee meld seamlessly with dark cherry, plum and blackberry scents in a forward and engaging mix. The wine is every bit as charming on the palate, where the creamy vanilla, toffee and black tea notes are reprised while the flavors shift toward pomegranate and red raspberry. The finish is lingering and never less than silky, and those savory tea/toast notes keep the wines fruitiness from overstating itself. With airing, a more Zin-like personality emerges and black pepper, red raspberry, plum and pomegranate take center stage.

Sound's like a dog's breakfast to me...
Peter Hickner
Seattle, WA —  May 7, 2008 7:48pm ET
I'll take a stab at "racy".I interpret that as a wine with decent acidity, a good bouquet, not submerged in oak, bright, not over-ripe fruit, and free any off flavors from strange yeasts or VA.
California —  May 7, 2008 8:53pm ET
I think TNs are immensely useful, but I totally believe that they go way overboard. TNs could be simplified and still make their point, I'm sure. The enjoyment of fine wines is reaching into broader and broader segments of the population, and is less the exclusive province of the hard-core afficionados who use this language to attain a degree of exclusivity. I always chuckle when I read TNs that speak of flavors of "crushed gravel" or "forest floor". While these may indeed be accurate descriptors, I've never actually put crushed gravel or the forest floor in my mouth, and don't ever intend to do so. My guess is that most others are in a similar situation and, thus, TNs like this are not in fact useful.
Alvaro Esquivel
Miami, Fla —  May 7, 2008 11:10pm ET
Jamesas an experiment I just opened and drank some of 2003 Almaviva Puente Alto.I coudn't agree more with you on your previous review. It does taste like raspberry ganache,black currant and fig fruit. Lots of grip on the finish with impressive balance between the tannins, acidity and oak.Your tasting notes really helped me choosing this one. Cheers!
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  May 8, 2008 2:46am ET
i like to keep track of some of my favorite notes. Two for the hall of fame: (direct from a competitor mag) - "...shit & berries.." Somehow they gave this Belle Glos 3 stars?! But RPs "...lap dance on my tongue..." is still my all-time favorite!
Justin Renard
Tokyo, Japan —  May 8, 2008 4:42am ET
Bottom line: try and try and try different wines. Forget about what the critics say; read for the art of the writing and the enjoyment of the verse rather than to have someone tell you what you should taste and how many points of enjoyment it will give you. Sure, if there is a critic(s) out there whose palate matches with your own that's great but how many people base most if not all of their wine buying/drinking decisions on what critics say or how they score the wines? Btw, I love fig bread and wines that smell of horse manure, cat urine, sweaty saddle, and dirty jock strap. Trust your own palate.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  May 8, 2008 5:50pm ET
Not a week ago, I emailed Dr. Vinny asking what you folks are referring to with the word "loam". I've studied some geology and know of the word loam and know that some vines are grown in loam soil. I'm in the business and enjoy wines with earthiness and minerality, but I must confess I don't have a good sense of what is meant by a wine with a "loam" attribute. It's not even clear if it refers to the flavor or the texture--I've seen it used both ways. So, I am not surprised that it was contained in a description that was made a poster-child for obscure wine speak. I'd be happy to hear your definition James, thanks! T.B.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  May 8, 2008 6:42pm ET
Justin, life is too short to try out all the different wines coming out. If a rag says a wine is a huge fruit bomb with oak chunks, I don't need to try it. I know from vast experience that I don't like those wines, even when they're given a 93 rating. Other people do however, and it's a turn on for them. I'll take flavors of earth or must and pass on horse manure and cat urine ( your type of wine). By buying his rag, I'm paying WS to whittle a list of thousands of bottles of chardonnay ( for example) to hopefully 25-50 that I can try in a given time frame and develop my own opinion. Then move on to pinots.
James Peterson
San Antonio, Texas —  May 8, 2008 8:28pm ET
I remember James Laube having a thread about tasting notes before, and I happened to have hosted an Italian wine tasting just prior to seeing it. I wrote:

For the reds, I had three flights of two wines each in value wines, mid-level, and higher-end wines. Just for fun I printed out tasting notes with scores and let the tasters try to match the description to the wine. It was almost laughable to see how difficult this was to do. The conclusion was that for the casual wine drinker (and even heavy wine drinkers like me), those notes can be absolutely meaningless. But a number! Now there is something they understood all too easily--and could happily argue about which deserved the higher score.

While I often use the tasting notes to compare and contrast my own opinions, I still believe that most of tasting notes, when reviewed while tasting, are just Greek to beginners. But if you start a discussion about which wine deserves more points, then you can stand back and watch the fun. I don't really see anything wrong with that. This is always a great blog topic. Thanks. - Jim
Michael Hein
May 9, 2008 8:16am ET
While neither my palate nor my experience are sufficient to identify and name many of the subtle flavors in tasting notes, I still find them valuable. More information is always helpful whether now or in the future as I develop my tasting ability further.This harkens back to the anecdote from William F. Buckley paraphrased as follows. A reader wrote him a comment saying that while he liked his writing, he used far too many unusual words. A year later the same reader sent a letter saying thank you for using fewer unfamiliar words. We learn.Regards,
James Molesworth
May 9, 2008 9:33am ET
Vince: I'm explaining 'loam' to a geologist - so I better get my ducks in a row!

Loam is a soil that contains clay and sand, is typically fertile and ideal for agricultural use. It's worked easily, even when moist, and typically contains a lot of humus, which is the organic material that gives the soil its distinctive odor.

Therefore, when I use the term in a note, I use it to denote a dark, earthy wine, but one that isn't rustic in feel - it's still rich and easy to work in the mouth. I find it to be a typical characteristic of Chilean Cabs from the Maipo valley, along with Cabs and other full-bodied reds from other areas as well...
James Molesworth
May 9, 2008 9:39am ET
Sandy: uh, 'rag'?...
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst Illinois —  May 9, 2008 3:43pm ET
Thanks again, James. Not sure I would have been able to figure that one out. Some descriptors--gooseberry and litchee come to mind--I'm able to figure out after seeing the descriptions enough times and tasting the wines, even though I'm not familiar with the fruit (in this case). No doubt after you've been in the vineyards with the loam soil and subsequently taste the wines from those vineyards, it follows naturally to use the soil to describe the wine. Although you lost me on that one, as always, I greatly appreciate your special efforts to communicate the "terroirs" you experience.
James Molesworth
May 9, 2008 4:00pm ET
Maybe what we need to do here is create a glossary of tasting note descriptors...I'm sure my fellow editors will love me for throwing that one out there!
Steve Kirchner
Huntington —  May 9, 2008 6:29pm ET
in your previous entry you discussed the difference between modern and traditional and you gave examples (Quebrada de Macul and Montes). that really works for me...
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  May 10, 2008 1:14pm ET
James, you have a great point...and offer much needed humor to the "seriousness" within the wine-trade. I agree with your thoughts, yet, also can say that initially I didn't understand how important the notes themselves are. I think that a very large percentage of people buy wines based specifically on the score, "Oh this is a 95-pointer from the Rhone." and that's enough for them. While I've said this before...it'd be interesting to see the scores go away completely and watch people respond to nothing more than the tasting notes....
Juan Vazquez-abarca
Tijuana, Mexico —  May 10, 2008 9:10pm ET
To me the most important part of tasting wine is the tasting note. The score can vary depending on your appreciation of the elements you find in a wine. One taster can have a fondness for very, very ripe wines while others would favor balance... ...but every so often when i read the tasting note, i get the impression the score doesn't match it.
Jim May
Los Angeles —  May 10, 2008 10:40pm ET
Neil writes: Our children frequently say, "how can it have all of those other flavors when its made of grapes?"

At a wine tasting class I once kidded around with the instructor by putting in a reference to "grape notes" in a tasting of plum wine.

That being said, I did read one tasting note somewhere that used the word "grapey". I did a double take when I saw that, but don't ask me where I saw it (are we able to do string searches in the WS database?)
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  May 11, 2008 7:43am ET
To answer Neils childs question---during maceration and fermentation, a variety of volatile organic amines are released (these are compunds which create flavors and aromas). Prior to fermentation, ripe wine grapes and must pretty much taste like sweet grapes and all varietals taste more or less alike. Its the chemical adulteration of the skins, pulp, seeds and juice by yeast and ETOH as well as barrel aging of the wine which creates a plethora of organic molecules and thus lead to, how do I say it, the verbosity of the tasting notes.
James Molesworth
May 11, 2008 8:36am ET
Juan: A critic's personal preference has to be subjugated in search of quality - a topic I've discussed here before.

It's important for a critic to recognize that there are good and bad examples of fruit forward wines, good and bad examples of more 'traditional styled' wines and so on. From Henri Bonneau to Caymus, we try to point people in the direction of the better wines - and that's where the tasting note comes in. I feel the critic who lets their personal preference for style override their review process is doing their readers a disservice...

Jim: As for 'grapey' it's a term I use - though on the surface I see how it might come across as 'duh'. But I use grapey when a wine offers a very primal and basic fruit profile, without the complexity of more intriguing fruit flavors (raspberry, currant, blackberry, etc). Beaujolais Nouveau, for example, is typically very 'grapey' in my book...
Juan Vazquez-abarca
Tijuana, Mexico —  May 11, 2008 3:18pm ET
James, i do get your point. I do agree that there are common traits that are desirable in a wine, but the score does depend on a given tasters likes and dislikes. There is always a human element attached

One could argue that the wines reviewed in Wine Spectator would get different scores had other tasters judged them.

My only point here is that i think a tasting note is far more reliable than a score. Some times i taste wines and perfectly agree with the scores, and sometimes i just wonder.

Still, i think there are great tasters out there(sorry, if these seems controversial).
Kevin Dalton
Phoenix and Paris —  May 12, 2008 2:59pm ET
Reading over these responses pretty much settles the question -- clearly lots of us are indebted to tasting notes and their vocabulary. I have a vocabulary question: When a note says "Drink Now" for the tasting window, and the tasting was done, say, May 2007, is that wine still considered at its potential peak -- in other words is about a year a safe period for drinking? Or does "Drink Now" mean there is no noticeable age-ability, so the taster can't really predict.
James Molesworth
May 12, 2008 3:11pm ET
Kevin: "Drink now." for us generally means the wine should hold over the following 12 month period. Wines aren't ticking time bombs that disintegrate at specific times, but rather tend to fade out slowly...plenty of wines reviewed as "Drink now." might still be drinkable after 2 or 3 years (or more) but in our opinion wouldn't offer any thing better or different than had you drunk them up earlier...genuine development versus simple endurance is the true key to aging wine.
Paul Rakovich
Las Vegas —  May 13, 2008 7:12am ET
What I get asked more than "what is this wine like?" (a request for TN?) is "which one of these is better?" I think that is what is truly on the minds of many people when making a buying decision. I'm often puzzled as to what "better" means especially when asked things like, "which one is better this Brunello or this Napa cabernet?"

My friends in the business almost never talk about tasting notes when describing a wine to one another. If a certain friend tells me "this is killer" I have a basic idea of what he likes and I'll probably like it. "Killer" to me means way more than this person saying silky tannins, black currant, cigar box..blah blah blah. Regardless of how accurate his descriptors are. I believe that is what most people are looking for from points more so than TN or "winespeak."

Discounting "plain old killer from a drinking buddy," "winespeak" or "points" for their inherent flaws is a waste of time and energy. It simply is the best we've got and all said and done it does a pretty darn good job over thousands and thousands of wines. Both sides of the coin winespeak vs. plain talk will always be less than perfect and finding a balance between the two is equally nebulous.

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