How the wine industry can use tasting notes as a marketing tool

While much has changed post-pandemic, category commentator Chris Losh has been disappointed that something has stayed the same in wine. Will wine brand owners wake up and smell the (acidy, bitter, sweet, salty and sour) coffee?

With apologies to those of you in the Southern Hemisphere who are still in winter lockdown, this Northern Hemisphere autumn appears to be heading back to something approaching normality. Whisper it, but there are signs of countries having their first halfway-normal tasting season for two years.

The pandemic has reset attitudes to once-untouchable elements of life - why not tasting notes as well?

I’ve questioned for years whether tasting notes really work. But, the issue was brought into sharper focus by a ‘Crap Tasting Note of the Year’ awards that I ran on my satirical drinks website, Fake Booze. It began as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exercise, but having invited readers to send in their nominations it soon became clear there was a pandemic of truly terrible tasting notes out there; from toe-curlingly sexist (really) to utterly baffling, from ones that were, literally, just a list of descriptors with no attempt made to create actual sentences, to works of poetry so florid that Byron might have deemed them rather over the top.

Self-indulgence was a common problem. It’s probably not too controversial to say that if your tasting note is over 300 words long, or includes a reference to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland (both of which actually happened), you should probably scratch it and start again.

Bombast might be entertainingly terrible. But, in a way, the robotically drab note is worse. I’ve worked a lot with European-trained sommeliers and their notes can sometimes be little more than a series of lab tests: intensity medium plus, acidity medium minus, finish medium plus.

Needless to say, nobody ever tastes this way naturally. It’s a technique designed to deconstruct what’s in the glass into a series of emotionless, factually accurate components. But, it tells you the square root of nothing about the wine. It’s a bit like saying that a sportscar has 3,000 bolts, white leather seats and size ‘X’ wheels. These facts might be accurate, but I can’t see that it’s especially helpful to know them. Nor, significantly, does it help to make the car attractive to anyone else.

The methodical approach doesn’t work when talking to consumers

The increasingly ubiquitous technique taught by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust around the world, with its rigid ‘appearance, nose, palate, finish’ approach is better, but hardly inspiring. For every ten people who use it unswervingly and unquestioningly, I know at least one person who loathes its methodical, step-by-step approach with a passion.

And passion, of course, is precisely what it is designed to avoid.

There are times when this emotionless technique is the right one; competition tasting, for instance, where judges need to be able to discuss objectively why a wine is good or bad, or blind tastings where being able to assess different criteria can help tasters spot a particular style. The trouble is that this methodical approach doesn’t work when the trade is talking to consumers, whether on websites, back-labels, magazine articles or wine lists.

The wine world has a reputation for being somewhat introspective, so it’s worth reiterating that close to 100% of consumers who buy wine have never written a tasting note. They don’t (mostly) know what tannins are, the thought of acidity in wine horrifies them and they’re usually baffled by talk of strawberries or melons. Anyone who disagrees with this has clearly never done a tasting for ‘casual’ as opposed to ‘highly engaged’ wine drinkers.

If the industry is talking to them in a language that they don’t understand, is it any wonder wine as a product seems alienating, strange, forbidding? What we’re doing is taking a learned, secret language that we all speak and putting it out there as a general communication tool. Clearly, that’s wrong.

There are two schools of tasting note: analytical and inspirational

In the 2020 film Uncorked, a young, wine-curious man breaks out of the fast-food world of his father’s chicken shack to learn to become a master sommelier. Early in the film, he explains different wine styles to a hesitant wine shop customer by relating the various grape varieties to rappers. It’s human, spontaneous, engaging and relevant.

By the end, having ‘learned about wine’ he is no longer describing Chardonnay as the ‘Jay-Z of wine’ but rattling through flights with an MS-approved ‘medium-plus, medium-minus’ analytical technique. It didn’t feel much like progress, rather the sublimation of individual skill and creativity in favour of excitement-free analysis. It felt like the machines had won.

There are, I’d suggest, two broad schools of tasting note: analytical and inspirational. At the moment, the former seems to be far more accepted than the other. I mean, how often do you read a really creative or unusual tasting note that makes you want to buy something? A lot less often than you read somebody wittering on about barrels, tannins, stone fruit and limestone, right?

This shouldn’t be allowed to happen. Tasting notes are designed to capture a wine’s soul and – if consumers like the sound of them – encourage purchase. The trade’s obsession with emotion-free analysis means we’ve totally lost track of that. It’s like the wine world collectively put accountants in charge of its marketing.

So, what to do?

As part of teaching consumers how to taste, I’d suggest that educational bodies should also encourage them to try to write notes in different styles, to describe wines (or spirits) without using flavours. Capture their essence; come at them sideways rather than head-on. Relate a wine to a piece of music or a film or a car.

It’s not easy, but it’s necessary. Understanding the difference between writing notes for oneself and engaging with the public is the fundamental missing piece in the jigsaw – and it’s been missing for far too long.

Just ask yourself this: would Dom Perignon’s exhortation to his fellow monks to come and try what he’d created in his cellar in Epernay have been better if he’d said: “Come quickly, I am tasting high acidity, brioche and citrus fruit with a long finish”?

The educational bodies of the wine world might not like it but, in terms of conciseness and poetic brilliance, “I am tasting the stars” is infinitely better. We can learn from that. And we must.