by Chad Arnold
I once told a roomful of strangers that snakes could eat cows, whole. It was a high school biology class. I didn’t do well in biology. When the laughter finally subsided, the discussion that followed was equal parts hilarity and humiliation. It ultimately proved (I think—) to be a deeper learning experience for everyone, especially me. I haven’t gotten any brighter, but I learned from my bovine interlude that simply speaking out in class had value.
A good tasting note is as vivid as the sated snake I imagined—and can be accurate or outrageous, but it must, at least, define the limb it’s out on. But sometimes wines, like books, are hard to read. Images aren’t always easy to come by. That’s when the finer points are illuminated by discussion. Many of the students in Mrs. Fink’s biology class were able to deepen their understanding by simply telling me how ridiculous I sounded.
Writing tasting notes is like having a discussion with your palate. You have to force yourself to connect the sensations in your mind with those in your mouth. You have to use language to codify the development of your palate, but how? Make things up. Really, just begin —dare to eat the peach— chances are you’ll find you know a lot more than you give yourself credit for.
I remember tasting a wine a few months ago that confused me more than usual. I didn’t know where to begin. But I had to start somewhere, so I wrote fruity then sipped again, adding black. I was on my way! I wrote Tar, black raspberries & Bing cherries, adding ripe for some measure—then, my beloved; brooding. In a final frenetic flurry I wrote Doc Holliday playing Chopin’s first Nocturne! I looked down at my note and said ‘what the hell do I mean by that?’ After a few minutes, I parsed it out. Here was a wine with playful elegance (Chopin) and a hardened world-view (Doc Holliday) all at once. It was emotionally and aesthetically discordant, all over the map really, but thankfully, tasting notes allow such fickle natures to express themselves.
In the end, whatever ends up on the page will increase your understanding of the wine and get you closer to it than everything you left out. Tasting notes are extremely helpful even if you don’t agree or fully understand them. And even if they’re as vague or as wacky as Doc Holliday banging out a Nocturne, there is, at least, some there there.
After many years of seriously thinking and drinking, talking and listening, and reading and writing, I am thankful that there will always be another wine to open and another class to repeat. It frees me up to ask the really important questions, like ‘What wine goes best with snake farcie?’
I’ll call Mrs. Fink in the morning.