The Language Of Taste


“The use of wine tasting descriptors allows the taster to qualitatively relate the aromas and flavors that they experience and can be used in assessing the overall quality of wine.” Wikipedia
From the San Francisco Chronicle:
“To show how different wine descriptions can be, we took one of The Chronicle’s current favorite Merlots and compared Chronicle taster W. Blake Gray’s notes with those from two other important wine publications.
The San Francisco Chronicle (Feb. 24, 2005) — “Aromas of blackberry, violet, milk chocolate, orange peel and coffee. Juicy and complex on the palate, with blueberry, violet, coffee and milk chocolate. Tobacco flavor increases with air. Soft but recognizable tannins; medium-long finish.”
Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine (March 2005) — 92 points out of 100. “… this deep and complete wine combines lots of fancy oak with fruit that has both the succulence of flatland grapes as well as some of the structure that comes from its mountain-top home. It is rich in creme brulee character and mixes the ripe cherry fruit of Merlot with the brightness of fresh cranberries in a friendly, open set of flavors …”
Robert M. Parker Jr./The Wine Advocate (Feb. 28, 2005) — 90 points out of 100. “… elegant, with wonderfully sweet black cherry fruit intermixed with a hint of mocha, white chocolate and some background sappy wood notes. Its beautiful integration of acidity and tannin make for an elegant, polished and stunning Merlot ….”

An organized,  dedicated vocabulary is useful for communication within a group. Wine experts rely on it, despite its vagueness, because, after all, you have to say something.

But, like metrics, descriptors are, for most people, as much of a speed bump as an aid. How useful is it to know that a single wine might taste like blueberry, violet, cherry, cranberry, mocha, wood, tobacco, orange peel, and creme brulée?

It should be no mystery why the passion for metrics—measurementhas spilled over into language. What descriptors, definitions, and labels provide is for newcomers to don a veneer of experience by learning a few words and phrases.

We can no longer buy so much as a cup of deli coffee without promise of “subtle notes of charcoal”, or a “bright smooth finish”.

If you’re perplexed by this phenomenon, don’t worry. It ‘s not you. It’s them. The cheese counter at your favorite gourmet mecca is probably showered with catch-phrases like “Washed rind”, and “Grassy” or “Lactic”. Well, I’ve been a lover of fine cheeses all my life, yet I don’t really care that a cheese has a “washed rind”, or that a wine has notes of cat urine, (that one’s not a joke by the way). Isn’t it enough to see the thing and taste it? Often it’s as silly as describing a poem as making good use of the past anterior verb form. I’d rather just read the poem.

The Taxonomy Of Desire

Talking about tastes is like talking about colors and forms. It’s for hobbyists, critics, and the terminally insecure. And, perniciously, it can replace the need to develop taste. The great flaw any non-empirical culinary education, (TV, magazines), is the way taste experience is circumvented. The descriptors are only useful when they relate to actual, shared experience.

An accurate measurement for taste is like trying to describe the color Red to a blind person, so we’re left to grope around in the dictionary for adjectives, modifiers, descriptors. And they’re really inadequate.


All this wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but so many people are bewildered and intimidated by arcane language, and it’s useful to understand what it’s about.

There are people who like to swim in the sea, and then there are people who study, codify, collect, tag, and create taxonomies for things which swim in the sea.

It’s the difference between being a student of food, or simply a lover of food.

You can be an ichthyologist, and learn a lot of cool words. Or, like a Dolphin, you might just want to swim.


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