Last February, The New York Times’ Eric Asimov wrote a provocative article arguing that most tasting-note-style wine writing – as precise, poetic, and perceptive as it may be – is largely an irrelevant intellectual exercise that fails in its primary purpose: to get readers to try a wine they might not otherwise sample.

When I say “tasting-note-style,” I mean that much-derided laundry list approach, where a given wine has “notes of dead lavender, late-season Macoun apple, Salvadoran tobacco, pocket lint and sky …”

I remembered Asimov’s article when I recently suffered some good-natured ribbing over my own writing. I’d mentioned that sharp steely tang of sucking on a sports-ball needle, and then there was the infamous “toe jam” incident of several months ago. I often use the word “minerality” (which I’m pretty sure isn’t even a real word), and a guy I respect just told me that he has read it’s impossible to actually taste minerals. (I’ve licked granite slabs in the hot sun just to make sure I know what minerals taste like, so booyah.)

Anyway, what seems to rile people the most is when you refer to a taste or scent in a wine that would not ordinarily be pleasurable: toe jam, armpit, manure, wet wool, petrol, etc. I half-joked to one of my accusers that I’m just reporting the facts: The manure is there, whether you want to admit it or not!

When I say a wine has manure in it, that’s not a judgment call, and it doesn’t mean it’ll “taste like manure.” It’s just treating wine as an art object, not an entertainment nugget. Entertainment gives what you expect or what you can handle. Art expresses the ineffable; it reflects the often consciously unavailable deeper levels of reality to humans slantways, so we can get it. Art and wine both are real, which is to say their sublimity encompasses both the beautiful and the ugly. If beauty has some poop in it, well, we all knew that already, right?

Last night I said at a tasting that a wine had subtle watermelon notes, and a guest was like, “Huh? Not at all.” Was I wrong, or was she simply not able to pick it up? The possessor of one of the world’s greatest palates (really) told me a Vouvray had “persistent lobster bisque.” I didn’t taste that at all; I went back to the wine 20 minutes later and there was the lobster bisque. Power of suggestion? Development in the glass? He’d had lobster for lunch? Simple disagreement? Impossible to tell.

All of which is why anything you read or hear about wine has to be taken for what it is: a finger pointing at the moon, not the moon itself which is beyond humans’ ability to even comprehend much less express with words. Words say, “Look! Please, attend to this and tell me whether it moves you as it has moved me.” Of course, the danger is that one’s enthusiasm colors the reporting, and like everyone else I’ve certainly been guilty of that.

Asimov posited that “the general character of a wine” is grok-able, expressible and useful. This character includes the wine’s “weight, texture and the broad nature of its aromas and flavors,” and he claimed these could be classified by a single distinction: sweet or savory.

That’s very, very good, with qualification. Helping people find wines they like isn’t the sole purpose of wine writing. Writing about wine (or anything else) can give pleasure in and of itself, can spark the imagination, can inspire one to live more deeply. It’s absurd to use words like “manure” or “peanut skin” in order to sell wine, but the diligent, humble, honest use of such terminology can show what wine is capable of, and it can push the reader to pay more attention – to wine or anything else in the universe, because like wine the universe is a helluva lot more subtle and complicated (and simple) than we usually give it credit for.

And so, on to some wines you oughta check out. Really good wines. Yum. Me hope you like dem. (Useful advice, whether in summer or not: plush reds like this are begging for 25 minutes in the fridge.)

Cave Saint Desirat Syrah 2007 ($11, Crush). Asimov-savory, though it has a luscious body often associated with Asimov-sweet. Makes me want to eat herb-marinated olives, rustic salami, hard cheeses. There are subtle, intriguing notes of tar and rubber, but no one likes eating tar or rubber so I didn’t tell you that.

D’Arenberg The Stump Jump 2009 ($11, Pine State). A Southern-Rhone blend of old-vines Grenache, Shiraz (Syrah) and Mourvedre, from South Australia. Might be the first Australian wine I’ve written about, which tells you more than a lot of other words could. In the “sweet” camp, with tremendous berry presence (blue-, black-, rasp-) and a scrumdiddlyumptious core of nectar and root beer. (Really. I promise.) Immensely burger-compatible.


Joe Appel works at Rosemont Market. His blog,, continues the conversation, and he can be reached at: [email protected]