Jason Millar: hitting the right note

Whether you’re a kid heading to school, a hapless journalist off to cover political conferences or a wine merchant attempting to juggle three tastings a day with the actual job of buying and selling wine, there’s an inevitable mania about the month of September that never goes away.

The number of trade tastings is greater than ever. Is this a sign of great diversity and confidence, or of desperation in turbulent times? Some of the month’s tastings certainly had the sense of a warehouse clearance – a last chance to try to move some stock before October 31. Others were coherent portfolios of wines - from the defiantly natural to the decidedly old-school - that had a sense of personality.

I have a stack of booklets, from hipster brown-paper handed out in Hoxton to glossy staple-bound B5 from Pall Mall, sitting on my desk awaiting attention. None of my notes are in perfect prose and few of them are legible to anyone other than me.

These are hurried assessments of wines, and there’s something sad, not glamorous, about tasting so many good wines so quickly and so hastily. When I first started out at trade tastings, I would assiduously note the time on lees, the yields, the proportion of new oak, even, in time, graduating to the seriously look-at-me questions about rootstocks and clones. My old notes bristled with the technicalities of open-top fermentation, stems and milligrams of SO2. 

But it wasn’t much use when I later tried to remember what the wine was really like, or had to describe it to a customer. I could recount the blend, but not the flavour. Bearing in mind that most of us indie buyers double up as sellers, and that practically none of the general wine-drinking population have ever heard of brettanomyces, pyrazines or nomblot, I came to realise that the usefulness of this information was very limited.

All professions, not just the wine industry, have their jargon. It is helpful internally, but almost totally counterproductive externally. Since the first rule of communication is use words your audience can understand” I dispensed with turning my tasting book into a miniature tech sheet for every wine, and focused instead on structure, flavour and personality, teased out through analogy, comparison and contrast.

Mainly these sketches settle for a general overview of the wine with flavour notes striking a balance between the banal – red and black fruit, which sounds like you might be in the wrong line of work – and the outrageous – smoked hibiscus, which sounds like you desperately need more attention than you’re currently receiving. These descriptions have been much more useful to me when writing tasting notes and selling wines to customers, because they’re more focused on the wine itself than the processes that made it. 

Like the perfect wine, the perfect tasting note doesn’t exist. There’s always something missing, inadequate or malformed about it, and there’s no point even aspiring to write one in the middle of your third trade tasting of the day. But a good tasting note that conveys the personality of the wine can drive sales, so it’s worth making the effort to ensure that our communications are focused on the language of our customers rather than the patois of our industry.

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