You Gotta Have “Palate Faith”

Have you noticed the sheer number of books that are written every year that are essentially there to tell you what you taste? Magazines too. Wine magazines and newsletters and food publications essentially exist to tell you what things taste like.

Sure, there’s info on why things taste the way they do and what tastes best combined with what and how to make things taste a certain way. But in the end, food and wine writing is all about talking about what you taste.

When you consider that no two people have ever tasted the same thing with any guarantee they are experiencing it the same way, you realize that a great deal of "Palate Faith" is implied.

They may tell us that the 2000 Chateau Lafite has an intensity of blackberry aromas and rich, fruit forward flavors with hints of meat and sage. But what exactly is the writer talking about? My impression of the taste of sage might be entirely different than the writers. But I’ll never know that for sure. I can’t taste through his buds.

This becomes an increasingly problematic situation when you consider we read a number of folks using the term "sage" in relation to other wines, foods and ingredients…not to mention the actual sage leaf.

We simply trust that we are experiencing the same thing as the writers of recipes, reviewers of wine and friends with whom we share a meal with or for whom we prepare a meal.

Why, I think it is fair to ask of me, am I bring up this somewhat arcane observation? Well, I just tasted a wine that I loved. It was a Pinot Noir from California from the 1997 vintage. Upon tasting it, drinking it, and really liking it I started to look up other’s observations of this wine. I found three recent tasting notes. None of them sounded like the same wine and worst of all none of the three described the wine I drank.

In fact, one reviewer described a definite bitter quality in the finish while another detected a sweet note in the finish

One writer described ripe strawberry as the dominant fruit aroma. A second writer described the aroma as primarily blackberry. Yet, I can promise you that the main aromas was CLEARLY Bing Cherry!

One writer described the wine having a robust, moderately tannic structure. Another described the wine as velvety and smooth.

There’s a lesson here.

I think that lesson is that if you read wine reviews to get an idea of what a wine is like in order to decide what to buy, you are best off finding two or perhaps three reviewers who you can calibrate your palate with and not spend too much time with other reviewers. It will just complicate the process.

The other alternative is to simply assume that everyone’s experiences the flavors and aromas of wine the very same way. This is sort of like the faith it takes to embrace religion. You need a lot of Palate Faith to take this route.


7 Responses

  1. Jack - October 20, 2006

    Yep – what I always tell people is that you have to trust your own tastes for wine. No two people describe a wine the same.

  2. Gerald Weisl, wine merchant - October 21, 2006

    Some years ago an east coast university studied this sort of thing on a more wonderfully personal basis. They sent a set of wines to wine writers and asked them to evaluate the samples. They then, a short time later, resubmitted the same wines to the critics along with each critic’s description of the wines and asked them to match the description to a particular sample (the bottles being coded differently, of course). The study found these people had tremendous difficulty in matching up a particular wine to their very own description of the samples!! It just shows to go ya’!

  3. Terry Hughes - October 21, 2006

    all of which tells you why I write very impressionistic reports on the wines I taste/drink in a kind of ecstatic delirium when I really go for them…(Tom, I like to **drink** them suckers, unlike you 😉 — one man’s nectar is another’s yeccch.
    all of which should activate the drinker’s / consumer’s BS monitor when poeple promote supposedly objective scores…what silly crap…
    “It just goes to show / you never can tell” – C. Berry

  4. tastedc - October 22, 2006

    Taste is personal – period. Wine writers who delve too deeply into specificity or try too hard to paint a “flowery” picture of a wine are doing just that – painting a picture – artistic license. Too many people want to define a wine so others will read their reviews – look at ewinecentral and the profusion of wine “descriptions” – I can read the first 5 words of a wine description and tell immediately if:
    1)the wine writer understands wine or
    2)is totally full of themself (and other things as well!) and is talking nonsense. It’s poetic license – wine professionals at a a wine trade tasting rarely talk about “blueberries” or other descriptors of wine, they talk about the pleasure it gives or doesn’t and possibly about the vintage, winemaker, region where the wine comes from. I would even argue that wine component classes are pretty advanced and really work best for experienced tasters – people new to wine need to do the 3 most important things in wine: taste, taste and taste!

  5. Fredric Koeppel - October 23, 2006

    The flaw in any sort of criticism is exactly what’s under discussion here; people react differently to what is presented to them, whether the faculty being engaged in the intellect, the emotions or the taste buds. It’s always intereting to see the movies ads that quote these rave review of films i thought were raving drivel. Wine consumers should certainly find a writer or group of writers they trust and whose palates are in tune with theirs. On the other hand (responding to “tastedc”) i don’t think it’s nonsense to try to capture the essence of a wine, especially a fine and complex wine, over the course of the time a taster/writer encounters it in the glass, which may require describing the wine and its great character in a way that’s both practical and imaginative.

  6. VinoJoe - October 23, 2006

    I think there are some very general tastes that you can use to help describe a wine — like “berries” or “apple” — but some writers and mags (Wine&Spirits, ahem ahem) can get really crazy. For instance, will someone please explain “baritone richness”, “umami character”, and “forest floor” ? Anyone here ever licked the floor of a forest?
    Bottom line is that there are people who love to make wine reviews sound like poetry, and many more who want to be told what they’re tasting — so they don’t have to feel “dumb” by saying something like, “it tastes like wine”.

  7. Erwin Dink - October 24, 2006

    I say the differences go beyond taste and include texture and other sensations that one might think were objective. I just shared two different prosecco’s with a friend. When we got the second bottle, we were both struck by the difference in bubbles with me exclaiming that it almost felt like a still wine compared to the first while he protested the bubbles were much more pronounced. We held onto our opinions as we continued to drink. We ended up looking at each other in a wierd way, as if we weren’t sure who we were really talking to and why he was being so contrary.

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