Despite their importance to my industry, wine tasting notes have always struck me as a little odd. Ranging in style from the terse English note (“average at best,” “very fine wine, a very fine wine indeed”) to the maximalist American (paragraphs of description after improbably specific description) to the idiosyncratic (heavily reliant on simile, metaphor, and pop culture references), notes often leave me unconvinced that language is necessarily our best tool for telling people what an unfamiliar wine is actually like.
Furthermore, in our increasingly decentralised world, we can no longer rely on shared cultural touchstones (“what on earth,” I have been asked all too frequently, “is a plum pudding?”). My project, which I’ve called Visual Tasting Notes, was at first just an attempt to reconcile this issue. As I tell all wine students, learning to write about wine is difficult because scents naturally trigger memories—smell and memory being neighbours in our brains’ primitive limbic system—but language resides further out in the esoteric frontal cortex. If we could impressionistically capture the raw neural flutterings triggered when we smell, say, the heady musk of our grandmother’s perfume or the dewy lushness of our childhood garden, maybe we’d have a better shot at communicating.
Having completed a degree in painting, I’ve always been inclined to think visually. The concept of depicting wine is hardly new, but much of what I’d seen—illustrations of wine flavours or photographs of fruit clumps stuffed into wineglasses or strewn around bottles—always struck me as simply visual translations of verbal notes. They seemed too literal, as if the experience of a wine could be recreated by tipping a glassful of fruit and nuts into a blender.