Saturday, 12 November 2011

Notes on Notes

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know it's normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through. - Ira Glass

Writing good tasting notes, by which I mean ones that people will relate to, understand, and be informed and entertained by, to the point where they will keep coming back and reading more, is a creative process. Like any other creative work, it isn't easy (hence the quote above). It's the old 'walk before you can run' cliché, and it's why I thought Victoria Moore's piece in the Telegraph back in September wasn't particularly helpful. I think she overlooked the fact that the Wine and Spirit Education Trust diploma course that she thought was so prosaic, and therefore dropped out of, was a matter of writing to demonstrate understanding of fundamental things  for an exam. It is a starting point. There is also a difference in a purely personal tasting, and tasting with an audience in mind. I doubt anybody at the WSET is suggesting that following their rigid guidelines is likely to get you a column in the Telegraph, but most of us, when we take our first tentative sips, need to have terms we can immediately relate to. When I am trying to get people to examine the flavours of wine for the first time, articulating their thoughts is invariably the most difficult part - they are usually convinced they're 'wrong'. I always tell people that tasting wine is a learned skill, there is nothing particularly difficult about it to start with, and once people practice as a matter of course they'll get better and enjoy a more rewarding experience.

To someone with a will to learn about, but not a knowledge of, wine, an expressive Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a fantastic wine because the flavours are so up front and identifiable. A similar sort of thing can be seen with beer. Pointing out hoppy and malty flavours may not be that interesting to readers of beer blogs, but without knowing such fundamental style differences your tasting notes will never improve, and indeed sometimes overlooking the basics can be as bad as being unimaginative. There are parallels in other disciplines that rely on both the creative and the mechanical, not least beer and winemaking. It's perhaps stretching the point somewhat, but few would argue that there is no art or creativity in architecture and the architect certainly needs to know the building they are designing won't fall down. Picking out an American IPA and saying to a beer novice, 'try this, this is what a hoppy beer tastes like,' might lead to a similar revelation seen with 'try this, this is what wine people are on about when they say gooseberry flavours!'

Villa Maria 'Cellar Selection' Sauvignon Blanc was the first wine I remember ever remember feeling like I could in any way describe the flavours of - I picked it for a staff wine sales competition with Oddbins and won (although I am sure I had some help from sympathetic colleagues). Since then I have been working through the WSET qualifications - the prosaic mechanics of educating my palate - and I hope eventually to fight my way through to the point where my work is as good as my ambitions.

No comments:

Post a Comment