Matt Kramer’s newest book is not a lineup of tasting adjectives. If it were, I would never have read it.
Instead, I found True Taste: The Seven Essential Wine Words to be an important contribution to the current push — in the vein of recent pieces like “The Wrath of Grapes” — to rethink how we ascribe value to wine.
Like many oenophiles these days, Kramer is tired of watching contemporary wine critique morph into some kind of pretentious thesaurus. Today, tasting notes are ubiquitous, despite the fact that they are full of increasingly bizarre and wholly subjective flavor descriptors, “without any inherent meaning,” that tell us “surprisingly little about a wine’s actual quality.” But the real problem, Kramer says, is not the “descriptors in themselves,” but “the near exclusive use of them in ‘discussing’ wine,” which “leaves wine drinkers with the impression that, if you can’t find all these flavors, you as a taster of wine are somehow lacking.”
Kramer is spot on. We’ve all seen wine drinking at social gatherings devolve into a forum where those “in the know” rattle off a list of esoteric terms masquerading as value judgments, while the “uninitiated” shy away from voicing an opinion. True Taste is for the initiated and uninitiated alike, attempting to reform the former and encourage the latter. The book is “about those values that involve actual judgment.” It is about “tasting wine with discernment rather than a game of I Spy flavor description.”
Kramer’s seven “essential” words are insight, harmony, texture, layers, finesse, surprise, and nuance. Each gets its own chapter, in which Kramer, in his casual and straightforward style, breaks down how the particular word plays out in a bottle of wine. I most enjoyed the chapter on “layers.” Kramer suggests that this word is in many ways superior to its more commonly used sibling, “complexity.” Whereas “complexity” connotes multiplicity, “implicitly suggest[ing] that more is better,” “layers” connotes order, pattern, coherent depth. The subtle differences between seemingly synonymous wine words, according to Kramer, matter a great deal.
It is in the “layers” chapter that Kramer makes his most important point of the book. He discusses the term “good” as it relates to wine and argues that it is not only a subjective term. In wine, “‘Good’ exists independently of one’s personal preference.” The popular viewpoint that “if it tastes good to you, then it’s good” is erroneous. As Kramer explains, we as humans are wired to seek out increasingly complex stimuli over simpler stimuli. Thus, things that are more complex satisfy an innate human desire, and are objectively good. But this complexity must have coherence—our minds demand order—so it must have “layers” that aggregate to a pleasant whole.
As much as I agree with Kramer’s arguments about contemporary wine critique, I do think the book could have worked better as an article, or series of articles. It is definitely short enough. I also have a problem with the last chapter, “A Word About Nuance and Cheese,” which seems out of place. An epilogue that provides guidance on how to put these newly acquired “true tasting” skills into practice would have been more useful to readers. Lastly, I am not entirely convinced that Kramer’s seven words are mutually exclusive. For example, there is overlap in the words “layers” and “nuance.” Although Kramer does an excellent job of describing each word, the line, for me, is sometimes too fine.
Situation in which I would purchase this book: At just over 100 pages, True Taste makes for great weekend travel reading. It’s not a “must have” for all wine drinkers, but it does contain a very important message about wine valuation. If you wish to expand the way you think and speak about the quality of the wine in your glass, True Taste is probably your most efficient option.