Taste Notes

I've long been obsessed with taste notes — perhaps most well known in the wine world — and the way people make sense of their experience with language.

There is the poetry of it — "Another serious deal — dark purple fruit with a long finish; blend of grenache and tempranillo," writes Jessica Chiavara, wine buyer for the soon-to-be legendary LA market, Two Bits.

I love the casual intensity of "another serious deal" combined with what is to me exquisite nonsense — "grenache and tempranillo" — as I don't know what either of those words means.

But it's more than the poetry. Or, rather, poetry is more than sounding nice. When we describe the taste of a wine or a bourbon or a tequila, we summon elements far and wide — wood and its varieties, apples and berries and plums, dirt and brine and kelp, heat and spice and molasses and jam. Which is to say, in this endeavor of naming our taste, we discover the assemblage that is everything. A wine is its way of taking up wood and jam and earth and spice; a thing is its style of dj-ing the planet.

And I love the way this poetry is a claim to knowledge. It does not qualify itself with, "That's just my opinion." No, the wine taster is telling you how it is, not how it feels to her. The experience of the tongue becomes an objective knowledge.

A few months ago, I was in my favorite spirits shop — oh, I do love that they're called spirits — and this young woman who worked there was describing a line of scotches to me. She kept returning to marine terms — kelp and brine and seaweed — which I found delightfully surprising. As she spoke, she'd gesticulate just so, as if summoning the spirit from its glass, letting it draipse across her tongue so it could capture just the right words. It was so technical, yes, but so sensual, the erotics of body meeting world meeting language and it took every ounce of reserve in my body not to kiss her there and then.

And this is what I really love, this way of tasting and enjoying the world. It demands a certain generosity, a willingness to lend the world your body, and then to make your mouth dummy for the words this piece of the world summons......grenache and tempranillo....

It is an exquisite, sensual circuit of word, world, and body, this leaning into the flesh of things in order to know, in order to experience, in order to speak, in order to taste, in order to live.


Kyle said...

Time is a really squishy concept. But I think my life can be summarized by three so-called junctures: pre-rhetoric 10, post-rhetoric 10, and post-law school. And if I could continue to fall back on that lazy metaphor of the linearity of time, I'd rename the post-law school juncture as "The Gradual Unlearning of Rhetoric 10."

So I read your periodic umphs — why doesn't the dictionary let us use this word as a noun? — to relearn a way of going which I've hitherto neglected. And I've been delighting in your blog's recent activity.

But my unchecked anticipation begs the question, when can I buy "The Way of the Pervert Samurai Jew" in bookstores? Is this still in the works?

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Kyle. As for my, uh, novel: it really stinks. There are, maybe, 30 good pages. But, mostly, it's a big long pissed off kvetch — which Philip Roth did much better in Portnoy's Complaint. One day, perhaps, I'll be inspired to take it up again. In the meantime, I blog....

Linz said...

i second the request for the rest of the novel.

And this post is really beautiful. I especially like "make your mouth a dummy," which makes me think of the relationship between sense and nonsense, which makes me remember this, from Barthes:

"...the language lined with flesh, a text where we can hear the grain of the throat, the patina of consonants, the voluptuousness of vowels, a whole carnal stereophony: the articulation of the body, of the tongue, not that of meaning, of language."

But whenever i'm trying to describe something, and with taste notes in particular, sometimes I get frustrated that so much of what we do is refer to other, more familiar things. Is there a way to answer HOW something tastes, rather than what it tastes LIKE?

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Linz: If you'll edit it, I'll keep writing it. Editing is tough!

I, of course, love that Barthes but he's talking about something else entirely: language freed from the weight of signification, allowed to frolic in and over and with the body as a body. On the other hand, the best taste notes should perform the taste so well that it plays across the reader's tongue in the same fashion — mmmmmm...these words taste like tequila.....

Maybe that's what you're getting at — not describing a taste but performing it. Because one can describe how something tastes — rambunctious up front with a soft finish, for instance — but this is still description.

As for tasting like vs. just tasting, I think a thing is always run through with other things, just as to define a word demands other words. But as Lohren Green does in Poetical Dictionary, you can make those other words perform the main word.

If that makes any sense.

Linz said...

I guess Barthes is talking about a purely performative language, and now that I think about it, his description of performative language is more exciting to me than the performative language itself probably would be. I haven't read the Poetical Dictionary, but maybe Clarice Lispector is doing something similar in Stream of Life? I remember it having moments of extreme beauty, but in large doses I found it kind of boring, and never got through the whole thing. Then again, since I never read the whole thing maybe I'm remembering it wrong and it's not a good example.

Also, I don't think you're serious about the editing, but I would totally take you up on it.

Kyle said...

Sorry to jump into the middle of your little discussion. Can Barthes's description actively free itself to both perform and signify the multifarious functions of language at the same time. Then mash those functions together to create something new? A new way of knowledge, of going, or simply being?

Just like Coffeen's new creation above: drip + traipse = draipse. It signifies whiskey's traipsing about your mouth. But at the same time, Coffeen's new word rolls off your tongue with a delicate smoothness, as any fine whiskey should!

(And, I ask, please take my reading with a grain of salt.)

Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Kyle: I love that — only it's not what Barthes' talking about. It's what you're talking about — and thanks for noticing draipse: I love that word. Drip, drape, traipse: draipse.

In Poetical Dictonary, Green argues: a word = meaning + sense.

@Linz: Reread Stream of Life — it's fucking awesome. Although it's quite different than Poetical Dictionary. Lispector is pure flow of affect with very little attention to meaning: it teeters on the edge of chaos.

And: your editing duties will begin soon. Get a pen, preferably red. Thank you.