Poire Williams, a pear brandy, rather smells, as you might suspect, like pears. This is a problem. Pears smell like pears. There’s not a lot more to be said, as far as I can tell. One pear smells more or less like another.
Why is this a problem? In the context of WSET, it’s a problem because the description of the nose contains five points for the description of aromas. Further, those points are awarded as one point per aroma. In other words, if you have a wine or spirit that really only has one or two aromas, you would never be able to get full marks for that part of the tasting note. This isn’t just me complaining (for once). People asked in class about the Poire Williams, and our instructor didn’t really have an answer. He didn’t come up with five aromas. Two, or perhaps three, as I recall.
Before I continue, let me make clear that I do understand a need for a somewhat normative approach to wine tasting. It makes sense in terms of marking exams and granting qualifications. To what degree one has to be normative, and how much flexibility is a different question. Additionally, words do things. There’s a point to having certain descriptors, a core of terms and ideas that is used to convey specific information.
Rather, my concern, and point, here is sensory. By insisting you need to have four or five aroma or taste descriptors, that these must belong to different ‘clusters’ (red fruit, black fruit, tertiary aromas, etc.) and must be distinct (even a cheap, poorly made wine can’t smell like generic red fruit, it has to smell of something), it seems to me that you run a very real risk of overcomplicating some wines.
Yes, there are some wines where coming up with five descriptors is not a problem at all. There are indeed wines were even I, with my not-so-great sense of smell, can detect 8 or 10 distinct aromas. But there are just as many, if not more, where I (and others) genuinely struggle to find five things to say about the nose, or the taste on the palate.
My point is that such a rigid approach to tasting notes can very easily turn from a practice of learning to taste and smell to the creation of smells and tastes. The French social scientist Bruno Latour has an article about the training of ‘noses’ in the perfume industry (2004). Here he writes about what he terms ‘articulation’ (2004: 209). Latour argues that it is the process of learning to smell that creates a body capable of detecting the smell. Prior to training, people are ‘inarticulate’ in terms of certain aromas. This is the case ‘not only in the sense of a conscious and literary sophistication, of their ability to speak about the odours; but they were also inarticulate in a deeper and more important sense: different odours elicited the same behaviour’ (2004: 210, emphasis in original).
I’m suggesting here that what the WSET tasting approach can do, and encourages us to do, is a step further than this. It is not just learning to distinguish and talk about smells and tastes. But rather, in the search for a passing mark, it hammers us time and time again with the need to find smells, and very specific, discrete ones at that.
I realise that training to pass an exam is not the same as life after the exam. Just because you can produce the desired results in one context does not guarantee you’ll work the same way in all contexts. Someone who has spent as much time teaching as I have is well aware that exam knowledge is often its own distinct realm. Nonetheless, there is a difference here. I am not talking about learning facts for an essay or quiz. Rather, this is a sensory performance, an evaluative process that becomes second nature. You swirl and sniff, and start thinking ‘what do I smell?’ Studies that show ‘good descriptions actually can improve odour recognition performance, though with a great deal of difficulty’ (Solomon 1990, 497). What I worry is that we can also, subconsciously, go beyond recognition to invention.
This is not a rhetorical point. It is something I am asking myself these days. I don’t have answers, and I’m not even sure how you’d go about designing research to investigate this with sufficient rigour. But even with those qualifications in mind, I believe these are points worth considering. While these questions are inspired by the WSET exam-prep process, they aren’t limited to that. I’m thinking about them more generally. When does description of our sensory experience shade into creation of new ones? Does this matter? What are the implications for this?
Finally, to answer the question posed in the subtitle of this post: when is a pear more than a pear? When it needs to be five pears for full points on your exam.
Latour, B. 2004. “How to Talk About the Body?: The Normative Dimension of Science Studies.” Body & Society 10(2-3): 205-229.
Solomon, G.E.A. 1990. ‘Psychology of Novice and Expert Wine Talk.’ The American Journal Of Psychology, 103 (4), 495-517.