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Build A Better Tasting Note

2011 August 16
by Mike

Eric Asimov, the wine columnist of The New York Times, was one of the featured speakers at a wine bloggers conference last month in Virginia. During the Q & A session that followed his talk, he was asked what sort of collective action he’d like to see wine bloggers take. It was a tough question—I’d probably have suggested something like getting high at the afterparty—but Asimov offered an interesting answer: he urged the assembled to refrain from writing tasting notes for a year. Earlier, during his presentation, he had discussed the inadequacy of tasting notes, which has been a recurring theme with him. Back in February, he wrote a column prescribing a radical change in wine nomenclature: he encouraged grape nuts to drop all the cherry-and-berry verbiage and to limit themselves to just two adjectives, sweet or savory. Although the article generated a lot of discussion, his idea doesn’t seem to have won any converts.

I certainly share Asimov’s frustration with tasting notes. Wine is difficult to describe, and to be blunt, most of the leading purveyors of tasting notes are not especially deft writers. The typical “professional” tasting note is long on outlandish descriptors, short on genuine insight, which surely goes a long way to explaining why numerical ratings have proven to be so appealing. But as I’ve said before, I believe that tasting notes, when done with some care and craft, have value: well-chosen words convey far more information than a mere number. Moreover, people do want a sense of how a wine tastes. I think the wine-buying public is tiring of the whole spit-and-score thing, but consumers are still eager for recommendations and still want an indication of what to expect from a wine before they plunk down their cash or credit card.  Tasting notes are here to stay; the question is what can be done to improve them.

That’s my question for you. I’d love to get a conversation going here about tasting notes and their role in contemporary wine culture. What’s your take on the subject: Are tasting notes a waste of words, or do they serve a useful purpose? What information do you look for from a wine review? Does a tasting note alone suffice, or do you find that you need a score or grade alongside it? Do you take notes on the wines that you drink?  I’ve posted a number of tasting notes on this blog; feel free to critique them. You can even rate my notes on a 100-point scale, if you want to go all ironic on me. Tasting notes have become an integral part of wine discourse. But it seems to me that there hasn’t been a lot of back-and-forth between writers and readers about what makes for a good tasting note. Consider this my attempt to kick start that discussion.

57 Responses leave one →
  1. October 10, 2015


  2. Robert Grenley permalink
    February 20, 2013

    I am a latecomer to the blog, but I am getting a kick out of it. What to I look for in a tasting note? I could care less about description of all the different scents and aromas being perceived BY THAT PERSON. I like to get some feeling as to whether the wine is lighter or fuller of body, concentration of fruit perhaps, whether it has structure and acidity, does it come across as fresh or ponderous, is the oak noticeable, is there any finishing warmth or even heat. In other words, is it a wine that I might like with my stylistic preferences (elegance rather than weight, balancing acidity, no heat…in other words, Burgundy and those few domestics that fit with my preferences). I need to tell THAT from a tasting note, not have a writer try to impress me with how many olfactory and taste references they can call forth. And to place the wine in context of others of that ilk…even better. By the way, I went to your tasting notes on the older CA cabs that was linked within this article, Heitz Martha’s et al,and the notes were excellent…they told me what I wanted to know.

  3. August 21, 2011

    I’ve enjoyed reading the diversity of opinion on the subject, but I have to say I fall in Jackson Taylor’s camp here. Let anarchy reign. Sure, Parker’s dry, clinical style (delivered with that tone of certitude) has largely been the standard, but thankfully, I sense that, as with everything else in the wine world, his influence here is on the wane. In his place, we have (yet again) the democratic movement, best captured by Cellartracker.

    Klapp’s “dog’s breakfast” is a goldmine for folks like me. For each wine, you get a pile of notes, of wildly varying levels of detail and writing quality. However, through all the fog, a really complete sense of the wine emerges. You can get the cold, mechanistic consistency of the (indefatigable) Richard Jennings: “Light lemon yellow color; focused, mineral, tart apple, bright citrus, pear nose; tasty, focused, mineral, tart apple, tart pear, lime palate; medium-plus finish” or the inimitable Keith Levenberg: “According to cosmologists, the outward expansion of the universe implies that before the Big Bang, all of the mass of the universe was packed into a single point of infinite density and gravitational pull, a so-called “primeval atom.” The 2010 Grosset Polish Hill is made up of that same material except slightly heavier on the lime.” Vive la difference, people!


  4. August 19, 2011

    Tom, I’m in for a busy weekend (older son’s 14th birthday), but I did want to get back to you.

    Here are a couple of things I found on an initial search of my hard drive. I still have to go through my external hard drive, but that will be after the weekend. Please, feel free to contact me via the email on my blog.

    ***Evidence that sensory acuity can be developed (like language):

    “Experience Modifies Olfactory Acuity: Acetylcholine-Dependent Learning Decreases Behavioral Generalization between Similar Odorants”

    “Acetylcholine and Olfactory Perceptual Learning”

    ***The nuanced findings that say wine perception/appreciation is as subjective as you let it be:

    “Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness”

    This study (which was an economics study to validate what is already know: if you charge more for an item, people will be inclined to think it is better than a similar item at a lower price point) was grossly misinterpreted by most of the wine press. In particular, I point you to the following passages (which were totally overlooked and missed):

    “Pleasure Experience Of Wine Goes Up With Price

    “Importantly, we did not find evidence for an effect of prices on areas of the primary taste areas such as the insula cortex, the ventroposterior medial nucleus of the thalamus, or the prabrachial nuclei of the pons.” – the parts that receive raw sensory data and pass it up to the higher brain where it is affected by other things like environmental cues, expectations and preferences.

    “…flavor expectancies generated by the change in prices do not impact more basic sensory representations.” – the best analogy I can make to illustrate this and avoid the esoterics of neurophysiology is the CNN coverage of the Haiti earthquake. In particular, the footage where in Sanjay Gupta (a neurosurgeon) assesses an infant for a head injury in the middle of a street. If humans were so defenseless against external cues of the environment, Gupta would have not been able to make a valid clinical assessment (and thus a decisions with life and death consequences in each of the possible outcomes: surgery or no surgery) in the midst of squalor and devastation. Instead, he paid attention to his senses and drew on his training to interpret what he saw and arrive at a clinical management decision. Think of it as the anti-Zen approach to tasting: paying close attention to raw sensory data rather than ignoring it.

    “Our results suggest that the brain might compute EP in a much more sophisticated manner that involves integrating the actual sensory properties of the substance being consumed with the expectations about how good it should be.”

    – which means, you smell/taste what is there, but unless you have confidence, knowledge/training to know what you are sensing, you will likely fool yourself to “not look stupid” in front of others when put in a position to say which wine is “better”

    Someone mentioned Luca Turin – somewhat of a whipping boy of the sensory science community. I was reminded of the interview he did with Alder Yarrow – a major promulgator of the subjectivity of wine myth:

    “Turin: Much has been made of the supposed subjectivity of odor, whatever that means. For some reason people seem to think that “apple” is a less solid descriptor than “blue” or “oboe”. I know only of one or two cases where different people smell a molecule completely differently, as in woody vs. urinous. In all others, they pretty much agree. The constancy of color, sound and odor is what enables an artist to make something that will be generally appreciated.”

    Interestingly, Turin made another point relevant to above comments regarding judging wine by flavors only (or something like that):

    “Turin: Not sure, but the fact that wine is indistinguishable from swill when you have a severe cold suggests that the mouthfeel and taste input is small.”

    Much of our perception of “flavor” is actually retronasal olfaction.

    More later when I fire up the external HD.

    I am also available for communication via email or offline if you would like to discuss further.

  5. August 19, 2011

    That is a stunning review for the perfume Steve.

    It vindicates the point that people should write fewer reviews.

    And, to my earlier point, that we do have stuff we can learn by glancing over to other disciplines occassionally.

  6. SteveLG permalink
    August 19, 2011

    let’s say “composed” rather than “synthetic,” so as to avoid confusion.

    as usual, luca has the right word.

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