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Now the 100 point bashers are taking aim at tasting notes

32 comments

First it was the 100 point system that was under attack. Now, they’re after the tasting notes themselves!

The blogger Talia Baiocchi writes that “…a question is being asked with greater frequency: Is the listing of fruits and adjectives actually helping or hurting the consumer understand” wine? Then, she answers her own question with a curt “no, not really.”

Really? I have a couple questions myself. Who’s asking “with greater frequency” if tasting notes are irrelevant? Ms. Baiocchi never says; indeed, she asks the question in that intransitive, unattributed way that people always use when they want to suggest that “everybody’s talking about it” when in fact nobody is.

Now, I’m first to admit that some wine descriptors can be pretty over the top. It’s easy to poke fun at some of the more grandiloquent ones. But there’s nothing new about critiquing flowery wine descriptors. That’s been going on forever, so it’s not as if Ms. Baiocchi is breaking any new ground here. But I’ve got to tell you, as far as I can tell, in recent years wine writers have been toning down the silly stuff, turning toward simpler, more streamlined descriptions. I know I have. I’ve eliminated half, or more, of the analogies I used to use (fruits, flowers, specific herbs and minerals) and pared my descriptions down to an almost austere modesty. This isn’t only because I thought my descriptors were too flowery. No, it’s because the more I taste, the more I focus on a wine’s structure, rather than merely its flavors. Structure (which includes length, depth, finish and overall balance) is what makes or breaks a wine anyway, not whether those berries are loganberries, mulberries, blackberries or your great-grandma’s elderberries.

Actually, Ms. Baiocchi does the best job she can to defend her position. She cites a Robert Parker review that really does read like something from Mad magazine or a Saturday Night Live spoof (“shrimp shell reduction and iodine”) and uses it to tar and feather the entire field of wine writing, such as most of us practice. Well, that Parker review really is pretty silly, but Ms. Baiocchi must have spent a considerable amount of time searching for the dumbest one she could find.

Yet she betrays herself in the final paragraph when she states, with the definitiveness of the oracle of Delphi, that “the idea [of a wine review] is to inspire adventure, not dependence.” What does that mean? Dependence? Adventure? I’m not writing travel brochures of 12-step books, I’m writing wine reviews. All this sound and fury signifies nothing except the old message, which I’ve been preaching forever, that good writing is good writing, and bad writing isn’t.

It’s so easy to criticize when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s hard to actually do the job of being a wine writer, tasting everyday, and trying your level best to express your thoughts and impressions into words. Each of us has our own style, and our styles, hopefully, evolve over time, getting better and better. We become “more ourselves” and so our writing becomes clearer and more transparent.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I’m getting tired of wine writers and critics being punching bags for cranky people. Now, I’m off to the Napa Valley Vintners for my big tasting–blind–of red wines. I had my heart set on eating at Ubuntu, but, alas, their website says they’re “closed for a sabbatical.” Fortunately, there’s no shortage of good restos in Napa!

  1. There is a lot in here to digest.

    “Who’s asking “with greater frequency” if tasting notes are irrelevant? Ms. Baiocchi never says; indeed, she asks the question in that intransitive, unattributed way that people always use when they want to suggest that “everybody’s talking about it” when in fact nobody is.”

    You can take this idea and apply it to sustainability, alcohol levels, natural wines, the importance of mellinnials, biodynamic farming, etc, etc.

    It comes down to poor journalism. I have thought about a lot of these topics before and have even written about a few, then I realized I wasn’t doing the proper research to actually do this. I can write about Justin Smith of Saxum because I spent time with him for that purpose. But saying “millennials are…” or “only natural wine can…” is just speculation on my part. I might believe certain things myself, or even believe they are trending a certain direction, but unless I do real research to prove that or at least strongly suggest it, I can’t write and say these things are so.

    In the end, I have found that most of the hot topic issues, like alcohol, natural wines, and the importance of millennials, are championed loudest by those who stand to gain from the acceptance of those opinions. This doesn’t make them bad opinions; it just means that we can’t assume most everyone suddenly feels a certain way just because a few people say they do.

    While the 100 point review system doesn’t sell me on a ton of wine, we will only be able to say it doesn’t work when it is no longer economically viable to produce them. As long as they are being produced, it means there is a rather large segment of people who use them.

    On a side note, as you know Steve, The Oracle of Delphi is a wonderful wine by Sanguis. So I liked that part!

  2. Steve invite the haters they are a necessary evil. On another tangent about tasting notes, (this might not be the right forum,) but why doesn’t WE publish both cases produced and abv, whereas WS does the opposite? any insight

  3. Sigh. I’m accustomed to the argument that a rating is no substitute for tasting notes. But neither?

    There are some writers who write for their readers, and some who write for themselves. If you can’t tell me how good a wine is relative to other wines OR what it tastes like, you’re not doing anything for me.

  4. Anybody ever read Decanter reviews? Most concise, best descriptions, most interesting to read. PIck-up a Decanter Mag! and enjoy.

  5. Whether greater frequency or not, Chris Kassel’s post ” How to write about wine like Robert Parker Jr.” on his March 3rd “Intoxicology Report” addresses the subject with great humor. Goggle it, it’s good hearted fun.

    Wine descriptions that read like a random assortment of fruit, animal, chemical and plant odors can be blamed on Ann Noble and her aroma wheel which seems to be now used as a dart board which after being spun blindfolded writers throw darts to create their wine descriptions.

    Anyone who uses “spring flowers’ as a wine description 98,000 times, or Pain Grillé over 11,500 times (instead of ‘toast’) deserves a little ribbing. And anyone who is afraid to point out the silliness of a wine described as smelling more like creme de cassis than cassis, with overtones of licorice, citrus, stone fruits with hints of tobacco and road tar, is a weenie.

  6. Steve, you defend the fortress well, as always. So last night I’m playing poker with 5 guys from Waitsburg, only one of whom I knew, and we’re drinking beer and asking each other “so what do you do?” and one guy farms 10,000 (not a typo) acres of wheat, and another guy works several large ranches, and a third is a retired Boeing engineer, and on it goes, and it comes round to me – the new guy. “Well, I’m a wine writer.” Pause. My friend jumps in. “He actually gets paid to taste wine.” Amazed silence. “Yeah, I’m actually The Guy!” I cheerily note, trying to keep a lift in my voice. I gotta tell you, I have rarely felt more inconsequential. The only thing sillier than wine writing may be the endless debates about the value of, or proper methodology for, wine writing. You sum it all up in just a few words, and nothing more need be said. Good writing is good writing. About anything. The rest is simply drivel.

  7. Steve,

    Not everyone wants to hear fruit descriptors, but as critics, that is what we taste. Additional comments about texture, body and length are helpful yet typically need to describe what is in the glass in front of you. When I read Talia’s alternative description, I immediately thought that if this note was to be helpful, the reader (or potential customer) for this wine would already need at least a baseline vocabulary and understanding of what, if anything the specific factors contributed to the aromatic and flavor profile of the wine.

    “Sauvignon blanc sourced from silex soils in Pouilly-Fume from low yielding vines that range from 15-50 years-old. The wine is barrel-fermented and aged and yields an effusive, turned-up-to-ten take on the grape that challenges the image of sauvignon blanc in the Loire Valley. A singular wine that’s built to age from one of the great wine minds of France.”

    I’m not saying this isn’t important information to introduce a producer but it isn’t a replacement tasting note.

  8. Kurt Burris says:

    Morton: I need to defend Dr. Noble’s aroma wheel. When I was taking her sensory evaluation class it was used as a tool by a trained sensory panel to quantify differences in a specific group of wines. Results using descriptors gleaned from the aroma wheel by a trained panel are amazingly enough reproduceable and quite often statistically significant. Which isn’t to say that it can’t be misused by a fill in the blank winery employee writing tasting notes or a shelf talker.

  9. It seems like you’re inferring more than is there in this column, to your discredit.

    Ms. Baiocchi, while mentioning the arguments about 100 point ratings at the beginning of the column, is doing so only to frame her column in the context of the contemporary debates about wine writing. She is not simultaneously denigrating both. I don’t know of any “100 point bashers” (myself included) who also advocate the elimination of tasting notes. It seems that with your headline you’re committing the same conflation you accuse Ms. Baiocchi of practicing.

    She is also not advocating the elimination of tasting notes but a reassessment of how they might be written so as to be more effective to a wine consumer; in short, give it more context and fewer grandiloquent descriptors. Do you disagree?

    And, as far as who is asking with greater frequency? Well, at least one person is (Fiona Beckett) and one might also look at the Random Wine Review Generator, and the Twitter handles FakeWineReviews, S%#&MySommSays and BestWineCritic (defunct) as indicators that, if people aren’t asking with greater frequency if these types of tasting notes are useful, they are at least mocking these types of tasting notes with greater frequency. Do you honestly think that the cited Parker review really is the most ridiculous one she could find? I’ll find many more if you’d like me too.

    By mentioning “adventure, not dependence,” she means tasting notes that help facilitate the consumer to make their own discoveries about wine instead of reliance upon the outmoded way absolute way that many critics write about flavors and aromas in wine. It’s how many retail shops write their own in-house tasting notes, explaining why a customer might want to buy a wine beyond merely what it tastes like and how well balanced it is.

    You’re essentially taking issue with a fairly well-reasoned column that brings up an interesting point (also mentioned by Fiona Beckett) that you seem to at least agree with in part. You mention right here that you’ve modified your reviews into a more streamlined style, presumably to be more effective for your readers. And how is Ms. Baiocchi on the outside looking in? Not only does she write about wine regularly for a major food blog that does pay its writers, she’s even had writing published in those blogs that are printed on paper that my parents keep talking about.

    So what really is the problem here and who’s really being the cranky one?

  10. I don’t see anything wrong with the 100 point system any more than I do giving kids grades in school. It is helpful to have a universal scale that all are familiar with. If there is fault, let it be the more advanced palates in this world which still rely upon scores to determine what is poured at their table.

    Full utilization of a 100 point system would be great. Instead, most critics have a 30 point system (70-100pts), on the best of days, and more frequently a 20 point system (80-100pts). Maybe there is a better system out there. Maybe it is in reviews like Uncle Steve does, which includes emotion in his writing, and then drop the 100pt system in favor of what Château Petrogasm does with its image reviews.

    I’m an fairly new collector of art, albeit on a very modest budget with no one piece costing over $300. The next time I walk into a gallery, I’ll ask to only be shown pieces which received 90+ points. I’ll let you know how it goes.

    Happy hunting everyone,
    Marcus

  11. PaulG, you make a good point. I’m glad wine writing isn’t the only thing I do. I also cultivate 500 acres of medical marijuana in an Oakland suburb.

  12. you should sell your 500 acre plot in the oakland suburbs for a housing development! Even in this economy, its worth way more than medi-mari and much safer from a legal perspective with the upcoming Presdent Santorums administration :)

  13. I think this is another case of let’s say “everyone” meaning “a few bloggers and I are talking about…” and “wine critics” meaning “Robert Parker and the wine advocate” and perhaps just like Steve says the “100-point-bashers” and the “tasting-note-haters” he might not be talking about the same group. Really who wants buy wines with NO DIRECTION?

    As much as I hate RP and his redundantly decadent tasting notes praising every chateau this side of Omaha as the best it has ever produced, few people are talking about notes. In all honestly, RP has about 20 descriptors he says about every region/varietal and just interchanges them. So much for terrior!

    Yes, this is somewhat inevitable, but isn’t the short comings of wine notes are why scores exist? Only when it places the wine in context or notes an unexpected flavor/aroma that plays a part are they terribly interesting to read. That is, unless you are trying to compare your palate to a critic to use their reviews in the future.

    What gets me is a wine review which either calls a wine simple or gives it a middling review and then rattles off 10+ flavors. Really, so simple? To be honest, reading wine notes, many writers seem to fall for a little misdirection. Just the other day I had a wine that was purported “bone dry” but on tasting clearly had residual sugar and clearly off dry. They must have been focusing on something else…

  14. People who complain about tasting notes are missing the point. All criticism–art, literature, film, music, and wine–aims at getting the reader to see, hear, or taste what the critic experiences. And most criticism employs elaborate metaphors to accomplish that. They are not intended to be literally accurate; they are intended to direct the reader’s (and taster’s) attention. If “shrimp shell reduction and iodine” accomplishes that then the critic has done her job. It is the use of words to open up the reader/taster’s imagination and perceptual abilities. Of course this can be done well or badly. The words must reflect something about the wine; if they don’t then it fails. Furthermore, Steve is right that an accurate account of structure is important in assessing the quality of wine. But I just don’t get what people like Baiocchi think wine criticism should be.

  15. I say we ditch the 100-point system along with all of the flowery adjectives and fruit descriptors and go with something like this:

    OMG! R U kidding me? LMAO crap! Or IMHO, this rawks!

    Clear, concise and direct, no?

  16. @Edible Arts – she literally says exactly what tasting notes should be so as to be more effective(I don’t think that she’s actually addressing the broader question of what criticism should be): explain a wine’s significance, give it context and a general sense of its qualities.

    It seems that most of these comments are not responding to what the original blog post actually says, but rather Mr. Heimoff’s misreading of it.

  17. Pamela, it’s getting close:

    http://txtcellars.com/wines-wtf.php

  18. Speaking of LMAO, here we go again! Steve Heimoff misreads a blog post. Others, reading only Steve’s missive, jump into the fray, which then gets so frayed that it’s not even about what original blogger was saying.

    Let’s get it straight here. Talia Baiocchi used an especially overwrought Robert Parker excerpt in the process of pointing out that a good tasting note need not be a list of flowery/vegetal/picayune descriptors. As David Duman points out above, she was actually supporting the type of wine reviewing that Steve himself now espouses.

    So what went awry? Apparently, Talia committed the 99-point sin of merely referencing the 100-pt scale at the start of her post. This clearly sent Steve into a defensive tizzy.

    Perhaps the unstated problem here involves tolerance. Of other viewpoints, and especially other writers. Talia took on the topic of tasting notes and crafted a respectful explication of why a certain style of tasting note is note working; she even went ahead and offered up a fresh alternative example.

    Steve, in turn, rips her a new one: <>

    Let’s be a little more open-minded here, OK? Not every wine “writer” needs a wine “rater” like Steve Heimoff, insisting on blind-tasting anything before reviewing it, and making $10 per tasting note. The mentality that, in order to be alegitimate, a wine scribe must plow through dozens of mostly comparable wines and then write about them individually is completely out of touch with the real world, in which 90 percent of people will never even be in the same zip code of most of the wines they potentially can read about.

    What Talia Baiocchi was demonstrating was that it makes more sense to write about any specific wine in terms of its place in the spectrum of wine, as opposed to that given wine’s organoleptic impression on a single individual’s palate on specific day in which the wine was one of, oh, maybe 25 in a row. All she was trying to do was to keep it real, or at least relative, so to speak.

    Unfortunately, the sausage-factory system of turning wines into rated reviews has penetrated the marketplace, rather than staying on the pages of magazines, visible to subscribers, where they should be.

    Fortunately, however, as Talia correctly alludes to, in fact most real world wine lovers have grown wise to the dysfunction represented by both wine ratings and excessively flowery descriptions. We are in the midst of finding other ways to communicate about wines meaningfully. Her post at Eater is one of those ways.

    Too bad Steve finds no reason to toast Talia’s notion of wine writing “inspiring adventure, not dependance.” People do not read reviews of individual wines, period. Those reviews exist, and persist, as marketing fodder and inside baseball. What people want is a sense of what wines they will like — and that has nothing to do with ratings at all. It has to do with STYLE.

  19. Oops. Used symbols instead of quotes. Meant to paste in Steve’s passage: “It’s so easy to criticize when you’re on the outside looking in. It’s hard to actually do the job of being a wine writer, tasting everyday, and trying your level best to express your thoughts and impressions into words.”

  20. I think quite a few writers/bloggers have covered silly tasting notes recently, Jamie Goode for one;
    http://www.wineanorak.com/wineblog/uncategorized/why-are-tasting-notes-so-bad-can-anything-be-done

  21. Contrary to the reigning assumption in the coments, I did indeed read Baiocchi’s article. And I think she misses the point of tasting notes. Her argument amounts to the claim that because taste is subjective, wine lovers are better served by wine writing that explores context–viticultural, winemaking, and cultural–rather than flavor profile.

    Baiocchi is succumbing to the unstated assumption that because taste is subjective, taste is not educable. Therefore, we should talk about something else. My point was that taste, although undeniably subjective, can be improved upon. We can learn to taste from other experts and thus discover something new about a wine.

    At the end of the day, wine appreciation is about taste–the stories about how wine is made and who makes it are meaningful only if they help explain what you are tasting in the glass. If you don’t learn to discover what is in the glass then the stories are of historical or anthropological interest but not about the wine. Subtract aesthetics from the picture and wine is just another way of getting drunk.

  22. Steve Hare says:

    No scores…no writen reviews? I guess that leaves the consumer in the good graces of the corporate wineries for information to help with their wine buying decisions. One possible solution would be to have wines with scratch and sniff labels. That way the consumer can “smell” the wine before buying it.

  23. Edible Arts wrote: “All criticism–art, literature, film, music, and wine–aims at getting the reader to see, hear, or taste what the critic experiences. And most criticism employs elaborate metaphors to accomplish that”.
    Wine criticism is not merely a hedonic, aesthetic inference. It also involves quality assessment and contextualization. Critics must have the ability to dissect the wines; and explain why one wine costs $50 while another costs only $10.
    Consumers/readers should learn that the reason for such (price) disparity is not aesthetic (taste); it is economic. And derives from the use of: superior artisanal (and riskier) methods; higher human capital; labor, time & capital intensiveness; and costlier production factors.
    Wine critics, IMHO, could also add a little logic, and formality, to their jobs by developing (and disclosing) a pertinent set of rules to guide and govern the evaluation process. This simple initiative would provide some analytic value to the assessments (i.e., tasting notes) and make them more intelligible and meaningful to readers.

  24. Vinogirl, like I wrote, there’s nothing new about complaining about silly tasting notes. Been going on forever, for decades if not centuries.

  25. Another set of brilliant observations by Tish. So is there an alternative? Of course: Cellar Tracker or cellartracker.com. Group reviews are displacing the single palate gatekeeper reviews. Just as they are at virtually every site reviewing or selling something. Sure there is some abuse, but Yelp, Chowhound, TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes, EnGadget, Amazon, etc. etc. are the order of the day.

  26. Tom Merle,

    While in agreement with you regarding the value of Cellartracker!, I do look at it primarily as a trailing indicator; essentially a crowd-sourced spectrum of opinion AFTER a wine is in release. More often than not (and I do know what I’m talking about), the first potential influencer to taste a new wine is not a consumer but a sommelier/retailer/writer/critic/blogger who sits across a table with someone not far removed from putting said wine in the bottle. Sure, it is possible that someone on a mailing list may write an early review on a board before release, but with all of the participation on cellartracker!, that one mention may not be as significant as a wine professional being the locus of information. For a variety of reasons these sources tend to create discussion relative to their respective reach.

    Among other things, I monitor group reviews for a company where the majority of the comments I read about them, especially from YELP are based on erroneous assumptions about the brand from the poster that provide nothing of value to those reading it because of the inaccuracy. Short of informing customers who they “are not” this company fights an uphill battle to establish their identity to the casual consumer. Those who understand the brand, and its products are across the board, pleased and enthusiastic.

    Apart from debating the topic at hand about tasting notes beyond my earlier post – Anyone who goes out on a limb to establish the first opinion on anything (be it cancer research, NCAA brackets, pink slime, the stock market, or wine) requires the conviction of their opinion and the ability to effectively debate the merits of their argument. Even though I don’t always agree with Steve (to put it mildly, WHO does?), I admire him for suffering the relentless slings and arrows from the haters. While I admit that sometimes his silence is deafening, it is his space and he can do as he pleases. The fact he lets us make jackasses of ourselves sometimes when we spout off without responding just proves he is the ‘dude’.

    Further, I completely appreciate the wisdom of knowing when you are ready to evaluate a wine and being prepared to find the adequate vocabulary to describe it. Some battles are best left to another day.

  27. I would have to say that Steve’s response is more reactionary than productive, which is too bad because the article was constructive and really could have sparked some interesting conversation on what does a good tasting note take? or how to re-energize tasting notes. Instead it’s a semi-attack response to guard the status quo. The criticism she provides of tasting notes is nothing new, but it’s her response which very progressive and open minded that makes it a very good read. I’m glad you posted it, because I don’t read Eater!

    Really is this response posting any worse than that terrible “wine critics are useless” media interpretation? I would say no. It simply misses the entire point of the article. You can’t attack something unless you really try to understand it and that clearly wasn’t done.

    Steve, if you think those are far fetched, then you need to read Parker more often and realize his tasting notes are that bad.

  28. Come work in a tasting room for a few weeks; the masses will tell you how confused they are. Reviews and descriptors either have great relevance or none at all. If the guest has never tasted “bramble berry” it means nothing to them. While I agree with Steve that simple and straight forward speak is better, the receiver of this description has to educate themselves as to the relavance.
    Many of my guests want to know how we got the spices they taste in there. How do we add the spices? Seriously they are on the verge of desperation trying to figure out how to spend there money.
    I know that Steve or many writers hate dumbing things down for consumers but the reality is those of us reading this blog are less than the 1% who really get the writing or point systems. I have to work each day, face to face with guests to demystify wine. Points and reviews that are honest and straight forward assist in this task but everyday I learn that the vast majority just want straight descriptors consistant that can help them buy a bottle with confidence while staring at the wall of wine in the store.

  29. I totally agree with those that are critical of the 100 point system and it trully is a 20 point system (who would buy a wine rated a 78?) The point system seems to be for the fans of wines not for people serious about wine.

    As for wine notes I like to to reflect what is going on with the wine and fruit descriptors along with notes about the structure, tannins, mouthfeel, aromas etc are helpful in looking for wines that your are not able to taste yourself. It is good when they are done in plain English not flowery phrases or obscure French terms if the writer is righting in English. I have found several of my favorite wine producers by reading the notes of critics that I have found share my palate or give accurate descriptions of the wines.

  30. I work in a tasting room, and I am one of the ones bashing the 100-point system, and tasting notes. People constantly ask me if they are doing something wrong when they don’t get some of the fruits listed in the tasting notes. I explain that those are only one person’s opinion, and for a variety of reasons, their experience will likely be different, yet still completely valid. I once had a woman tell me she couldn’t taste anything in a wine, unless she read the description first. After explaining the power of suggestion to her, I took the menu away, and made her describe each of the wines to me, boy did she learn something that day.
    The biggest problem I have with points, ratings and notes, is not that these are the opinions of one person, and my opinion will be different. The problem I have is that people take these single opinions and treat them like the word of god, not realizing that the self proclaimed experts’ opinions are no more vaild than their own. I say, don’t buy what Parker likes, buy what you like.

  31. Doug: Though it is hit or miss, and most new releases won’t be evaluated either ever or in the year they are released on CT, many others are. So for a fair number of ‘current releases’ there are five or six reviews within the year of release. Then of course you get the take on the wine in later years.

  32. The comments from Jimmy Kawalek and Peter are spot on. There is a great deal to be respected about those who actually work with consumers, as opposed to those who are involed in the critique of wines in a solitary atmosphere. As someone who works with consumers in a restaurant, I find that what they appreciate most, is the ability to describe style and food affinities in their world. Period. Is it a full bodied dark intense wine, or gentle and mild? Is it crisp or soft? Is it fruit forward or dry? Will it match the food I ordered? I often wonder how much attention consumers pay to actually reading wine reviews. How many just glance at the rating and the price? If the reviewer is a good writer, with skills in the creative sense, then, perhaps that is the hook that gives credence to the review and gets more than just a glance at the score. But in the age of tweets and blogs, good writing has become less than the sum of its parts. Having once reviewed 70 Merlots for Sante many years ago, I have a great deal of respect for people like Steve, as it was one of the most frustrating jobs I have ever had in my 35 years in the Wine Industry. After 20 reviews, I felt like I was running out of adjectives that set one Merlot apart from the others. I also think it’s pointless to review any wine that isn’t at least Pretty Good. No one is going to buy a wine that scores a 78. When consumers ask me what it takes to be a “wine expert”, I tell them that it is most important to have a great memory. That it is, in fact, a game, and if you are good at it, then it can be a fun game. But that being able to name specific smells in a wine is a talent that has very little to do with the ability of an average consumer to appreciate wine. I always stress that it is the ability to assess structure and balance and complexity and food affinities. And THAT is something that anyone can learn. Then I give them my 5 minuter tableside “how to evaluate wine” class. And they absolutely love it! I live to empower consumers. It makes my day!

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