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The “debate” over the usefulness of tasting notes is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry

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My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.

He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”

I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?

But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.

Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!

So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”

  1. “Anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button.”

    Well stated!

  2. As Jamie Goode wrote recently, there are different categories of consumers that have different preferences and that respond differently to e.g. tasting notes. I think discussions like this one reflect, at least in part, differences in what various writers mean by Consumer.

  3. STEVE!
    It’s funny that you add “jealousy” to the equation. I have often been accused of being “jealous” of the famous folks I satirize, whether it’s Parker or Alice Feiring or Tim Fish or you. Nothing could be further from the truth. But it’s the kind of attitude that invites scorn.

    Folks in your position, and there are not very many, should be able to handle criticism with grace. You hope that the wineries you give low marks to accept criticism graciously, I assume. Do you ask less of yourself? You do when you chalk criticism up to jealousy.

    The debate over tasting notes has been settled by the consumers. They like them. Folks who argue otherwise are blind to the obvious and don’t even need rebuttal. But the Seattle author claims many of those critics of tasting notes can’t write them very well, so they attack them. That’s a pretty stupid argument. I can’t hit major league pitching, but I still get to criticize when my team can’t either. Doesn’t make me jealous or insecure. It makes me involved in my sport.

    He says he writes his notes for the consumer. More accurately, he writes his notes to sell wine to the consumer. It’s hardly an idealistic job, or something to be admired. You write your notes from a more objective place, at least, and, in most ways, since he’s a small retailer, you are his enemy, not the people who criticize tasting notes. If anyone is jealous of you, Steve, it’s probably that Seattle guy who has to deal every day with customers asking for the latest 95 point wine and ignoring his tasting notes.

    I’ve got no horse in this race, just found you unusually off track today.

  4. Blake Gray says:

    Hey Steve, aren’t you a blogger?

  5. Blake Gray says:

    BTW, nice job getting under the Hosemaster’s thin skin. Most bullies can dish it out but can’t take it.

  6. Bob Foster says:

    Oh Blake, I’m sorry you can’t differentiate between a satirist and a bully.

  7. HOSEMASTER! Thanks for your valuable opinion!

  8. I wouldn’t limit it to tasting notes. I would say that there are quite a few bloggers who know the best way to up the comment count is to write a negative opinion that is light on factual evidence

  9. I was, more or less, going to write what Ron/HMW wrote, but he beat me to it.

    I don’t understand the jealousy argument at all, it just doesn’t make any logical sense to me. I’ve read tasting notes that I thought were witty and wonderful, and (more often) that just confused me with arcanely specific references, or (worst of all) made me simply not care. But none have ever made me jealous (apart from wanting to try the wine if it sounds really, really good, I mean).

  10. vinnie fra says:

    The most useless tasting notes are the far fetched hyperboles that only serve to stroke the writer’s ego and do not mean anything to the layperson looking to spend 10 bucks on a single bottle…
    Perfect example: http://www.reviewjournal.com/columns-blogs/gil-lempert-schwarz/wine-week-jan-kris-paso-robles-riatta

  11. I’m not sure about the jealousy thing… I think rating/reviewing wine is just a topic that gets people riled up for one reason or another, especially the people that read this and other wine-related blogs. ;)

    That said, I thought of sharing the article with my fellow reviewers because of what I took away from it: Whether you like ‘em or not, there is a place for and value to wine reviews, and critics should remember why they’re writing them and, more importantly, who they’re really writing them for. The answer should not be for themselves.

    Yes, this guy is in charge of a store, so his reviews may be biased or skewed so he can sell more of any given wine, but as professional critics, our main objective is to provide as-impartial-as-they-can-be tasting notes to our readers to help them make better informed wine purchases and consumption decisions.

    It never hurts to be reminded of that, because as HMW indirectly pointed out last week in his “Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews” piece (that “snow leopard” comment still has me laughing, Ron), it’s potentially quite easy for a reviewer to lose sight of what makes a good, or valuable, tasting note. We should always try to remember our reader (the wine-loving consumer) and the service we hope to provide. That’s who we really work for.

  12. Jealousy??? Really??? Do you really think that these bloggers/writers/whoever covet your job, Steve??
    It’s always puzzled me that whenever anyone raises some criticisms of Parker, his many defenders immediately jump on them as being “jealous” of Parker, wishing they had his $$$$$ income, wishing they had his influence, wishing they had his exalted stature in the wine world, yada/yada/yada. Whatta crock.
    Most of the wine people I know and talk with have real lives/day jobs/etc and have no more interest in being a wine critic than the man in the moon. I certainly have no desire to be a RobertParker, nor a SteveHeimhoff, nor an AntonioGalloni, nor any of that ilk. I have a real life (which happens to include wine) and am perfectly happy with it, thank you. But, then, maybe I don’t live in the real world.
    Tom

  13. They laughed at Louis Armstrong when he said he was going to go to the moon. Now he’s up there, laughing at them.

  14. Or perhaps just to be deliberately contrarian; to go against whatever one perceives as the current “power” regardless of whether or not you genuinely disagree with the idea/position. Much like the GOP approach to our president and ideas which he puts forward.
    It’s patently obvious that “scores” and tasting notes have great limitations. It’s also obvious that they have a use. Debating them is one of the most boring things I can think of. Those who feel wine writing/criticism is in need of a paradigm shift, seem to often proceed under the belief that one or both do some sort of damage and that ignoring whichever you don’t like is being morally lax!

    The whole thing seems to go:
    * uses the 100 pt scale and writes flowery tasting note
    * is no longer of use to the wine world and consumers. In fact has become deleterious to the industry and its consumers
    * Therefore, I must stand in direct opposition, and over exaggerate the frequency with which I disagree with . I will not try to describe flavors and I will not give a numerical score, for I stand in protest!

    Of course I exaggerate to make a point. Folks who don’t find tasting notes or scores or both useful, have valid opinions on the matter. It’s just that, is the opinion of on the matter really worth discussing? Aside from pointing out the absurdity of the whole thing, that is.

  15. I was once one of those retailers who wrote my own tasting notes to share with customers. The reason I did it was because nothing else existed at the time and I bought what I thought was good. Many retailers still do business by running to the phone when a score is published. It is true that consumers are interested in what the critics have to say. People used to come into my shop with the Spectator or Advocate and go down their punch list, beginning with Harlan and Maya. I let them finish and then advised that the wines they wanted they didn’t know they wanted. Six months later they understood that when reviews finally came out. Now that I am on the other side as a critic, I still think a savvy retailer is a great resource, especially for wines you may never have heard of.

  16. Dear TomHill, thanks as usual. To truly know what motivates these bashing bloggers would involve an uncomfortable trip into their heads. Absent that, all I can do is surmise, and it does seems to me that the intense bashing (which I may be more aware of than you) is motivated by more than intellectual concerns.

  17. I agree completely – its a non-issue.

    If readers/consumers find them useful or of interest, they will read them – fantastic. If they dont read them then your material/blog wont have an audience (apart from other bloggers) – so be it. Its a market place. Some people read them and think “that’s complete bollocks, what is he on about?”

    Then again some people just write for their own enjoyment, some like to tell provocative stories and use flowery words. Each to their own. Non-issue.

    [And yes, I get paid to write and talk about wines, use flowery words, and generally pontificate far too much over such things.]

  18. david pierson says:

    Ah the old jealousy canard… I once wrote a column aimed at those assholes who go around wrecking parties with their acoustic guitars… and that’s their stupid defense if you dare question their musical ability or complete lack thereof… you’re jealous because you can’t play a musical instrument, no I just don’t want to hear your godawful music… just like I don’t want to read about snow leopard whatever or with just a hint of asparagus in wine reviews, paid for or not…

  19. While I agree tasting notes have a place, especially well written tasting notes, the notion that people attacking them are jealous of the author is idiotic. Rather, to me, it speaks to the ego of those crying about being attacked. Steve, you’re way off the mark on this one. A quick poll of my friends in the biz revealed that not one of us is jealous of you or any other print critic. It’s more that we just do not care about your opinions. That said, I acknowledge that there is a certain (hopefully dwindling) class of wine drinker that buys their wine based off of critics scores and tasting notes. In that order.

  20. Erika Szymanski says:

    Hogwash. Is the role of wine writers to give customers what they want, or to help people enjoy wine in new and different (and dare I say better) ways? Some wine writers are marketing aides, and that’s fine. Some wine writers are educators. Education is not about giving people exactly what they want.

  21. It’s unseemly when a critic cannot brook criticism, but it’s not uncommon.

    I’ll add another to the list of why some might not find tasting notes useful: aesthetics is personal and no matter what you, Steve, or any other paid wine critic claims, your notes are about your palate and not really about the merits of the wine.

    I’m not saying that what you do is invalid, but it’s not exactly something that has the seriousness to be the cause of jealousy.

  22. I think Blue Collar Wine Guy’s consumers want to take his tasting notes home because they want to know what the wine they have just bought “is supposed to” taste like, and they do not trust their own judgement. If they saw several notes on the wine written by different professionals, they would be confused and have their faith in tasting notes shattered, because they would all be different. Probably very different.

    One tasting note gives the illusion of being useful. Several demonstrate that it wasn’t.

  23. There is so much nonsense floating around in this set of comments that I don’t know where to begin.

    So, I will leave it at this. Everyone who writes, whether brilliant or dull, whether competent or not, whether experience or beginner, is trying to add to the store of literature about wine.

    I see no reason for anyone to be directly critical of others unless they out and out claim that only they know the truth. None of us knows the truth. We only know our truths. We share them with the world and the world either pays attention or it does not.

    As for bullies and satirists, I will take the satirists. Satire is about taking a point and bringing it to a head. If you do not want to be satirized, don’t write. We are in the public domain. Having a short fuse does not work very well there.

  24. “If you do not want to be satirized, don’t write. We are in the public domain. Having a short fuse does not work very well there.”

    That’s exactly right Charlie.

    People who stoop to name-calling do so because in their narcissistic hearts they KNOW that they are right about everything and they cannot imagine why others do not agree agree with them.

  25. Thomas Pellechia and Thomas Merle share the same conclusion, but for contrary reasons. Tom P believes there is a kind of Platonic ideal of wine whose attributes can be identified along the lines of the Appellation America website. Tom M believes the consumer should rule, very few of whom can write decent notes (I distinguish between the consumer who buys wine to enjoy with dinner and the wine enthusiast for whom notes of an expert palate would be useful).

    Friends and fellow consumers just want to know how delicious or not a fellow wine drinker or drinkers found a particular wine along some sort of pleasure (yum-yuck) spectrum. If this assessment is conducted a bit more formerly, the scoring of a People’s Choice Taste-Off can then be compiled and a median or average arrived at, not unlike CellarTracker, many of whose members compose excellent notes.

    Among the experts, one who happens to be a(gasp)widely respected blogger, Alder Yarrow, I believe follows this approach, using a 10 pt system, with half points. Those who read his take on, say the wines poured at the Rhone Rangers or Family Winemakers, want to know which wines fall at the top of his rather large list of wines he tasted at such events.

  26. Tom Merle, you are forcing me to look at Appellation America’s website, which I haven’t done in maybe six years. I have no idea what you are talking about when you refer to its Platonic ideal of wine.

    I only know that I don’t care what others taste in a wine and I don’t know why anyone should care what I taste in a wine. I enjoy wine, and I prefer to do my own exploring of it. But that is not the subject of this blog entry. The subject is criticism, and the inability of critics to take what they dish out for a living–with a side subject of those who resort to name-calling.

    Is “Platonic ideal” name calling? I can’t tell because I don’t know you and I don’t know what you mean by it. I always thought that if you have a Platonic relationship with something it means you aren’t penetrating. I can assure that I have penetrated and have been penetrated by many wines, but never penetrated by a wine critic, knowingly…

  27. You are right Thomas. We don’t know each other. I got you mixed up with a fellow in Southern California, whose day job is practicing medicine and with whom I used to exchange comments on Open Wine Consortium when Joel Vincent was the admin (now he only runs the Bloggers Conference)

    That person believed that there is an objective set of features of a given wine based mainly on terroir or appellation. Personal taste is irrelevant. The reference to Platonic Ideal was meant as a shorthand way of characterizing this approach to wine criticism which is also reflected in Appellation America where you once wrote I believe. It was not meant as any sort of put down or calling someone a name.

    I also got the Alder Yarrow blog wrong. Alder does review wines and writes incisive notes among many other kinds of posts. When he does larger group tastings he dispenses with the notes and uses only numerical scores, though he will usually offer some commentary on a few wines that he found particularly noteworthy.

  28. Late to this comment thread with a funny anecdote. I do shelf talkers for this little Italian wine shop. Often I will write about the wine using my own notes. On Saturdays, I occasionally work the floors, asking people if I can help them. In one instance I asked a customer if I could assist them in any way and they turned to me and said, “No thanks, these tasting notes tell me all I need to know.” Little did they know they were talking to the person who wrote the note. I felt a little hurt that they didn’t want to talk to someone in the flesh, someone who had actually been to most of the wineries that were in the racks. But then I thought how interesting it was that the written word was so powerful. Mission accomplished.

  29. Tom:

    I’ve seen your name online at times, and I was kidding with you more than being serious.

    In any case, I generally have no use for aesthetic criticism because it is a clear example of personal bias, and that information, while it may be interesting, isn’t really helpful to me. I know that most consumers don’t think like that, and so they want critics to guide them. That’s fine, but it doesn’t excuse critics from being mean, disdainful, or accusatory.

    Plainly, if you make a living criticizing, it is unseemly to chafe in public when you are criticized.

    On the other hand, if you have convinced yourself of the overwhelming, heart-stopping perfection of your tastes and thoughts, and the rest of us are less than worth your time, why not go find something else to do than talk to the unworthy plebeian who have the audacity to criticize you out of jealousy?

    As for the Platonic ideal, to be clear: I certainly am not that medical person, but I do believe that there are “an objective set of features of a given wine.” Contrary to how that belief usually gets confused by critics who refuse to listen to the whole argument, I don’t believe that is the only way to evaluate wine.

    What I disdain are people who evaluate subjectively, place subjective numbers and words on their results, and then claim that they are being objective. If an evaluation has no room to uncover objective flaws, or the one doing the evaluation has no training or talent to do so, of what value is either the verbiage or the points?

    I believe that those who evaluate wine officially ought to undergo training toward certification of some sort. In my view, their critiques will carry weight that exceeds personal aesthetics, giving it value beyond words and numbers.

    As for Appellation America: I was asked to become a writer early-on, when the Dials started it up. Since they did not want to pay me, I did not write, but my name has remained on the site ever since as a source for wine writing. Since my wine writing is not focused on wine reviewing or criticism, no one that I am aware of has ever contacted me to write for them based on seeing my name on A.A. Although, I get some solicitations addressed to A.A. with my name and address on them, and have never figured out why or how that happened.

  30. Kent Benson says:

    I’m neither a professional wine reviewer nor a blogger and I think tasting notes have little or no value for the majority of consumers. I’m a wine educator and I work the floor in a wine shop, so I’ve had countless experiences with consumers and their efforts to find wines they like.

    In my experience, tasting notes don’t answer the most pressing questions consumers have about a wine prior to committing to a purchase. Most consumers have two initial questions. Is it sweet and if so, how sweet is it? And, how dry (they mean tannic) is it?

    I can’t recall reading any tasting note which gave any indication of the wine’s relative sweetness level. Oftentimes, the fact that the wine has perceptible residual sugar is not even mentioned. Most consumers don’t know which areas of the world are more likely to produce sweet Rieslings vs. dry ones, so more guidance is required.

    When it comes to tannins, people can’t assess the level of perceived tannins by the language typically employed in tasting notes. Words such as supple, ripe, and grape vs. wood have no meaning to most consumers. They want to know relative tannins. Is it a little bit tannic, or a lot tannic? How much of that drying effect in the mouth should they expect? A helpful note might say something like, for a Cabernet, this wine has lower than usual tannins. Or, it’s a Pinot Noir, but the tannins are more like those of a Syrah.

    Similarly, consumers often want to know the relative levels of oak and butter flavors, particularly in Chardonnays.

    When it comes to most other aromas and tastes, few people really care. No one makes a purchase decision based upon a wine having a blackberry aroma rather than raspberry. Besides, many consumers spend very little time, if any, smelling the wines they drink, and most of them can’t readily recognize such nuances.

    Furthermore, does it really tell the consumer anything to say that a Sauvignon Blanc smells like lychee or that a Cabernet Sauvignon smells like black currant? For one thing, most people have never smelled lychee or black currant, and for another, these aromas don’t tell them anything other than the fact that they have the typical aromas of their respective varieties.

    Many consumers are influenced by the story behind the wine. Anyone who has ever sold wine knows that stories sell. They sell because they create a connection to the buyer. They give the buyer another reason to be drawn to the wine other than the taste profile. Tasting notes rarely, if ever, tell the wine’s story. The story doesn’t need to be lengthy. Something simple like, a former MIT engineer chucked it all to make wine in the Finger Lakes region.

    For the more educated consumer, including some aspects of the wine’s production provides valuable insight for understanding the wine’s characteristics. I’ve only seen this included in some of Robert Parker’s notes. Certain things should always be included: percentage and time in barrel, percentage of new vs. used, and percentage of malolactic (for whites). Other processes are also useful indicators: whole cluster, fermentation and maceration duration, time on the lees (stirring), cold soaks, rackings, pumpovers, and punchdowns.

    Granted, all this puts a much greater burden on the reviewer. The number of reviews per reviewer would, by necessity, decline dramatically. But, the reviews would actually be helpful and give the consumer a more to go on than, “Strawberries, raspberries, and spice with good structure – I’m 90 points on that.”

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