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Lessons learned from old tasting notes



Why I did 25,000 tasting notes before I ever even had a job reviewing wine remains a mystery to me to this day.

I guess it was that overused word, “passion.” It’s not that I couldn’t help myself, as can happen with other less desirable addictions. I didn’t want to stop; I loved taking wine notes. I felt I was performing a useful act (if only to myself), and I’ve always derived intense pleasure in learning and mastering new talents. In the end, though, it really is a mystery, this “getting bit by the wine bug.”

I kept all eight of my hard-cover volumes as well the thick files of my written notes, and I’m glad I did.


I don’t think I’m going to publish a “Great Vintage Wine Book,” but re-reading them makes so much fun. Here’s one from the summer of 1991 or 1992;


Gavin Newsom, today our Lieutenant-Governor (and the odds-on favorite to be California’s next Governor) was about to open his first Plump Jack wine store, down in Cow Hollow, and he invited me to be part of a small tasting group that met weekly to taste wines that salesmen had dropped off. The wines were written by Gavin himself, the notes are mine. We marked them simply “Yes” or “No”; a group consensus determined if the wines would be sold in the store on Day One.

Here’s another, from a Bon Appetit tasting panel shortly before Christmas, 1990 (and a big, belated Thank you! to Andy Blue for inviting me to those wonderful tastings for so many years).



I don’t know if you can read it, but my notes concerning the 1979 Dunn Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon—then 11 years old–are interesting. Here they are:

Me: “Inky black, orange at rim. Dead? Raisined nose—some licorice, tar. Massive tannins either hiding it all, or this wine’s gone.” Andy himself was there and so was Jim Laube, so I asked them both, separately, what they thought. I wrote:

“Laube says 91 [points], hold 5-6 years. Dias Blue agrees with me [i.e. that the wine is dead].”

That was a teaching moment for me. Andy and Jim were just about the most famous critics in California in 1990. As an aspiring critic myself, I looked up to them as mentors. And yet, here they were, coming down on diametrically opposite sides about a wine. I remember thinking, “Maybe there is no objective truth about these sorts of things. People will differ. The best course is to state your opinion honestly and confidently. Others can agree or disagree.” And that is the philosophy that guided me for the next 25 years after I really did become a professional wine critic. (And by the way, I still think that ageability predictions are crap shoots.)

One other thing I noticed going over my old tasting notes, and that’s how relatively low my scores were. From the same page as the Dunn: 84 points for Keenan ’87 Cab. A measly 86 points for La Jota ’86 Cab Franc. On other pages, I found lots and lots of scores in the mid-80s for wines that, today, I probably would score above 90. Why is that? Only two possible explanations: Score inflation, or a definite improvement in quality. I think it’s the latter. Vintners are picking riper these days than they did in the 1980s (which is a good thing, if they don’t let the grape sugars run away). They’ve learned how to tame those tannins, and they’re also far more educated about how to oak their wines; many from the old days were simply too oaky. That makes for better wines. On the inflation part, I’m willing to admit that there may have been psychological factors involved in my higher scores over the years. I don’t fully understand that part. I didn’t particularly feel pressured, from either external or internal sources, to score higher. I wasn’t aware of any shifting in my thinking or motives; Wine Enthusiast certainly never hinted to me they’d like more high scores. But I think my notes from the 1980s and early 1990s prove that my scores did tend to get higher, especially after the year 2000. I’ll leave it to others to ascribe the reasons why.

* * *

I’m on my way to Oregon’s beautiful Willamette Valley today. The weather will be absolutely gorgeous, warm and blue skies, so unlike my last trip when it was cold and wet, and the Siskyou Pass was treacherous driving. More tomorrow.

  1. James Rego says:

    OK, so who was right? Laube or you and Blue?

  2. Bob Henry says:

    In a Wine Spectator article titled “The Cabernet Challenge” (September 15, 1996, pp. 32 – 48), their two lead red wine critics James Laube and James Suckling compared and contrasted various 1985 and 1990 vintage California Cabs/Cab-blends and red Bordeaux.

    After controlling for pours out of the same bottle, using the same stemware, experienced in “real time” in the same shared room, what were the results?

    Two divergent numerical scores/place order rankings and word descriptions — with score differences of upwards of 9 points on their 100 point scale.

    First example: 1990 Chateau Margaux . . .

    JAMES LAUBE: “A tight, hard-edged and unyielding young wine. Some cedar and currant flavors attempt a coup on the finish, but they’re tightly wrapped in tannin. 86 points.” [20th place personal ranking in the comparative 1990 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    JAMES SUCKLING: “Slightly dumb now. Ripe, almost raisiny aromas and flavors that develop a minty, menthol accent. Full-bodied and rich with loads of tannins. Needs time. Better after 2005. 90 points.” [10th place personal ranking in the comparative 1990 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    Second example: 1990 Beringer “Reserve” Cabernet . . .

    JAMES LAUBE: “Dense and massive, but for all its weight and intensity it delivers a rich, ripe mouthful of currant, cherry, plum, anise and cedary, toasty oak flavors. With its impressive length, depth and concentration, this wine should age with ease for another decade. 98 points.” [1st place personal ranking in the comparative 1990 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    JAMES SUCKLING: “Smashes you over the head with masses of fruit and full tannins. Full-bodied, with a long finish. A little tiring to taste, even more so to drink! Better after 2005. 89 points.” [15th place personal ranking in the comparative 1990 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    Third example: 1985 Lynch-Bages . . .

    JAMES LAUBE: “Classic Bordeaux from the first cheesy, cedary whiff – an aroma rarely duplicated by California Cabernets. Drinks better, with currant and anise notes, and earthy, funky flavors, but struggles to maintain focus. Tannins still a bit raw. Tasted several times, with consistent notes. 87 points. [14th place personal ranking in the comparative 1985 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    JAMES SUCKLING: “Our wine of the year in 1988 and still well worth it. The first bottle was slightly cheesy but the second one was superb, showing outstanding ripe berry, cherry and currant flavors and layers of silky fine tannins. Sexy and exciting. Drink now or hold. 95 points.” [2nd place personal ranking in the comparative 1985 California versus Bordeaux tasting.]

    Self-evidently, Laube and Suckling “agreed to disagree” on the relative scores and ranking comparisons of the wines.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    “… I noticed going over my old tasting notes . . . how relatively low my scores were.”

    Coincides with many reviews of the day.

    W. Blake Gray pointed this out in one of his blogs:

    “Grade inflation at a glance: a look at Robert Parker’s 1987 Wine Buyer’s Guide”

    Not all that surprising, given that 100 point scale scores were still relatively new to wine reviewers. Many adopted a conservative approach, fearing that if they were too generous too early, their early high scores would be called into question when sampling better made wines in the years ahead. (The industry was experiencing a rising curve of quality.)

    You can’t know “how high is high?” until you tasted — widely and deeply and frequently — wines at the perceived apex of quality. Wines that underscore the sentiment behind the saying: “The best is always the enemy of the good.”

    Of all the leading wine reviewers, Stephen Tanzer has been the most conservative in awarding “perfect: 100 point” scores. Indeed, he is an outlier, having anointed only one such “perfect” wine in his entire reviewing career:

    2010 Egon Muller-Scharzhof Scharzhofberger Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese, (Mosel, Germany)

    [Source: Wine Searcher]

    As for Wine Spectator, its first 100 point score came in 2012.

    [Source: Wall Street Journal wine column, March 3, 2013.]

    I don’t know when Wine Enthusiast or Wine & Spirits awarded their first 100 point score.

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Rhetorical question:

    Imagine you were a wine enthusiast back in the 1990s who had never tasted a red Bordeaux from a great producer in a great vintage. All you knew were California Cabernets and Cab-blends.

    You followed the wine press recommendations and tasted 1985 Groth “Private Reserve” Cabernet. Exclaim it “perfect: 100 points.”

    Some years later you were introduced to red Bordeaux. You continued to follow the wine press and tasted 1989 and 1990 Petrus. Declared them “perfect: 100 points.”

    Would you now feel cognitive dissonance unease, questioning whether you were overly generous with your “perfect” score for the Groth — which implicitly places it on the same pedestal as those Petrus bottlings?

    As I wrote above, you can’t know “how high is high?” until you have tasted — widely and deeply and frequently.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    And for the curious: how did the “big three” reviewers score the 1989 Petrus?

  6. @James Rego: I don’t know! I never did come across that wine again.

  7. Jonathan King says:

    I kept notes on my purchases starting in the early 1970s, and kept at it for 20 years or so. Never got very precise about it, but always recorded what I ate with a given bottle, and included a few descriptors if not too much time had passed. Also assigned point scores, but very few bottles ever got more than 92 … as an amateur with little disposable income, I felt too unfamiliar with top-quality examples of each wine type to assume anything I purchased was worthy of super-high scores. I became most comfortable with certain French wines (Beaujolais cru, various Cotes-du-Rhone) and Zinfandel by consuming endless bottles of them … and those I would give higher scores to as warranted. But if was my annual bottle of chardonnay or Bordeaux I was noting, timidity ruled.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    When I wrote this comment . . .

    “Would you now feel cognitive dissonance unease, questioning whether you were overly generous with your ‘perfect’ score for the Groth — which implicitly places it on the same pedestal as those Petrus bottlings?

    “As I wrote above, you can’t know “how high is high?” until you have tasted — widely and deeply and frequently.”

    . . . I had this statement from Michael Steinberger in mind:

    Excerpt from the chapter titled “Buck List Wines” from “The Wine Savant: A Guide to the New Wine Culture” by Michael Steinberger (W. W. Norton & Company © 2013):

    “The 1947 Cheval [Blanc] is probably the most celebrated wine of the twentieth century. It is the wine every grape nut wants to experience, a wine that even the most jaded aficionados will travel thousands of miles to taste. A few years ago I wrote an article for Slate about the ’47 Cheval, apiece that culminated with my one and only taste of this fabled Bordeaux. I went to Geneva, Switzerland, to try the immortal One, and it was well worth the journey. The wine was simply amazing. The moment I lifted the glass to my nose and took in that sweet, spicy, arresting perfume, my notion of excellence in wine and my understanding of what wine was capable of were instantly transformed – I COULD ALMOST HEAR THE [SCORING] SCALES RECALIBRATING IN MY HEAD. The ’47 was the warmest, richest, most decadent wine that I’d ever encountered. Even more striking then its opulence was its freshness. The flavors were redolent of stewed fruits and dead flowers, yet the wine tasted alive; it bristled with energy and purpose. It was a sensational experience . . .”

    Link to Michael’s article in Slate:

  9. Bob Henry says:

    Correcting for a typo on the chapter title:

    “Bucket List Wines”

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