The Wine Tasting Note: Its Role and Value

RJ tasting notebook

RJ tasting notebook

I write wine tasting notes and very much enjoy reading others’ tasting notes. I started writing them seriously in 2001 as a way of recording which wines I liked and might want to buy more of. I first wrote them on price lists or tasting sheets that were usually provided for the commercial tastings I was attending, and then on blank sheets of paper I’d fold up, put in a pocket and bring with me to dinners and tastings.

I would try to remember to file these individual sheets away, by date, but they did have a tendency to pile up, and therefore weren’t that easy to search. After my dear friend Traci bought me a small Moleskine notebook for my birthday in 2003, I started regularly keeping my notes in those, finding that a dated notebook was so much easier for retrieving notes.

Over time, I wanted to make sure I recorded additional information, like the maturity of the wine, and the flavors and textures that might help in pairing it with food. I also, finally, started adding a point score. It was Ray Belknap, who presided over the Friday and Saturday tasting bar at Red Carpet Wines in Glendale, who persuaded me to take a stab at rating wines. As a relative novice in the world of fine wines (although I’d been drinking good California wines, and occasional French ones all my adult life), I had thought it presumptuous of me to try to assign a point score to the great wines, often including aged library wines, I was tasting mainly at Red Carpet. Forcing myself to assign point scores, however, took my notes to another level, as the notes needed to explain and justify, for me anyway, the point scores I was assigning.

RJ tasting sheets

RJ tasting sheets

I have now been taking notes on fine wines for over 10 years. I have entered nearly 24,000 of these notes on CellarTracker, where I’ve become the most “favorited” tasting note writer, with almost 1,000 CT members having indicated me as a favorite. My notes have definitely evolved and, hopefully, improved, as my experience and understanding of wine has gradually grown.

I took a lot of wine classes early in the last decade, read a lot of wine books and, most importantly, regularly tasted wine. I visited wineries, talked with growers and winemakers, and participated in a lot of blindtastings. I developed my notes formula, in the form of a long, complex sentence, for capturing the pertinent aspects of a wine in order: color, nose, palate and finish. I also added a tasting window segment in the last few years, as some of my readers were asking for that.

In a very thoughtful September 2009 piece on tasting notes on the Pulling the Cork blog, Neile Wolfe explained that writing wine tasting notes for public consumption was a phenomenon that arose in the 1970s. He wrote that contemporaneously with this phenomenon, articles started appearing about the benefit of tasting notes following a specific structure.

According to Wolfe, “The two most common formats for wine reviews are the numerical format and the take-it-in-order format.” Wolfe cited me as an exemplar of the “take-it-in-order” school. He described this “school,” which I’d never heard of prior to reading Wolfe’s piece, as follows: “Assuming all of the basic data about the wine has been recorded, then you start with the color, then the nose, then the taste, then the finish, and if you are complete, the circumstances under which you consumed the wine.”

Wolfe kindly called my notes on CellarTracker “the epitome of the professional tasting note,” noting that the structure of these notes “represents the only format that a professional can use if they are tasting hundreds of wines.” He also generously asserted, referring to my notes, that “His tasting notes are valuable both because he has a good palate and because he uses the same format each time.”

At the end of his piece, Wolfe made the case for changing the traditional format of the tasting note by ending it with a “Value Proposition.” The “VP,” for Wolfe is “a summation of the wine as a complete entity and not just a collection of parts.” He gives a few examples of what he’s talking about, including, “[t]extbook example of an outstanding Chablis” or “[t]he delicate flavors should make a great match to the lemon sole.”

I have taken Wolfe’s excellent suggestion to heart, and starting in the fall of 2009, I have consciously tried to include value proposition closings whenever I have a chance to take time with a wine (i.e., not at high-speed trade tastings), and think about what would be a useful takeaway that I can share with others. I include them either in the body of the note or, more often, in a parenthetical at the end.

Because I have now gained something of a reputation for tasting notes, and feel an obligation to try to make them as useful as possible to others, I am constantly thinking about how to improve my notes. I am also aware that there are wine writers—most notably the New York Times’s Eric Asimov—who have lately begun to question whether tasting notes, and the common kinds of aroma and flavor descriptors used in them, have any value at all. See, e.g., Eric’s February 22, 2011 column, and his admonition to wine bloggers at the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference to not write any tasting notes for a year.

So what is the role of the tasting note, and do they have value for those of us who love and drink fine wine?

In the course of putting this piece together, and thinking about the influences on my notes over the years and the notes that have entertained and/or inspired me, I have been reviewing tasting notes by some of the more famous tasting note writers.

The entry on “tasting notes” in The Oxford Companion to Wine suggests that comparing the TNs of Michael Broadbent and Robert Parker, who have both produced books based primarily or entirely on their tasting notes, “provides a reasonable guide to the different styles of British and American tasting notes respectively.” I agree that those two prolific tasting note writers are probably as good a place to start as any.

Robert Parker left, RJ right at 2004 Latour tasting

Parker’s were the first tasting notes I began to read regularly, both because his opinions were tremendously influential in the L.A. wine world early in the last decade when I was getting into fine wine, and because so many retailers I visited indicated Parker’s scores and often quoted from his reviews.

Virtually all of Parker’s notes made the wines sound so appealing that I wanted to try them. He rarely prints negative reviews in the Wine Advocate, tending instead to focus on the hedonistic joys of the wines he reviews. Describing the 2007 Sloan in issue 180 of WA, for example, where he tentatively scored it 96-100 points, he writes, “Opaque purple to the rim, with an extraordinarily fragrant nose of spring flowers, blackberry, soy, black currant, some toasty oak, chocolate and charcoal, in the mouth it is full-bodied, with beautifully sweet, remarkably integrated tannins, fresh acidity giving a vibrancy and uplift to this enormously endowed wine, and a finish that goes on for close to minute.” His “value proposition” states “This is a ‘wow’ Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa, produced by an uncompromising proprietor driven to perfection.” Parker’s notes are typically highly enthusiastic, which is, apparently, an American trait.

Note after note in WA describes yummy flavors and luscious textures, such that I feel, after awhile, like Parker is trying to sell me on every wine he ultimately deems worthy of inclusion in a given issue—i.e., hundreds of them.

After years of tasting many of the same wines, however, I found Parker’s descriptions and raves to be, more often than not, highly exaggerated, as far as my palate is concerned. Try as I might, I couldn’t find a lot of the flavors he purported to find, nor did I like the wine as much or rate it anywhere near as highly as he did.

This is no doubt because our palates are quite different. He seems to relish concentrated and often oaky fruit bombs, while I prefer wines with more balance, natural acidity and lower alcohols. I also found that we widely diverged on some of the wines I love the most—Pinot Noir in general and Burgundy in particular. But I do admit to being very influenced by reading Parker for years, and that many of my descriptors are identical or very similar to ones that he regularly uses. I have also been negatively influenced by him, however, in wanting to avoid coming across as “selling” every wine I note.

Michael Broadbent’s notes, on the other hand, as detailed in his Vintage Wine: Fifty Years of Tasting Three Centuries of Wine, can be quite fusty by comparison. Broadbent’s book is very Bordeaux heavy, and he has tasted first growths from all the great years multiple times, often beginning in barrel, then on release, then a few years later, and then many years later.

I find his tomes quite useful for gauging how a wine is going to mature, and my buddy Mischa has done very well by analyzing Broadbent’s notes and basing his purchases of older vintages on auction on some of the lesser vintages that Broadbent has noted highly. Broadbent’s notes, however, are far from the enthusiastic, hedonistic recommendations of Parker.

On the 1988 Margaux, for example, Broadbent notes “crisp fruit, developing a scent which reminded me of a wet retriever after a day on the moors.” Is that going to help you pair the wine with food? Another Britishism that I find throughout Broadbent’s notes is “swingeing tannins.” I gather those are hard, striking tannins, but it’s hardly an American usage. Or on the 1995 Chateau Lafite: “[D]eep and richly coloured; nose equally rich with rather gingery scent, sweaty tannins and considerable depth; sweet, good fruit, soft mid-palate, distinctly tannic.”

I have no idea what “sweaty tannins” are, but Broadbent uses the term often. At any rate, Broadbent’s notes seem to focus more on the structural aspects of the wine, and how it is showing at the particular time he is sampling it. I can see how this would be very useful to someone appraising lots for auction, as Broadbent did for so many years, but they are not notes that are all that much fun to read, nor do they tend to “sell me” on the wines, like Parker’s do. But I do find value in Broadbent’s carefully compiled notes and comparisons between his notes on the same wine at different periods of its evolution.

Allen Meadows, left, at a wine lunch in Portola Valley in 2008

Another critic and tasting note writer who actually describes himself as a “structuralist” is Allen Meadows. I got to know Allen when I lived in Los Angeles, and I adore the man and very much admire his palate (and it helps that I have done several blindtastings with him over the years where we both preferred the same wines). I learned a lot about Burgundy going to his tastings at Woodland Hills Wine Company in the early 2000s, and from his Burghound newsletter and terrific Pearl of the Côte book.

Here’s Allen’s note on the 2008 Comte de Vogüé Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru Les Amoureuses: “A highly spiced and stunningly elegant nose offers up a complex mixture of dried rose petal and red and blue berry fruit aromas that introduce precise, pure and gorgeously intense moderately full-bodied flavors that deliver serious punch and drive while being supported by dense but fine tannins, all wrapped in a tautly muscular and seductively textured finish that speaks of grenadine and strong minerality. (Drink starting 2020) 91-94 points.” That’s a typical note from Allen, who is always focused as much or more on the texture and structure of the wine as he is on the flavors presented.

Here are more notes on the same wine from other critics of whom I think highly:
(1) Stephen Tanzer: “Bright, deep red. Musky red fruits and flinty minerality on the nose, with piquant topnotes of orange peel and white pepper. Chewy and sappy, with its powerful, cool minerality conveying a taut impression of Amoureuses terroir. The very long, rising finish is downright luminous. 92-94 points.”
(2) Jancis Robinson: “Bright mid cherry red. Very pure and even slightly meaty and definitely substantial on the nose. Great integrity and concentration. Wonderful attack – crunchy like fresh taffeta in texture. Dancing but far from lush. A slightly leaner style than in some years. More marked by the vintage than the regular Chambolles from this domaine. Extremely youthful and well structured with great confidence but it also demands patience, I suspect. Zesty, vibrant finish. (Drink between 2015-2025) 18 points.”
(3) John Gilman: “The 2008 Les Amoureuses from the Domaine de Comte de Vogüé is a hauntingly ethereal and perfumed example of this celestial vineyard. The bouquet soars from the glass in a glorious cornucopia of red fruit, with scents of strawberries, raspberries, cherries, blood orange augmenting striking minerality, fresh herb tones, citrus zest, roses and a touch of cedary wood. On the palate the wine is fullish, deep and nicely reserved, with simply beautiful transparency, laser-like focus, a fine core of fruit and stunning length and grip on the modestly tannic and perfectly balanced finish. A great wine and a magical example of Les Amoureuses. (Drink between 2018-2050) 94+ points.”

Here, by the way is my note on the same wine: “Dark cherry red color; floral, deep black raspberry, rich, roses, cherry nose; tasty, rich, complex, tart cherry, tart raspberry, mineral palate with great structure and balance, needs 4-6 years; long finish. 94 points.”

Jancis Robinson and RJ

I cited the four critics above, as they are all writers whose opinions I respect, and I regularly compare their notes to mine if they’ve tasted the same wine as I have.

Allen has a consistent approach to Burgundy, and having read him for many years, I have a very good sense of what the wine is going to be like, and how I’ll react to it, from reading his detailed, structurally oriented notes.

Tanzer is the critic whose point scores I find I align with most, and I like his relatively spare, specific, descriptive style.

Jancis is a writer whose wine reference books I deeply appreciate, but whose tasting notes often seem rather idiosyncratic and more like a conversation between her and the wine than a clearly communicative description of the wine for others (the note quoted above is an unusually complete one for her).

I confess I’ve never bitten into any taffeta, for example, so am at a bit of a loss as to what she means with that analogy, other than that it would be quite chewy. Here’s another, more typical note from Jancis, regarding the 1982 Château Calon-Ségur: “Very deep crimson with some evolution. Gentle, big, bloody start and then quite rustic fruit. Chewy finish.”

John Gilman, whom I’ve gotten to know at a few dinners organized by Mannie Berk and Rare Wine Company over the last couple years, tends toward purple prose and very lengthy tasting note descriptions, but I appreciate his palate and the research and understanding of the producers he brings to his tastings.

All four of the notes above, with the possible exception of Jancis’s, give me a good idea of the flavors and structure I can expect to encounter if I open up an ’08 Vogüé Amoureuses. That’s a major part of the value, for me, of a tasting note.

Knowing how a trusted critic describes the flavor and weight of the wine helps me in pairing it with food, and knowing how long I need to decant or aerate the wine. The critics above differ some on the tasting window, but I know enough about red Burgundies and this producer in particular not to be too concerned with a variance amongst critics on the tasting window.

I know, for example, that Allen likes his Burgundies even more mature than I do, so I regularly discount Allen’s extended tasting windows. Jancis’s window sounds about right to me. I suppose I could do without Gilman’s rhapsodic prose and extravagant praise of the vineyard, as I already know Vogüé is a wonderful producer and that Amoureuses is one of the great terroirs. Nonetheless, I find some value in each of the notes cited above, and that’s why I continue to rely on each of these four sources, who write on a great number of the wines that I enjoy.

So the writers above are the ones I most respect and pay attention to when it comes to tasting notes on current wines—Allen Meadows, Stephen Tanzer, Jancis Robinson and John Gilman. But whose tasting notes do I turn to for fun and entertainment?

That would have to be Terry Theise. He writes delightful and often outlandish notes for his annual catalogs for the trade on the German, Austrian and Champagne producers whose wines he represents. They contain very precise if not terribly apt descriptors and fascinating allusions and analogies.

A Theise note that has stayed with me for the last few years had to do with an Austrian Riesling, the 2006 Hiedler Heiligenstein. Terry wrote, “This is really primordial; like some smoke from burning extinct plants. The fruit is singularly fascinating; chiogga beets and rhubarb; there’s a heavenly sort of serenity and luminosity, and a sweetness like prosciutto di San Daniele: gorgeous length and real Grand Cru complexity; the wine is an ethereal chorus of pure love and gratitude.”

Now a note like this doesn’t really give me a sense of what the wine smells or tastes like, especially as I’ve not yet had the privilege of smelling smoke from “burning extinct plants,” but it’s charming and poetic. My note for the same wine is much more prosaic, but it tells me something about the flavors of the wine in a way that I, and hopefully others, can relate to: “Light medium yellow color; ethereal white flower and white pepper nose; tasty, focused tart peach palate with light oily texture and great subtlety; medium-plus finish 92+ pts.”

Terry Theise, right, with Mannie Berk (Jan. 2011)

I likewise enjoyed Terry’s note about one of his favorite wines of the 2006 vintage, Hiedler’s Maximum: “A symphonic aroma, supernally green, wintergreen, white chocolate; it’s the chorus with the men’s voices removed; it smells like dessert but tastes like dinner; it has that sweet-animal fragrance of a really good Salumeria that reeks of Reggiano and Parma; there’s notes of balsam and freesia and salt, and a superbly contained power; in fact less ‘power’ than a kind of purpose and capaciousness. One of the greatest big-wines I’ve ever tasted, and Ludwig’s Riesling masterpiece.”

This is delightful to read, and does sound more than intriguing enough to make me want to taste the wine, but gives me no earthly idea what it’s going to actually taste like. “Smells like dessert but tastes like dinner”? “Chorus with the men’s voices removed”?

On a recent thread on WineBerserkers, wine writer and blogger Evan Dawson, of the New York Cork Report, described my tasting notes as “clinical, sometimes a bit cold.” I very much appreciate the feedback, and I think I know what he means.

I have aimed for the qualities I have valued in other tasting note writers: consistency, comparable terms and comparable wine qualities, straightforward descriptions and an absence of the hard sell. I try hard to evaluate all the wines I meet in the same way, looking at the same features, using common and commonly understood descriptors, and not indulging in the poeticism and creativity I enjoy in Terry’s notes, but that cause me not to go to him when I’m looking for a reliable source for a wine and food pairing.

The result, in my body of notes, could be called “clinical.” I would like them to be a little more interesting than that, but I guess I’ll have to work on that. I think adding the value proposition, per Neile Wolfe’s great suggestion, has helped in that direction. Ultimately, though, when it comes to tasting notes, if I have to choose between consistent and reliable versus a memorable read, I’ll choose the former every time.

In sum, I don’t think tasting notes and wine descriptors are valueless. As someone who loves fine wine, reads about it regularly, and is always looking for suggestions on wines to sample and new insights about wine, I find thoughtful and well written tasting notes extremely valuable.

I enjoy writers like Terry Theise for their poeticism, flights of fancy and offbeat insights, and I regularly refer to authors like Allen Meadows and Stephen Tanzer for their focus, consistency and reliability.

My consistent format, focus and terms have worked for me in creating a comparable database of notes, which others also seem to have found useful. I continue to search for descriptors that will make my notes more vivid and accurate in relating my experience of the wine to others. I also continue to learn about winemaking, wine faults and wine’s more subtle qualities, so I’ll be in a position to share those in my TNs as well. And I am particularly interested in hearing from my readers as to what you find useful in tasting notes, and what might make them even more valuable to you.

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5 Responses to The Wine Tasting Note: Its Role and Value

  1. Casey Benjamin says:

    When I enter a note into CellarTracker it provides little useful info for others. I use not so poetic descriptors such as “smells like a sharpie pen” or “smells like my old dog Trina when her fur got wet”

    I would make these private consumption notes but when I check that box, it removes my ability to enter a numeric score.

    The first thing I do after I finish entering a tasting note is to see if “Richard Jennings” has recorded a tasting note for the same. Being new to tasting notes, this provides great perspective. How can I rate a wine on a 100point scale if I’ve never had what I consider (or others have rated) a 100 point wine?
    This is especially important for any regions or varietals I am not familiar with. If a reviewer includes information that some characteristic is textbook this or that, it’s helpful.

    I have to imagine what a perfect pinot would taste like, according to my scores I’ve gotten 96% of the way to perfection once.

  2. David McCracken says:

    Glad to hear your perspective on tasting notes (and looking forward to the book!).

    I find your notes very useful, probably more than any other I regularly read. I’ve thought a bit about it and I think it comes down to a few things:

    *) You are very consistent. To the extent that it is possible, I believe you are reviewing the wine, not the interaction between your mood on a given day, the tasting environment, and the wine. As someone just getting started, I do find this very impressive, though I understand you’ve had a lot of practice. 🙂

    *) You seem comfortable with the idea that there are a lot of well made wines out there. There is a tendency to think that with 100+ wineries making Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, there must be a few good ones that I can focus on and be comfortable ignoring the rest. Right? Right? Please? I like that you are comfortable to spread the 90 point scores around and, more importantly, aren’t saying that just because you gave some winery a 90 point score, you think they are the next best thing that everybody needs to follow (or, per John Gilman, one of the few wineries keeping the traditions that everybody needs to follow).

    *) That being said, if I do find you giving a 92+ point score to a non-sweet, non-fortified, non-aged wine, my ears definitely perk up. 🙂 So far, in the few cases that I’ve tried one of these wines (before or after I saw your tasting note), I’ve been very happy.

    *) This probably doesn’t apply to everybody, but the information you give on Bay Area resources in your blog posts is very useful. I never would have known about Dee Vine without reading your blog and I might not have found Beltramo’s for quite some time.

    Thanks!

    • Richard Jennings says:

      David,
      Thank you so much for the validation. Yes, I think there are a lot of well made, decent wines out there, especially here in California, and they deserve credit for that. I get a lot of pleasure, especially when I’m pairing with the right foods, from wines I rate from 88 to 91 points. And you’re right that a 92+ from me should indicate a delicious wine, and most often one that is ageworthy (except for the very occasional rose I rate that high). I’m very glad I helped steer you toward Dee Vine and Beltramo’s.
      Thank you!
      Richard

  3. Casey Benjamin says:

    I don’t know whether to thank or curse RJ for inadvertently steering me to Vin Vino Wine in Palo Alto. I kept seeing the store mentioned in his tasting notes on cellartracker and decided to check it out. I now find myself planning my work week around their tasting schedule.

  4. chan wun fat says:

    i love your tasting notes very much, and i am going to learn ur writing

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