Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Why I decided not to post tasting notes

Like a beach many miles from the sea: what a Roero Arneis vineyard looks like before planting
This month my column for Palate Press is about Roero Arneis. It's an interesting story and I'm not going to tell it here. What I do want to talk about here is tasting notes and scores.

I have tasting notes and scores on all the wines I recommended at the end of the article. Normally I would have appended them. That's how mainstream wine writing works, and that's fine.

In the case of Roero Arneis, I felt that there is an ideal taste profile, which I describe in the article. I like that taste profile a lot. Sure, there are variations within it, and I could write my tasting notes in such a way that they all sound very different. And there are variations of quality. 

There are several reasons I decided not to run tasting notes: the first two regarding the nature of wine tasting, and the others because of the relationship between wine consumers and the media.

1. The wines were tasted under very different circumstances

I liked this wine, but did not publish scores
I visited 15 Roero producers over five days. Most of the wines I tasted sitting down with the principals, but some I tasted at a restaurant before or during a meal. And a few I tasted earlier, at home in the U.S. By itself, this wouldn't be enough to stop me from posting, but it is a consideration.

2. The best wines shared the same characteristics

I always have a hard time writing Chardonnay tasting notes: How many different ways can you write toast and lemon? Lemon curd on toast? I have tasted thousands of Chardonnays, which is grown all over the world, and this is still an issue. It's an even bigger issue for a grape variety grown in one type of soil in one relatively small region.

3. When I post a list of scores and one wine gets a 94 and the others get 91s, people only want the 94

I liked all these wines and want to reward them by recommending them, not subtly insult them by not putting them first. The wines I recommended were all made in quantities of less than 1000 cases. If I single out one as the best, it wouldn't be a stretch for readers to seek it out and buy it up. 

4. Most of the wines are limited in production and thus not available everywhere

If my fourth-favorite wine is the only Roero Arneis you can buy at your local store, I don't want to discourage you from buying it by saying it's my fourth-favorite wine. I want to encourage you to try it by saying it's one of my favorite wines, and validate your choice if you do try it. (Validation is a key role for wine critics.)

5. Tasting notes are generally boring

I was happy with the Roero story (you can be the judge) and thought a pile of similar-sounding sentences at the end would give it the wrong kind of finish.

I'm sure I'll post tasting notes and scores again under different circumstances, but this time it felt right not to. What do you think? Should I have posted tasting notes and scores?

Read the Palate Press column

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


  1. Yes to tasting notes. No to scores.

  2. I hate tasting notes ... boring. And dated ... wine is a living thing and if I try one a year from now, the tasting notes are out-dated, but the story is still relevant.

  3. I think you're on the right track here. Would adding the tasting notes provide helpful information for the reader? For this article I think you make a good case that they would not.

  4. "Tasting notes are generally boring" - Wine Writer Understatment of the Year!!!

  5. Tasting notes are typically a complete waste of time for both the writer and the reader. If I ever read them, it is only to see if the taster has something to say about the producer or how the wine was made. I skip over all descriptions. They provide no help to me whatsoever.

    I mostly agree with your reasoning. However, I think scores are helpful. They simply tell me how much you liked the wine. Combined with a price, I can make a QPR judgement. Sure, I might seek out the highest score, but it's more likely that I would seek out the best value. If I'm interested in trying one of the wines, I will not be discourage from buying one of the lower scores, if it's all I can find. I would even buy something you didn't review, if it was all I could find.

    Having said that, I think it is unfair and improper to score wines that have not been tasted blind under controlled conditions. There is way too much of that going on. (I don't buy the often used argument for the need of a context. I think it's an excuse designed to avoid the embarrassment of unwittingly assigning a low score to a prestigious wine.) The circumstances you described involved far too many variables for you to make fair, objective assessments. I think we have all had those experiences where the second taste of a wine, under different circumstances, bore no resemblance to the first. The wine didn't change, but the different circumstances change our perception.

    So, I'd say, use tasting notes only to relate special or unique characteristics and only published scores when they are the result of tightly controlled blind tastings. Otherwise, letting your readers know which ones you liked the most and would recommend is all that's needed to encourage exploration.

  6. Yes! Love this. If I value the source of the wine recommendation, that is enough. ( I do admit that reading the extravagant and verbose wine tasting notes is a bit of a guilty pleasure at times though.)