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Class vs. Mass and the Battle for Your Tasting Notes

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, many wine lovers will soon have their day of reckoning as tasting note sites self-select into enthusiast categories.

It’s somewhat de rigueur for wine enthusiasts to state that they believe in the democratization of wine: a chicken in every pot and a wine glass on every table.  As the saying goes, “if I had a nickel for every time somebody said they wanted to ‘demystify’ wine I’d be a very wealthy man, indeed.”

I’ve been thinking about this since word came out last week via a press release and an article at TechCrunch that tasting note and social community site Cork’d relaunched with a new CEO (Lindsay Ronga—a freshly minted Harvard MBA hired by Gary Vaynerchuk who assumes the mantle of “Chairman”).

In my opinion, watching these various communities develop and grow is some of the most dynamic and interesting water cooler action in wine today.

Historically, tasting note sites like CellarTracker, VinCellar and Cork’d started out as a closed-off combination of personal cellar management and tasting notes, but has quickly morphed into their own communities on par and exceeding many of the most heavily trafficked wine sites on the web.

Pick Your Flavor

Each of these sites brings the same basic premise to the table, with very different executions.

VinCellar is the Wine Advocate of the online wine tasting note scene – collectible wines with a very high-end user.  CellarTracker, easily the largest service of its kind, is more of the Wine Spectator / Wine Enthusiast audience –- educated and smart while casting a wider net of inclusiveness for wine lovers.  And, Cork’d.  Well, Cork’d is a bit of a mystery and deserves time to develop under focused leadership, but it’s not a stretch to say that their audience consists of a significant population of those just earning their first wine merit badge.  How else to explain the fact that one of the top rated wines is a Temecula dessert wine, alongside a ’95 Chateau Margaux?

It is ironic that these three sites represent the three different strata of customers in the wine world.  And, each takes different approaches to their ongoing development strategies.

VinCellar is one of a myriad of services offered by wine company Vinfolio.  VinCellar aids the Vinfolio cause as a complementary vehicle for their high-end audience interested in cellar management and other wine portfolio needs, with tasting notes acting as an ancillary benefit.

Credit where credit is due, Alder Yarrow, the online wine community’s most influential writer is, by day, a user-experience expert who worked on the VinCellar redesign project. His combination of wine knowledge and usability expertise creates a very elegant site experience.

CellarTracker, the grand old dame of this space, is more community and tasting notes driven with a very high-level of activity from their user base, having recently notched their one millionth tasting note.  Compare to VinCellar’ self-reported number of 29K tasting notes and you can see the wide delta in user engagement, if not quantity of users.

Offered as a donation-based service with some premium offerings, CellarTracker sprung out of founder Eric Levine’s desire to create exactly what he has today – an online community of wine lovers trading thoughts and notes on their bottled wine adventures.  What’s lacking in elegance in design (Eric’s rolling out a new version sometime in the next couple of months) is made up for by depth and breadth.

Cork’d, on the other hand, is definitely more proletariat if VinCellar and CellarTracker are bourgeoisie. With a decidedly more common touch, Cork’d is re-launching with the idea of bridging the gap directly between winery and consumer.

Leveraging Facebook Connect, a universal web sign-on of sorts, with direct integration into Facebook, Cork’d has a tremendous opportunity to tap into the very significant segment of the wine consuming public that drinks the stuff, but doesn’t wax poetic with purple prose.  The fact that Cork’d is directly integrated with Facebook also allows them to ramp up number of users very, very quickly.

Here’s the thing about these tasting note sites – they haven’t been tapped for marketing from wineries, though Cork’d is looking to change that.  Their business model is to engage wineries to set-up a page on the Cork’d site for an annual subscription fee of $999, allowing the winery to directly engage with consumers.

It’s a smart move, with a lot of implications.

Life Gets More Complicated

I can imagine a very near future where even the most casual of wine fans is avidly logging their notes as an ongoing historical journey of their wine adventure.  And, given my belief that winery marketers will come to tasting note sites, all tasting note sites, coupled with what could be a huge expansion in people doing tasting notes online, this has me wondering what it all means.

Unfortunately, people want to associate with people that are like them.  Sure, I want to demystify wine and I want more people to enjoy wine because a rising tide raises all ships, however, I’d prefer not to have to spend a whole lot of time around somebody who thinks Burgundy is a jug of wine, or somebody whose self-proclaimed love of wine takes them about as far as the wine aisle at Safeway looking for a $7 Riesling –especially if I have a choice of where I hang out online.

So, ultimately the question is this: as tasting note sites become a widespread tool in the arsenal of people who pursue their love of wine online, and wineries engage on that turf, what will ultimately happen?  Will we promote the democratization of wine, or will we decamp to our respective knowledge comfort zones with birds of a feather, perpetuating the gap in between the wine elite, wine enthusiasts and newcomers? 

I’m afraid I don’t like the answer to my own question …


Posted in, Free Run: Field Notes From a Wine Life. Permalink | Comments (19) |


On 09/22, Bernard Gehret wrote:

Nice article, it will be interesting to see how wineries respond to the tasting note sites, because when I go to buy wine I actually check to get the overall impression of the users on a specific wine.  If I was a winery, I would totally get my wine list subscribers (who you can assume love their wine) to post as much as possible on tasting note sites.  You are correct, the implications are enormous.

On 09/22, Eric LeVine wrote:

Jeff, thought provoking stuff!

-Eric LeVine

On 09/22, Alder wrote:

It all depends on how the owners of these various properties choose to deal with the wineries as players in the game. There’s nothing wrong with (and perhaps even something of value) in wineries providing their own information about wines in the mix along with consumer scores. 

I doubt you’ll see much stratification in the online tasting note arena along the lines that you sketch.  You’re probably much more likely to see consolidation over time, and or the lines getting blurred by disruptive technology plays that explode the notion of tasting notes living on “sites” in the first place. 

What if Google got into the tasting note business?

On 09/23, Jamie wrote:

Great article, and an interesting question! In general I wonder though if those willing to take the time to write a tasting note online have to be wine enthusiasts. And that the democratisation of wine will come through newcomers using this content, integrated with retail sites and wineries,  to demystify things for themselves.


On 09/23, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

A quibble, but statements like this one in your post drive me nuts:

“Alder Yarrow, the online wine community’s most influential writer…”

Seriously, how do you measure that?  No offense to Alder, who even left the comment right above, but how do you measure influence, Jeff?  Alexa reach?  Quotations in the mainstream media?  Stories broken and picked up by the media?  Ad revenue?

If it’s reach, Asimov would have to be the most influential, simply by having the NYT masthead.  His traffic is huge.

If it’s investigative journalism or scientific research that’s picked up by others, it would be Dr. Vino.

It’s easy to toss around labels, but what are they based on?

So what does “influential” mean to you, Jeff?

On 09/23, Francesco wrote:

As a young wine enthusiast,I am 25, I see the benefits of all these tasting sites.  Vinceller keeps track of my wines, cellar tracker is great to get an overall impression of a wine, and cork’d just seems likes its going to be fun.  I use all three in varying extents.  I believe we will see an integration of the wine community.  Wine was meant to bring people together not to separate.  The more people that are involved the more this line of separation will be blurred.

On 09/23, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

“...this has me wondering what it all means.”

Noise, for one. Beyond that, probably a furthering of wine sameness as the producers hear the noise and begin to react to it in an attempt to build profits.

Of course, this is only a prediction, which is similar to the one about the Internet becoming the greatest force for information known to the universe…


“Wine was meant to bring people together…”

Not really, Francesco. Wine is made to be consumed, and for the producer to make a living. The romance is our very own construct.

On 09/23, Francesco wrote:

It would have been better to say “...should bring people together…”

On 09/23, jeff wrote:

Thanks for the comments!

J Hayes—good point on influence.  Certainly, each of the three you mentioned represent the very best of the wine blogosphere and something I aspire towards.

I don’t want to split hairs, perhaps I should have said, “one of the online community’s ...”


On 09/23, Timothy Keller wrote:

I agree with Thomas.  Noise.

...Reference our conversation on this same blog a couple weeks ago about how “all tasting notes suck” 

The paradigm itself is broken - having more people play with it online isnt likely to change much - just fragmenting into different communities all offering the same content that will never amount to being “data”

On 09/23, Arthur wrote:

To say “How else to explain the fact that one of the top rated wines is a Temecula dessert wine, alongside a ’95 Chateau Margaux?” indicates the kind of logic that dictates that a peach should be ranked against a pickle. Margaux should be considered in the context of Bordeaux first (one can split that into subregions if they like), then the global context of Cabernet-dominant Bordeaux-styled blends. To compare it to Sauternes or Retsina would be absurd.

I am no fan of Temecula - with one exception: “Sweet Nancy”.If this is the botrytised dessert wine you are referring to, then I can tell you that it deserves a high ranking - regardless of the average/median level of sophistication of a site’s users. Now if those folks in Temecula were to graft over their Bordeaux varieties to Iberian or southern Italian varieties, they would be making the best decision of their collective lives.

On 09/23, Ms. Drinkwell wrote:

One fact that wasn’t mentioned in this post (and I think it’s important to note) is that CellarTracker and Vinfolio announced a partnership in May of this year.  The deal essentially makes CellarTracker users part of the Vinfolio Marketplace. Clearly, the people at Vinfolio recognized the value of having access to the wine collections of CellarTracker users, who represent a broad cross section of wine drinkers.

On 09/24, Ed Thralls wrote:

When I first heard about the resurrection of Cork’d this thought came to mind: “a day late and a dollar short”...  I use CellarTracker the most and have dabbled in other sites like Snooth, and even Cork’d way back when… but, I agree that it’s mostly just “noise” with the key differentiator of Cork’d being the more direct involvement of wineries—though I’d like to see how many really sign up.  Cork’d may still become successful due to GV (and his personality) as figurehead but I really don’t see how it’s any different/better than the others at this point

On 09/24, Rosehill Wine Racks wrote:

Great article Jeff.  Like many, we’re just getting onto this whole online community bandwagon, and while it seemed it was a bit wasteful to spend time “online chatting with friends” rather than enjoying our collection, the more we are involved, the more we are learning and growing from it.

This one article has been a goldmine of new resources we can tap into.

Many Thanks,

On 09/24, Lindsay Ronga wrote:

Jeff, thoughtful piece. As you said there are many wine social networks providing different solutions to different people right now. There is room for a massive network effect to catch on - similar to what has happened with non-niche social networks but I believe this will take time.

Ultimately I think what makes CT / Cork’d etc valuable is the number of reviews a wine has. Cork’d is tracking the people who sign up that are “in the wine” biz and it is a substantial number of our new signups right now, but will take time to get their reviews posted. I believe everyone deserves a voice wine biz or not. Should Alder’s voice count more than Eric’s vs. Gary’s vs. Joe Schmo? Or do scores, if enough of them eventually converge on the “right” score?

On 09/25, Dylan wrote:

I believe if these kinds of tasting note sites keep appearing what your going to find is users demanding an integrated experience. This will either be in the form of an aggregator which helps to manage all your profiles on the many sites you belong to, or a new site which seems to draw from all other site utilities, but organizing them in an easy to use manner. Likely the former, but this is just my speculation.

On 09/27, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) wrote:

Adegga and Snooth have had winery marketing content on their site for some time now. Corkds winery pages are similar to these

On 09/27, Eric LeVine wrote:

I don’t think it is just a function of having winery content. CellarTracker has tens of thousands of ‘Wiki’ entries containing winery content as well. The interesting ‘play’ here is to get the actual winery employees to ENGAGE with the customers on the social media site. Very clever.


On 03/26, TN Pas Cher wrote:



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