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Tasting Notes and Wine Scores Miss the Big Picture Regardless of Reviewer

Lost somewhere in the ongoing wine world debate about the validity of wine ratings and the validity of those wine ratings coming from enthusiasts who don’t have 20 years worth of tasting experience with historical antecedent is the simple fact that people on both sides of the debate are focusing on the wrong thing.

This is the topic that won’t go away—a bad rash on the wine glass of life: the “my palate or yours” notion of whether experience is a legitimate arbiter for the ability to competently provide a wine review, particularly when there are few barriers to entry to providing an opinion on wine.

The cacophony of who exactly is qualified to provide wine reviews smacks a little bit of our current healthcare reform debate.  Democrats nor Republicans want to find the essential truth.  Instead, they’d prefer to decamp to the fringes to yell at each other.  As related to wine, this is too bad because the essential truth is close at hand.

Unequivocally, it’s not about the score and it’s not about the tasting note, mine or yours, it’s the sensory evaluation that goes into that score and that tasting note.  Unfortunately, these days, the lack of true sensory evaluation across the board goes beyond a bad rash and moves into epic plague territory.

Dr. Maynard A. Amerine, the creator of the UC Davis 20 Pt. system should be rolling in his grave.  Designed in 1959 to be a critical evaluation tool for reviewing experimental student wines, the UC Davis system has been THE baseline for critical analysis for decades.

In my worldview, where I strive to be pragmatic, reaching across the aisle as it were, if you’re educated and/or equipped to do sensory evaluation than the rating and the tasting note is the logical end result of the evaluation.  I view sensory evaluation and the tasting note to be inclusive of each other and the end result shouldn’t be exclusive.

Make sense?  Basically, if you can analyze a wine, you can analyze a wine.  The end result should be a holistic view of the wine and NOT the distillation that equates to a score and a flavor descriptor.

The biggest problem the wine world faces with thousands of “citizen reviewers” isn’t the score or the experience.  No, the problem is nobody who reviews wines provides a sensory evaluation for a wine, including major magazine critics to whom citizen reviewers are respectfully looking to as models for behavior. 

We’ve moved away from sensory evaluation with the growth of wine criticism and the ensuing cult of personality it has spawned, not to mention a focus on points scoring.

However, I believe firmly that stripped of this “cult of personality” the fact remains that tasting notes, by and large, all suck.  Yours suck.  Mine suck.  Parker’s tasting notes suck.

They suck because they say nothing to nobody.


And, that’s a problem that can’t be solved by me or anybody adding 20 years of mileage to my nose and tongue drinking library verticals.

If all of the tasting notes in the word were nuked tomorrow, nobody would miss them.  They are 60 words of nothing staring into the deep abyss of emptiness because they don’t provide enough context.  Absent meaningful context, we get lazy—hence the rise of the score as the end-all be-all, almost a deductive offset because tasting notes are so bad.

Now, many will argue that CellarTracker, who just registered their 1 millionth tasting note, might be a good indicator of the validity of consumer tasting notes, but this just isn’t the case.  Absent a “cult of personality,” tasting notes only have value in that what people are really looking for when they go to CellarTracker is enough collective wisdom that says a wine is worth trying.

Four years ago, as published in Wine Business Monthly, George Vierra and a team of students at Napa Valley College presented a revised sensory evaluation form called the Napa Valley College 25-point score card.  This scorecard offsets some of the more technical deficiencies of the UC Davis scoring methodology which has limited consumer usefulness.


As excerpted from the article:

Taking the history, analysis and use of existing wine rating systems into account, a new scorecard was created by the Napa Valley College class. Because a rating system has to accommodate a multiplicity of functions, the NVC Scorecard is designed to allow the user to wear two hats: The wine can be objectively and thoroughly analyzed as is done under laboratory conditions, but the rating sheet also allows for findings that can advise the wine buyer and fulfill the historical role of the wine merchant. For example, the wine style, character and recommended aging windows can be noted as well as how the buyer might locate the wine and what it costs.

I like this model and I’ve used it in the past on this site.

Another model, as taught in a four day seminar called Discovering the Professional World of Wine at The Rudd Center for Professional Wine Studies, at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa Valley, is the process of evaluation using Body, Acidity, Texture, and Aroma as a baseline for the physical construct of the wine and then discussing Aroma, Flavor and Finish. If done correctly, this kind of review of a wine gives a holistic presentation of the attributes of the wine while not reducing it to raspberry, crème de cassis and vanilla.  88 pts.

If the wine community is really earnest about righting the perceived wrongs of the wine review, and the empirical correctness of who is giving those reviews based on experience, they should focus not on the granular and arbitrary nature of a rating with a couple of flavor descriptors, but instead focus on moving the conversation to the higher ground of sensory evaluation.  This higher ground also happens to be common ground, a place where healthcare debates and reasonable expectations about wine reviews can co-mingle. 


This post trades on ideas presented by Arthur Przebinda from the wine blog Winesooth.  Arthur’s post called, “It’s Not About You, It’s About them” will be posted at Palate Press in the next day or so.  Tip of the cap to Arthur for his always well-reasoned approach to wine issues.


Posted in, Around the Wine Blogosphere. Permalink | Comments (27) |


On 08/14, Galen Struwe wrote:

“However, I believe firmly that stripped of this “cult of personality” the fact remains that tasting notes, by and large, all suck.  Yours suck.  Mine suck.  Parker’s tasting notes suck. They suck because they say nothing to nobody.”  If wine writing had truth serum to dispense and if it had gutteral poets, Lafevere would be our Pete Townshend.  When it comes to getting to the lyrical point of it all the bottom line is never far away.

On 08/14, Timothy Keller wrote:

Now Dr. V, I admire your restraint.  Lets call a spade a spade - most “tasting notes” are nothing more than enological masturbation. 

While I like to watch the #wine hashtag on twitter, I filter out the term “cellartracker” to get rid of all those people tweeting about what they are drinking.

Tasting notes would be much better (even from the people who do it for a living) if the authors remembered that their job is to convey a sensory impression - not to write bad haiku.

In general terms, the more interesting the tasting note, the less information it conveys.  My hero Gary V might describe an aspect of a wine saying “its like a sheep walked into the room and gave out a little fart”  - entertaining, but I have NO idea what smell that describes.

The best tasting notes (in my opinion) would be 3-4 words to describe an aroma from a list of maybe 20 common descriptors, and a numerical scale for acid, tannin and sweetness.

So I think that you are right on about tasting notes missing the picture.  If you want actual information that might help someone make a buying decision - then the paradigm of the tasting note is very poorly conceived indeed.

On 08/14, Timothy Keller wrote:

em.. VERY sorry about addressing you as Dr. V…  You got me so excited I forgot where I was…

On 08/15, Thomas Pellechia wrote:


I’ve had this argument so often with wine geeks that I can’t imagine you will succeed with it either. My point has always been that the only objectivity connected to wine evaluation is in the lab, and that some professionals are taught to use their senses to pick up what the lab can either confirm or refute.

Other than that, expressions of evaluations, as you say, suck.

The reason I rarely do wine reviews in my wine writing is because I cannot imagine for the life of me why anyone else should care what I like or dislike about a wine. I also know that if I were to do reviews that talked about the sensory pluses or minuses of a wine, many geeks would accuse me of trying to strip wine of its pleasure (pleasure is of course a complete and utter subjective measure). 

It would truly pain someone to find out that the cult wine that costs $100 and up a bottle is in bacterial heaven and on its way to bacterial hell. Anyone who makes that claim would be run out of wine criticism as a killjoy.

On 08/15, kevin keith wrote:


Reading this I had an ephipany.  And thank you Tim for the “enological masturbation” phrase, that’s a great one.  I used to write all my literature papers as stories describing stories, whether it was on Ulysses, Twelfth Night or Bridges of Madison County.  I know it is a bit off the rails, but for years I have been writing my “reviews” as just going with the flow - repeating what everyone else did for the sake of ease and time constraint.  Well, hold on to your hats everybody, I am going to begin writing some crazy stuff, and I owe it all to you Jeff.


On 08/15, Wine Harlots wrote:

Yes, yes, yes! (Sorry, kinda went with the “enological masturbation”)

Great analysis, we’re all about the “holistic view of the wine.”

Now that you’ve laid down the gaunlet, I can’t wait to see how far off-the-rails you go.


On 08/15, Wine of Month Club wrote:

I think it is a good point and one thing I expect people will start doing more and more is to find reviews with palate’s more similar to theirs then someone like Parker…who is more high end then any of us likely ever will be.

Thanks for the unbiased review!

On 08/15, Jeff wrote:

Thanks for the comments, all.  I appreciate you stopping by!

Galen—stop it.  You’re making me blush.

Timothy—Welcome to the wine blogosphere.  I dig your start ... cool, interesting and unique!  And, of course, you can confuse me with Dr. Vino any time you want.

Thomas—you’re right.  This is a riddle that will never be solved, and partly makes wine enthusiasm both fun and maddening.

Kevin—nice.  Glad to inspire an epiphany!  I firmly believe that back story and sensory evaluation is a good start to explaining a total picture on a wine.

Wine Harlots—forget the sensory evaluation, I want to party with you!

thanks again, all!


On 08/15, Thad W. wrote:

Jeff, I would be interested in seeing a specific example of the “sensory evaluation” you seek in wine reviews. 

Your post raises a fair point, but appears to favor yet another scoring scheme (e.g., Napa Valley College) which distills one’s experience to a number.

I am left wanting to see the benchmark tasting note or review that offers a reader a clear “sensory evaluation”.

Can you please point us to a few?

On 08/16, Thomas Pellechia wrote:


To get what you seek, you have to sit in on winemaker or cooperative extension service meetings. As far as I can determine, it doesn’t exist in the wine review for the consumer world.

On 08/16, Timothy Keller wrote:

I have developed what I think is maybe 80% of such a system.  But it needs some massaging, and further, I’m afraid that the people who are compelled to write tasting notes are quite fond of stroking their oenopeen via the current paradigm.  So it might not be ‘fun’ and hence not as popular.

The key to it however comes from an understanding of sensory science.  Davis winemakers like me get an indocrination into how you turn the subjecive (a taste / smell opinion) into “real” data - and the shorthand is:  You do it by being incredibly restrictive about the options that the judge has to describe the wine.

Example:  Someone says, “this smells like apple pie” - his mother’s apple pie recipe might be all about cloves, whereas my mothers recipe is all about cinamon.  Even with a pretty simple descriptor like that, it is very easy to NOT actually convey the right idea.

Once you get into the flowery prose that most tasting notes are written in, any actual transmission of ‘information’ is gone.

Add to that human psychology of ratings scales…  We percieve a larger difference between 89 points and 90 points than we do between 90 and 91.

This is a larger topic than we can solve on Jeff’s comment line.  But I’d love to get a handful of people talking about it - maybe a ad-hoc group on open wine consortium or something?

On 08/16, Nancy wrote:

Experience does help. I’m learning something interesting about inexpensive grocery store wines—they tend to fall apart in flavor in about two days. People who have been in the business 20 years probably could have told me that, but I wouldn’t have tasted it myself.

As to the my palate/your palate—my notes/your notes thing. I agree, in fact I find tasting notes boring and pointless. My question is, why does it seem wine blogs that are mostly tasting notes spark so much more comment than blogs that sensibly avoid that kind of thing?

Maybe readers can react to “notes of honey and cassis, 90 points,” in a way they can’t react to “I visited Chateau Mouton Rothschild and saw the cellars”?

On 08/17, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

“My question is, why does it seem wine blogs that are mostly tasting notes spark so much more comment than blogs that sensibly avoid that kind of thing?”


If I knew the answer to that question, my blog would have already made me rich!

I sometimes feel that Americans have a limited thirst for knowledge and a seemingly unlimited capacity to absorb puff.

On 08/17, Dylan wrote:

Could you please give an example of a sensory description for wine versus a tasting note? I’m having trouble seeing the line clearly. From what I’ve read of tasting notes on different blogs it explains to me what the aromas they smelled, the flavors they tasted, and the textures they experienced, both in progress and at the finish. All of those seem to be sensory, but perhaps you’ll be able to clear my confusion.

On 08/17, Dylan wrote:

Sorry, I left out how they talk about its color in the glass. So that includes sight as well.

On 08/17, Timothy Keller wrote:

I want to respond to this, but I have to get into the car.  If it can wait, I’ll write a text entry on my blog (cause it’s gonna be long) - or just call me on my cell (707) 235-3730


On 08/17, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I think, Dylan, a short version of what Timothy will say to you is: there’s a world of difference between saying that a wine smells floral and that a wine smells exactly like a rose petal.

The rose petal is specific; the floral may not even be about flowers—it could be about soap or perfume.

In my case, however, I often wonder if that smell of dirt that tasters describe isn’t just a case of Brett that will get the wine in the end. To me, sensory also means picking up technical stuff like that.

On 08/17, Sean Millard wrote:

I agree that a lot of the content that makes up conventional tasting notes is uninformative for the reader.  But if your concept of sensory evaluation is intend to eliminate ambiguuity from descriptions of the features of wines, then it’s unrealistic.  For example, the descriptor “granny smith apple” is ambiguous because of variation in sense of taste from person to person (there’s conclusive scientific evidence that some people are more sensitive than others to certain flavors and that some are blind to certain flavors), because of what we psychologically associate granny smith apples with, etc. I also think there’s a problem with stipulating what is a legitimate tasting note, viz., sensory evaluation, and what isn’t.  But it makes for good conversation about the status of conventional tasting notes.

On 08/18, Timothy Keller wrote:

I ended up making a video post about this (something of a rant actually..)  It exporting now, I’ll upload it tomorrow AM and you will be able to see if on before lunch tomorrow.


On 08/19, Dylan wrote:

Ah thanks for the clarity, Thomas. I was getting lost there for a little bit.

On 08/19, Richard wrote:

This is all very confusing.  On one hand, people are saying to be more descriptive to convey what you’re actually tasting or smelling, and on the other hand, some are saying that this overly descriptive analysis results in “enological masturbation” (I’m certainly not knocking the author of this phrase, as I quite like it myself).
A critic I read on a regular basis also includes technical data, including % alcohol, blend, processes undergone by the wine, etc.  I find this information very useful, as being a wine geek, I understand what happens to a Chardonnay when you put it through malolactic fermentation.  I find this type of technical information is much more helpful in helping understand what is in the bottle, without unnecessary, or worse, misleading descriptors.

On 08/19, Timothy Keller wrote:

The key is balance (like everything in wine actually) - to far to any extreme and you are off track.

Two easy rules:
1) Stick to terms that you are sure your audience understands that are descriptive without being arcane. 
(eg. fruity is too broad, pear is good, bartlett pear is arcane)

2) Be complete - dont just talk about nose, talk acidity, mouthfeel - the whole wine.

My video post on this topic is live now :

On 08/19, Jeff wrote:


Great vid post!  Love it.  You nailed it on the lotus blossom reference.  The other two that bug me is “paine grille” which parker uses—it’s toast, man.  And, lychee’s.  I would hazard a guess that less than 1% of the US population has had a lychee.  Ridiculous.

Thanks for doing that!  Thanks to call for the great comments. 


On 08/20, ryan Opaz wrote:

Great post. Points are silly. They are for the lazy, and they are hurting those of us who want to appreciate wine, not for the fact that this one is “better” than that one, but rather because it is “different” from that one.

FYI, a counter arguement can be found here, which I have spent more time typing on:


On 08/22, Tish wrote:

Oh my: “the fact remains that tasting notes, by and large, all suck.  Yours suck.  Mine suck.  Parker’s tasting notes suck.” THat is the best blog line I have seen in a while. ANd you back it up with your analysis. “Enological masturbation” comes in a close second.

THanks for a fresh take on the ratings/tasting-not topic. My take is that tasting notes would be foreced to improve if we were ablt to dispose of the 100-point scale, which is looking more and more like a dusty 20th-century antique with every passing vintage.

Interesting to see Ryan Opaz draw attention to a hilariously frail argument in favor of the 100-yuck scale. Hmmmm, people need numbers because that’s how we all got graded in school? Right. I suppose all critics of other arts/media/culture (books, film, food…) never went to school? Hardly. Fact remains, the most vociferous defenders of the 100-pt scale are those who stand to gain from preserving its false sense of authority.

We need to get away from “grading” wine in general. A wine’s merit and usefulness ultimately has more to do with context than anything else. A single tasting note will always have trouble for accounting for the true potential range of a wine’s context, but that is no reason to give up and revert to stoopidity.

On 08/22, Timothy Keller wrote:

Here here!

I have often thought the same - why try to place all wines on a single scale.

Since the reviews are all ostensibly for the purpose of reccomending a wine for consumption - why not base the rating on VALUE.

You give a Zero if the wine is worth the price paid, down to -3 if it isnt, and up to +3 if it is worth more than the bottle price.  THAT might actually be helpful on a shelf talker…

On 05/04, TN Pas Cher wrote:

an the bottle price.  THAT might actually be helpful on a shelf


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