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Tuesday Tributes: Best of the Blogs
Words Matter Most—Ratings Rate Second

By Charles Olken

There is a debate on the Heimoff blog about tasting notes, and it took the usual turn into treating tasting notes as if they were numbers instead of words. Here is my take, as posted just minutes ago, on that blog.


“I have been thinking about the MJ comments to David Cole and was going to respond this AM. Kathy has beaten me to the punch, but not fully covered the whole topic.

The reason why David Cole’s description of wine sounds like a tasting note is because it is a tasting note. One cannot talk about an individual wine without writing a tasting note. Even the vaunted Gerald Asher writes tasting notes even as he tells us that he decries the tasting note. He cannot help himself. It is how wine commentary is done. The ratings that accompany tasting notes are NOT the note. Mr. Cole’s writing, whether one thinks of it as hyperbolic or brutally honest, needs no score or rating or symbolic notation because it is a single, standalone description offered for commercial purposes. He makes wine to sell. He must describe his wines to sell them. And he cannot, attach scores to them by himself. Not because they replace his words, but because it would seem even more self-serving than his tasting note.

Steve Heimoff and the rest of us who describe thousands of wines for a living also write tasting notes. The symbolic notation we attach is nothing more or less than that. It is the words that count first and foremost, and those words are tasting notes.

David Cole writes tasting notes. He can say it is not about the scores and he is right. It is about the words. That is the point that MJ has made so eloquently. It is about the words. If it were not, Steve and I would review five times more wine, put down a number and move on. The number would be the simplest shorthand for the judgment we are making, and it would not change that judgment, but it would drive us into a different profession because criticism would no longer be about the love of great wine but the love of great numbers.

Kathy, your fantasies miss the point. The reason why Steve Heimoff, Charlie Olken, Jim Laube, Robert Parker, Steve Tanzer and all the rest of the critics write the words is because it is about the words. David Cole misses that point as well, but I suspect that he likes his own words a lot more than he would like Steve’s or mine.

I encourage you and David and everyone else to criticize the hell out of the misuse of ratings, but do not mistake the trees for the forest. The ratings are just a few leaves. Words matter. Words make the difference. That is why David Cole uses them, why Kathy wants them. And words are what most critics supply and most consumers use to decide on the wines they are going to buy. They cannot buy by points alone because too many wines get positive reviews. Ultimately, unless we think that consumers are dummies, and I do not, consumers buy wines, not points. And wines are describhed by words for me, for Steve, for David Cole and most of the world.”


by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:4/19/2011 7:18:16 PM

I'm a 93 on that.

On tasting notes
by Doug
Posted on:4/20/2011 2:04:26 PM
I think there's something missing when it comes to discussion of tasting notes and scores. I've never bought a wine as a result of reading a note describing it. Never. I have bought wines based on the score alone. What I really want to know as a consumer is, "Did you like this wine?" Or better yet, "Did this wine move you?" The score at least gives me a clue. The tasting note often doesn't because they don't translate the passion someone has for a wine most of the time. I contrast this with the bottle of 07 Continuum I bought last year. I bought it because Jeff (Good Grape) recommended it, and he usually doesn't make recommendations. My inference from this was that he felt very passionately about that particular wine, and it's that passion that I'm looking for to help me narrow down from the thousands of wines available to the few I'll actually buy each year. I want to drink wine that will move me, so bring the passion!
Passionate For Numbers
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/20/2011 4:54:26 PM

Doug, your point is well taken, but, for me, it has to be taken with a grain of salt.

A number or any other symbolic notation for that matter, does indicate how much someone likes a wine. But when I look at wines that get high scores in our publication, I see wines that range from full-bodied, blustery and in your face to balanced, light and elegant.

Lat'e take Ravenswood Zinfandels as an example. The difference in point scores between our passion for the Teldschi bottling and the Barricia bottling is not very much, but the difference in the wines is significant. I might want the Teldeschi for a pork rib roast but I would reserve the Barricia for heavy fare like lamb roasts, and only the tasting note tells me that difference.

And if one looks at the Sebastiani Drry Creek Valley offering, it has similar points but its juicy, spicy character would make it better than either Ravenswood, for me at least, with pastas in red sauces.

The points do reflect the CGCW passion for the wines we review, but only the words indicate the character of the wine and the settings in which I would like to see them used.

wine notes
by Gerald Asher
Posted on:4/22/2011 9:23:39 AM

 Charles, of course one must record an impression of a wine. It's a dicipline without which tasting is pointless. The most important record is the one we jot down for ourselves. We know that string of adjectives will not reconstruct the memory of a wine tasted a year or even a month ago.It's important, first, to separate objective and subjective impressions. It is useful to note the color, the clarity, the intensity of the aroma/bouquet, the impression of the wine on the palate - good structure? balanced? supple? concentration? condition of tannins? length? finish? When tasting the wine six months later, these are notes that will be of use to you in judging how the wine has evolved. They might also be useful to others. For yourself, you might want to include a subjectiuve impression that  might help recall the wine itself: a stony quality in the nose, a hint of quince on the palate, a slightly bitter touch of grapefruit at the finish. If writing for others one might explain the significance of such references. But it's in this sphere of the subjective that there is so much useless and confusing information thrown around.  A list of blueberries, raspberries, honey and on and on doesn't help anyone recreate in the mind the taste of that wine - not even the taster's at a later date. And it is useless information for judging the wine's quality, state of development, potential or anything else.  Worse, it creates a false impression about the purpose of tasting and, because subjective impressions are rarely shared, misleads the reader into totally unrealistic expectations.

On Tasting Notes
by Charles E. Olken
Posted on:4/23/2011 1:24:09 AM

It is a singular honor to have the name of Gerald Asher show up in our comments section. As I have said many times in a variety of fora, Mr. Asher is my favorite writer about wine in the United States.

His words about how one should construct a tasting note, a description of  a wine are to be heard, taken on board, absorbed and applied. A useful wine description becomes a baseline, a fixed point of observation from which future observations can spring, whether on the part of readers in the near term or by everyone else in the longer term. A proper description then is both a guide to action and a benchmark. It must be or it is less valuable than it needs to be.

It is also important to note that Mr. Asher accepts the notion of subjective observation within the larger context of a properly constructed tasting note. And while it is important to avoid the "prismatic luminescence" school of wine writing, it is not so much of a problem, as we see it,  to add subjective observations as important extensions to discussions of the criteria cited as first levels of importance by Mr. Asher.

Wine must be described, but great wine must also be loved. Mr. Asher may not be fond of the overblown, fanciful rhetoric that shows up in some wine writing, but he has never been afraid to fall in love with a great wine--and to say so.

Scores are for ranking
by Matt
Posted on:4/24/2011 11:00:37 PM

You make some great points Charlie.  Everyone seems to negate the use of scores these days but they are overlooking the usefull side of them.  Ever watch ice scating in the Olympics.  Someone can put on a terrific and exciting performance that wows the viewer, but in the end, the scores pop up.  Sometimes they honor the perfection of the performance, and sometimes they hammer them for small technical details that the laymen just doesn't get.  I think the same is true for wine.  A wine can have great flavors and aromas that will come out in the description, but is may also have hard acid or globs of sugar.  The score should be used as an adjective, it "sums up" the entire performace of the wine.

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