The Limits of Tasting Notes

At Vinisud, I had the pleasure of introducing an alternative wine tasting for the Outsiders.

The Alternative Tasting

Basically, we just did a fun wine tasting where we encouraged people to describe our wines with images that Louise Hurren had picked out for our tasting booklet.  Forcing people to think about a wine with images instead of words gets them to think outside the box instead of falling back on the oft repeated tasting note vocab like rich, balanced, and a laundry list of fruit.

Furthermore, it empowers novice drinkers to review wines without worrying that they’re using the wrong word.  The experts can make us feel inadequate about language sometimes, but they pretty much have no dominion in the land of photo reviews.

Why was this tasting on the Pavillion 2.0 space?

This tasting was held at the Internet space of Vinisud and there’s a good reason for that!  The reason for the prominence of the tasting note is largely grounded in the limitations of print media.  Limited space means we talk in pure descriptors without any conjugation.  But the Internet doesn’t pose the same challenge.  We can have infinite words and infinite photos in full color.  And heck we can even use moving pictures, music, and other media that were previously impossible to include in printed wine journalism.  The Internet provides us with a path to escape the tyranny of the tasting note!

So I did a little presentation on this topic to get everybody thinking outside the box before we got to drinking outside the box:

All the slides are available on slideshare with relevant links to related articles in the penultimate slide.


I’d say everybody had a blast.  Including a lot of wine journalists (showing once again that even they can be fed up with tasting note format).  I originally wanted to do a tasting with music and video and all sorts of crazy stuff.  Thankfully, our group’s organizer Louise had the good sense to rein it in and focus on photos.

We had less than an hour to run the event so it was good to keep it simple and focused.  We got insanely good feedback about the event and it has already spawned several requests for similarly styled “alternative tastings”.  We also got several good ideas from our tasters who offered up ways to evolve the program and make it even more interesting.  Doing physical touchy feely tastings, doing musical tastings, tasting in darkness, drawings instead of photos, and so on.

In terms of tasting notes, I think we all received a wide range of notes.  I got everything from Lego man to Dutch masters.  I got several of the He/She picture that makes me wonder if I shouldn’t change my look.  Some of the outsiders noted that certain age groups tended to pick certain pictures (the more daring ones) more frequently than other demographics.  I’m sure we’ll compile more on this at our next meeting.

Everybody had fun tasting and I think this sort of event gets people to think and talk about wine in a new and stimulating way without feeling overly stuffy or pretentious.  A success!

This is a post in response to an editorial in Vitisphere.  The author has since responded here.

I was a little shocked when reading the editorial on the most recent Vitisphere which concludes with the following:

“Enfin, il faudra accepter une certification des acteurs de la critique, de la notation, par une Autorité, sinon les technologies du numérique pourraient imposer la dictature d’une démocratie virtuelle. “

Roughly translated: Finally, we must accept a certification process for agents of criticism, of scoring, by some Authority, otherwise digital technology could impose a virtual tyranny of the masses.

The Tyranny of the Masses?

My natural instinct is to say that this is ridiculous.  Ultimately, consumers know what they enjoy and they are the best people possible to decide what to buy.  But let’s give the editor a chance.  What are the potential downsides of a world without authoritative wine criticism?  And what are the downsides of a “dictature d’une democratie virtuelle”?

I suppose there is a risk that we create a world where winemakers try to make bland and inoffensive wines that nobody hates (but nobody loves either).  As I’ve discussed before, I wouldn’t want that.  And it’s not an unrealistic proposition.  Vast volumes of wine are already made this way.

Music that goes on the radio is often chosen in a similar fashion where the single release is rarely the best song on the album.  It’s frequently just the least offensive song that is still a little catchy (but not too catchy!).  There are stories about this where people organize a test group to listen to a CD and they intentionally pick the song with the most average score instead of the song that some people love and some people hate.

And when you see projects like Design A Sam Adams Beer, you see that some beverages are literally being ruled by a virtual democracy.  And it is sort of preposterous.

But then the editorial sort of pines for the good old days when everybody’s pockets were full of francs and everybody’s glasses full of delicious wine.  At one point, it feels like he’s even blaming the decrease in wine consumption on the absence of an authoritative voice in wine criticism:

“Et au 3ème et dernier acte, disparition de l’art de la critique du vin… Perdu par la multiplicité des références, des origines, des prix, le consommateur perd confiance et se protège en réduisant ses achats de vins !”

Roughly translated: in the 3rd act, the disappearance of the art of wine criticism… lost in a sea of choices, of denominations, of prices, the consumer loses confidence and protects himself by buying less wine!

This seems like a pretty zany argument.  The reason people drink less wine in France is because they have less confidence in their ability to pick a good wine?  I’m doubtful.  It seems more likely that consumption is dropping because people are afraid to get a PV (moving violation) for drink driving.  Or because mixed drinks are more fashionable than a glass of wine at most night clubs.  Or even because there are more choices of what to drink today than there were 20 years ago.  The point is there is no reason to think that dropping wine consumption rates in France are a result of lack of confidence in wine buyers.

And what’s more, I don’t think the rise of blogs and the downfall of authoritative wine criticism do anything to undermine consumer confidence.  If anything, the notion that everybody can publish an opinion online should give confidence to consumers.  Whereas consumers would be intimidated in a world full of famous wine critics that they haven’t had time to read, they should be liberated in a world where the only thing that matters is what you and your friends think when you open the bottle tonight.

Anyway, I’m puzzled by the logic.

My experience with egalitarian publishing

One of the best things that ever happened to me was the customer interface on Naked Wines.  Customers who drink my wine can leave a review on the web site.  It’s as simple as that.  The majority of them don’t consider themselves bloggers or gurus or experts.  They just review wines.  And most of them simply say Yes or No to the question “Would you buy this wine again.”  And then some of them write in detailed comments.

I used to think that I would never let a critic influence my winemaking style.  But once the clients became critics… I changed my tune.  When thousands of people are tasting my wines and hundreds are leaving detailed comments, I’m actually very keen to hear what they have to say.  Obviously, I still make wines based on my own inclinations.  But I’ll take it into account that two hundred people were happy with the 2009 Trah Lah Lah that was a little less tannic than the 08.  It gives me confidence in the future to make a blend that’s a little less harsh.

Obviously, I shouldn’t make a bland and inoffensive wine just to appeal to everybody.  But at the same time, there’s nothing wrong with taking the pulse of the people who are actually drinking your wine.  And I’m glad that these people can share their own opinions, independent of what “recognized” wine authorities have to say.

Who gives authority to the authority?

And the last logical flaw in this editorial is about who gives power to the “Authority” that certifies critics.

“Pour éviter le drame, journalistes et éditeurs, du papier ou du numérique, devraient se réunir pour redonner un sens au journalisme du vin, redéfinir l’art de la critique.”

Roughly translated: To avoid tragedy, journalists and editors, be they paper or digital, should unite to bring back some meaning to wine journalism, redefine the art of criticism

If all wine writers get together to agree on who should write about wine (and how we should write about wine), doesn’t that include all the bloggers and social media voices that the author is denigrating in the rest of the editorial?

And why do we even need to redefine the art of criticism?  Will that actually help consumers enjoy wine more?  Or increase their confidence about picking a bottle at the restaurant?  Personally, if I were a normal consumer, the idea that there are certified wine specialists whose opinions matter more than mine would terrify me far more than the notion that everybody has different opinions and you just like what you like and you shouldn’t feel guilty for not reading all of the “expert” opinions that have been published before picking a bottle and enjoying it.

No, I’m fairly confident in the tyranny of the majority.  I like this brave new world we live in.

This post is about one of the round table discussions from VinoCamp Languedoc in March 2011.  I hesitate to label it as “wine blogger ethics” since that’s a big subject.  Miss Glouglou proposed and led the roundtable topic, and she had a more specific idea about what we’d discuss.  We set out to address the “transmission of information” which sort of bundles up a lot of subjects:

  • Marketing material vs. reference material
  • Credibility
  • Bribery
  • Are blogs any different than traditional media?

A lot of people felt strongly that there were deontological moral issues at stake specific to bloggers while other people focused much more on pragmatic issues (credibility, sales, etc.)

My favorite bit is in part 2 around 1:36 where we start talking about giving journalists free bottles of wine.  Some very earnest revelations.  (FYI: the off screen voice that admits it’s normal wine writers get wine is a professional wine writer.)

There’s also this question about whether bloggers can get into trouble by denouncing or even accidentally insulting people.  In retrospect, we could have talked about my extreme positivity on Love That Languedoc. But we talk so much about my website all day, I’m glad there was a session where it came up less.

There’s this idea that keeps coming up about federating talented bloggers into an edited source of information to rival conventional press.  It might be tangentially related to the topic just because bloggers wouldn’t need to face unique ethical issues if they operated more like a print magazine.  But then there’s also this issue of “why copy print media when it’s on its way downhill?”  They might have the ethics figured out, but if you have questions about monetization, there might be better industries to consult.

Anyway, I’m sure I’ll continue to think about this and maybe post more later. For now here are the videos for people who weren’t able to attend.

Beautiful moments (that only come after wine-fueled lunch)

  • French produce wine to be criticized by Americans and sold by the English and bought by the Chinese
  • Traditional press is Tripoli; bloggers are Bengazi
  • Freedom of speech, freedom of regret

How to find us

Domaine O’Vineyards, located in the North Arrondissement of Carcassonne, is just minutes from the Carcassonne train station, the Medieval City, and the Carcassonne Airport.
GPS coordinates: 43.259622, 2.340387

Wine, Dine, Relax at our Boutique Vineyard
Unique thing to do in Carcassonne
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North Arrondissement of Carcassonne
885 Avenue de la Montagne Noire
11620 Villemoustaussou, France
Tel: +33(0) 630 189 910

  1. Best by GPS.
    Follow the signs to Mazamet/ Villemoustaussou using the D118. At the end of the last straight part of D118, you will come to a roundabout with the Dyneff gas station.
  2. Take the exit towards Pennautier. Continue 500m to a small roundabout and go straight over.
  3. Look out for the second road on your right, Avenue des Cévennes which curves up hill (about 1km) to Avenue de la Montagne Noire on the left.
  4. At the last juction, bear left. the road sign “Ave de la Montagne Noire” (confusing as it seems to show a right turn)
  5. After another 500m you will see our red brick color building in the middle of the vines.