These Are Not the Tasting Notes You’re Looking For
Tasting notes are an important part of a winery tasting experience. Most wineries provide visitors with a tasting menu that contains at least a small amount of information about the wines. Since it is important to provide your customers with enough information to help them choose which wines to taste, or at the very least provoke a conversation about the wines, it seems as though tasting notes should be an absolute must-have for running your winery. They’re not. In fact, they can be detrimental to the experience, which can lead to your customers not finding wines they enjoy and ultimately not making a purchase.
How can tasting notes possibly be a bad thing? In order to best illustrate, we will use a personal example. I don’t like bananas. I don’t hate them. They don’t make me ill. I am just not a huge fan. Sure, I’ll eat them, it just takes me a moment to remember that they aren’t really all that bad. If I had to guess, I think my issue with bananas stems from a tonsillectomy I had when I was young, during which time I consumed an underride banana that caused all sorts of trouble (read: pain), but no need to get into the gory details. Why did I divulge this seemingly unimportant piece of information to you? To show that tasting notes can immediately deter me from liking a wine. Imagine I walk into a winery and find a Chardonnay with tasting notes proclaiming that the newest and most exciting vintage is creamy, balanced, and has alluring aromas of banana. The moment that I see the word banana, I have to work to dismiss my initial reaction of disgust in order to taste the wine without bias. Easier said than done. Let’s take the situation one step further. Imagine that I was allergic to bananas. My reaction would be even more dramatic and my ability to ignore that reaction and taste the wine without bias is even less likely.
The wine industry as a whole has a tremendous talent at unintentionally making its consumers feel like idiots, and this is a terrible hurdle that we as an industry have to overcome. The eloquently worded descriptive tasting notes that you, your winemaker, GM, or whomever worked laboriously to create are from a wine industry standpoint, totally normal; but to the average visitor they can be hugely intimidating. Here is an example of some expressively worded tasting notes that paint a picture of an elegant wine:
“This Malbec expresses aromas of fresh huckleberry, blackberry pie, ripe cassis, and cocoa-dusted berry trifle, all integrated with the spicy sweetness of oak, cedar, cinnamon, anise and a hint of black pepper. With dark stone fruit and berry flavors, this Malbec is mouth filling, elegant and opulent.”
As a wine professional, you can appreciate the time it took to create these tasting notes and write them in a way that allows a taster to imagine what the wine experience will be like before they even pick up a glass. However, as a professional, you also have to put on your customer service cap and look at it from the taster’s perspective. It is pretty safe to say that the average person does not know what a boysenberry smells like. Wine as a whole, and in particular, wine tasting in a professional environment can be incredibly intimidating. So imagine how potentially embarrassing it could be for a visitor to your winery to admit that they have absolutely no idea what a boysenberry smells or tastes like. And imagine how many people have never heard of cassis, a standard tasting note descriptor that we’ve all used (perhaps more than we should), and how daunting it would be to encounter it within tasting notes. This extends beyond your tasting notes to any venue in which the average consumer would consider purchasing your wine- from your shelf talkers to your website to events where you are providing information about the wines.
There is yet another potential negative issue that can stem from listing individual aromas and flavors. For example, the latest vintage of your Petit Verdot exudes a rich pepperiness that grabs you and provides you with a great sense of place. You (surely unbiased) are convinced this is the best example of a peppery Petit Verdot that you have tasted and it is the highlight of your tasting notes. A consumer reads the excitement for the presence of pepper in the tasting notes and buys the wine online; however, when they get the bottle a few days later and taste the wine, they find no pepper on the nose or palate. As we know, people have hugely varied perception thresholds for particular aroma compounds; and this person who clearly isn’t sensitive to pepper is now frustrated and perhaps a little embarrassed, and worst of all, perhaps upset with you as a company, ensuring that they won’t be a repeat customer.
So what should a description of a wine look like, if you don’t actually describe what you taste? Presented below are some examples of tasting notes that we have found to be both interesting to tasters and helpful in provoking conversation about the wines without using actual aroma and flavor descriptors; as well as some examples of tasting notes that demonstrate what not to do. All examples are gathered from actual tasting notes on active winery websites.
Do’s and Don’ts:
Do: Discuss the season in which the grapes were harvested and how the weather and other environmental factors affected the fruit and ultimately, the wine.
“Never a dull moment in the 2013 season, we experienced our usual warm and sunny days; but also faced record rains, fog, wind, and some unusually chilly evenings. This weather roller coaster, while trying at times for us as grape growers, made for some complex and flavorful wines that highlight the fruit, earthiness, and intrigue of our unique terroir.”
Do: Provide information about the grapes that were used to produce the wine. If you have a blend, please list the varietals in the blend- you’d be surprised how frequently this is skipped.
“The second vintage of this wine is a blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 37% Petit Verdot, and 13% Malbec and is very special as it is the first wine ever grown and produced from our winery containing Malbec. The first fruit received from a Malbec clone planted in 2011 adds an exciting element that we’ve never before experienced in a blend and has us anxiously awaiting the opportunity to work with more than just one single barrel in the future.”
Do: Elaborate on any unique (or normal) processing methods and how they were a part of creating this particular wine- i.e. time on skins for rosé, whole cluster pressing, oak usage, etc.
“Barrel fermented in neutral oak, this 100% Syrah rosé spent a mere three hours on its skins to achieve its rosy hued goodness. Dry and crisp, this limited production rosé will have you spreading the word that 'it’s cool to drink pink.'”
Do: List the vintage (believe it or not, this gets left off frequently); or if it is non-vintage, talk about it and why.
“Produced from the original vines in our Riverside Vineyard, the 2015 Chardonnay showcases the bright, rich complexity developed from producing a 100% ML-fermented and fully oaked Chardonnay. Two lots, one aged in stainless steel barrels with medium toast oak staves for five months, the other in new French and American oak barrels combine to make this Chardonnay full and rich with a creamy mouthfeel.”
Do: Talk about your special project wine that was created because it supports a cause important to you, has significance in the way it was created, highlights your unique location, or for whatever reason that makes it “special”.
“Paws with a Cause! Red Paw is a limited release of special project wines from both of our labels. The blend is a secret, but the reason for its creation is not- for every bottle purchased, $10 will be donated to a local animal rescue. Additionally, you'll receive a 7" stuffed animal of our mascot with your purchase- now you too can have your very own fine wine canine. Stock is limited and we never know when another will be available, so get yours today and help us help shelter dogs and cats find foster homes!”
“A railroad term meant to wish train crews a quick and uneventful journey, 2014 Eight & Sand’s name was chosen to pay tribute to the railroad and tracks that run through our property dividing our Cliffside and Riverside Vineyards. A Late Harvest Cabernet Franc picked at 32.70 Brix, this is the first time that we have ever produced a dessert red wine. The last fruit remaining in the vineyard until we picked on November 4th, our resident bear for the summer found these grapes quite tasty and was kind enough to leave us enough to produce just 83 cases. A special project unlikely to be repeated, stock up now before this one passes you by!”
Don’t: Avoid using obscure flavor descriptors - no one really can connect with roasted lychee, or stemmy brambleberries – you risk embarrassing your customer or worse, scaring them off.
“This Petit Verdot has aromas of black cherries, cassis, plum, and toasted honeysuckle flowers, with flavors of abundant cinnamon, vanilla, linalool, and white pepper. It almost makes you feel as if you’ve crawled into an oak barrel.”
Don’t: Avoid making claims and promises about the experience your customer will have with the product, especially if it is subjective, as this sets up a possible failure. What if the dessert aroma nose promised here is the reason for purchase? Lots of people like vanilla, marshmallow, and cocoa, but since the description below is about a Cabernet Sauvignon and not a dessert dish, it probably won’t deliver the true essence of s’more flavors and for some that will be a huge disappointment.
“Our carefully crafted one-of-a-kind barrel program provides the wine with aromas of vanilla, marshmallow, and cocoa, eliciting images reminiscent of everyone’s favorite campfire snack, the s’more. This wine is delightful and will impress even the most jaded wine lover.”
Don’t: Avoid being condescending or preachy by assuming your client will mess up your wine by pairing it with the wrong foods or won’t appreciate it by not understanding your intended purpose for the wine.
“Old-World in style, because of its earthy character”
"This wine is underserved as a post-meal digestif.”
“The correct glassware is of utmost importance for tasting this wine. Colored stemware will distract from the radiant hues of this wine and the narrower the bowl, the more of the power of this wine you waste.”
Don’t: Take special care not to do all of the don’ts in one tasting note!
“The wine glistens in the bowl of the glass releasing its aromas of ripe peach, cooked apple, and a touch of honey. The mouthfeel abounds with characteristics of cobbler and agave nectar along with and freshly wetted stone. Refreshingly acidic, mouth filling, and decadently rich, its effect is everlasting, the challenge will be to not drink this wine before its time. Enjoy with a first course of blue crab and caviar, or after dinner with a sweet stewed fruit or washed rind cheese, nuts or crème fraiche.”
Adjusting your tasting notes to draw the customer in rather than scare them away is just one way to help people feel welcomed and at home when they interact with your company, but it’s an important one. Trust us, no one will miss your long-winded tasting notes listing everything in the spice rack. Pros will appreciate being able to assess the wines with an unbiased perspective and the public will be more comfortable - and they won’t even know why! What do you think? We’d love to know!
Tin Sheets Consulting (TSC) is a mobile winemaking consultation service traveling around the country to help wineries make better wine and achieve their business goals. In 2016, former winemakers, Jay & Jennifer Christianson, sold their 10,000 case estate-winery in Western Colorado to follow their dreams of traveling the country to visit wineries in lesser-known wine regions and share their experiences, so that they can help spread the word about great wines from all 50 states. TSC can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 444-5888.