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Hitting the Wrong (Tasting) Note?

Are Wine Tasting Notes Interesting?

Selling wine is an interesting endeavor. The average wine drinker effectively has an unlimited number of choices; there are more wines produced in Washington State each vintage than a single human being could reasonably drink or try, given the bounds of time, money, and health*. Zoom out even a little bit, and the choices jump exponentially—there are more than 3,000 wineries in the United States alone. Assuming each one produces an average of 8 wines, that’s 24,000 products, each one refreshing with a new vintage approximately every year. And that’s just domestic juice. Good luck keeping up with that backlog. 

The question then, as it often does with marketing, becomes one of differentiation. How do we, as wine producers, communicate with our clientele—both direct-to-consumer and in the three-tier system—that our products are worthy of attention? 

The venerable tasting note is often deployed as the opening salvo, charging headlong and valiantly into the battlefield of consumer consciousness. Raspberries! Stewed cherries! Dark chocolate shavings! Artisan chamomile lavender tea brewed with Vitamin Water! As time passes and the stakes get higher, more and more elaborate descriptors and flavor combinations are bandied about as gospel. The tasting note—often written by the marketing folks, not the winemaker—is widely used as the primary means to convey information about a wine. 

Wine Sniff

You *will* smell ripe red plum. It has been decided by our focus group.

Is nothing safe? Is nothing sacred? “Please,” you may plead, “leave the tasting note alone. It’s helpful to know what the wine will taste like.” 

You know nothing, Jon Snow. 

Drinking a wine is a wholly personal and subjective experience. The way each person processes inputs and interprets senses is unique, informed as much by biochemistry as it is the sum of that individual’s life experience, memories, and associations. A positive association with a scent/flavor for one person may have the opposite affect on another. 


Steve doesn't enjoy the taste of olives after Grandma's infamous "Tapenade Incident of 1998".

Consuming wine is a cohesive, holistic event. The entire process contributes to the overall impression and experience. Color, stemware, temperature, present company, occasion, aromas, food pairings, time of day, mood, flavors, texture; these swirling, interconnected variables converge at a time, in a place, with a person, to make the experience. So why are we trying to suss out the individual aspects of that crazy whirlwind that make it enjoyable (or not)? Is it a party trick? Something we do because we’re supposed to? Nobody looks at a rainbow and exclaims, “look at the beautiful violet undertones.” You just look at the rainbow as one cohesive experience. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

Enter the wine marketer. We interject ourselves into the equation by telling you what to do, and how you’re going to do it. If I say, “now this Cabernet has a really nice chocolate note,” there are three potential outcomes that I think are the most likely:

  1. The power of suggestion is very strong. If I say chocolate, you taste chocolate.
  2. You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. Since I am speaking from a position of authority, you decide you’re doing something wrong, and slowly nod your head in faux agreement.
  3. You don’t taste chocolate. You’ve been eating chocolate for a long time, and this is not that. You are suddenly aware that your eyebrow is twitching because you’ve just realized that I must be full of $*%#. You slowly nod your head in faux agreement.

None of these are good outcomes. 

There is another good reason for Kiona, specifically, to think about this whole thing a little differently. In addition to growing the high-end grapes that we use in our our winery, we are also growing grapes for more than 50 other winemakers. We are a supplier to our competitors. And we’re presumably making products with the same (or very similar) raw ingredients as a starting point. Are those products going to share some similarities, if presented as a list of flavors? Probably. 

Our marketing needs to pass what I call the “copy/paste test.” Simply put, another winery shouldn’t be able to use what we use to market their own product/s. Now, in full disclosure, I am not aware of this ever actually happening, nor am I saying it is an industry practice. But in the end, if we’re all pulling from the same 50 or so words to describe our Cabernet Sauvignon, why even bother? The point of marketing, after all, is differentiation. 

I like to break down “wine-talk” into two general categories:

  1. Outside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that is interesting about a wine that happens outside the bottle. Vineyards, geography, growing philosophy, winemaking goals, winemaking process, blending process, etc. 
  2. Inside the Bottle. This category encompasses everything that the drinker experiences once the cork is pulled. 

We make a concerted effort to talk about the “OtB” aspects of a wine only. This extends up and down our operation, including our website, our tech sheets, our tasting room collateral, our employee training and our general vernacular. In the rare circumstances where we dabble in “ItB” language, it’s almost always in generalities. You might read something along the lines of “fresh black fruit characteristic”, but never “brambly vine-ripened summer blackberries.”

O Durian Facebook

Poll the room you're in right now: has anyone had cassis before? If so, could that person describe the difference between a redcurrant and a blackcurrant? This is definitely maybe a photo of cassis. 

So how do we talk about our products, then? Typically we employ (depending on space) three key aspects: first, we talk about the winery in general. Then we talk about the vineyard/s from whence the wine came, and lastly, we break out the OtB information, or more pragmatically, the “Wine Profile.” You can see this at work on our own website. Here is the two-paragraph blurb on our website for our 2017 Late Harvest Riesling, where we have included vineyard and wine profile verbiage (but skipped the winery information; you’re already on our website):

Screen Shot 2018 12 11 At 1 45 10 Pm

As a point of comparison, I was asked to write a tasting note by a major retailer yesterday. They basically require this content, and I didn’t want to risk our placement by standing on my soapbox and telling them why tasting notes are boring; I am more than happy to help our sales partners if they make a direct ask. So, obligingly, I wrote a tasting note. I wanted it to be flamboyant and outrageous, so much as to be right on the edge of believability: 

“Tropical pineapple and sweet honeysuckle aromas leap out of the glass, intimating the lavish flavors that await. Secondary aromas of orange peel and fresh laundry add layered complexity. A pale lemon color belies the wine’s late harvest origin. The palate opens with mouthwatering green apple acidity, leading to layered citrus, green melon, and clover honey flavors, culminating with a slightly spicy finish. The steely minerality that is typical of the variety and region shines through from start to finish.”

While perhaps an amusing read, this marketing does not pass the copy/paste test. And it’s just so…. pretentious. We’re 80 words in to talking about this wine and no closer to knowing where it came from, how it was made, or why it was done that way.

By putting out drivel like this, we’re training the wine drinking public to think about wine as a list of flavors, a regimented, bulleted accounting of the experience the drinker is supposed to have. 

And I think it’s just about the least interesting thing we can say. 

*I understand that a case could be made that a professional wine critic could succeed in tasting a huge number of wines, but he/she is freed from all three constraints:

  • Money - Samples arrive in the mail or are paid for by their employer/business
  • Time - They are theoretically being paid for their time in analyzing the wines, allowing them to spend hours per day in their pursuit.
  • Health - They’re definitely spitting the majority of their tastes.

The wine critic also gets a pass from me in regards to written descriptions of wine. They’re typically really good at writing notes, and the best find a way to make them into little pieces of poetry so they stand alone as a piece of intrigue. They’re also linking the verbiage with an opinion, making it intrinsically more interesting. The opinion and judgement of quality is typically absent from consumer-facing marketing, where the flavors are given as definitive and the quality is implied. My main beef with this practice is the notion that producers think telling a wine drinker that a wine has a “plum note” is an interesting or memorable way to talk about a wine, when in actuality it's the exact same thing everyone else is doing.