A shift in commentary

Hello again,

even before I started actually drinking and enjoying wines, I was always confused by tasting notes. What did they mean really? Did people actually taste all of these complex and personal flavors in wines? Did they really smell all of those things, or were they things that were said to just impress people? If I didn’t smell and taste all of those things, were my tastes inadequate? Was I not getting it?

After learning more about wines, I had the plan to catalogue my wine experiences. I didn’t know exactly how to really express all of the things that I saw, smelled and tasted from the glass in front of me. I just mainly knew if I liked something or if I didn’t. Did I feel good about taking another sip or did I do it out of a sense of obligation to finish my pour? Did I want to buy another bottle if I saw it again, or would I make a mental note to steer clear of it in the future?

I would jot down notes here and there. They weren’t ever any good though. Besides, they wouldn’t mean much to anyone else besides me. I do have to confess that I felt a bit of a writer’s outlet in writing these things at times. Sharing them with others on the internet encouraged me in my wine discovery early on. “Great note!” “Exactly right!” “Spot on!” If others agreed with what I wrote, clearly that meant a perfect and concise impression had been communicated. I wasn’t so sure.

Questions still remained for me that made me much more interested in writing my own impressions than taking too much away from the notes of others. I didn’t know what types of flowers they were speaking about when they wrote ‘floral’. When they said ‘sweet oak’ was this possibly extraction mixed with reduction or was there really a lot of new oak mixed in with a high alcohol wine? There was just too much to detangle.

On top of all of this was a feeling that I had about tastes in general. If someone was tired, alert, rushed, bored, hungry, stuffed, disinterested or hyped up, surely this would have an effect on their experience. If they ate steak or fish, had a bunch of white wines (imagine the torture) or red wines or Champagne before, it would change their perception of the wine in front of them. In the real world, everything tasted before a wine would color that impression. When reading reviews, impressions, notes or ramblings on any wine I was always curious to know what was eaten before tasting those wines. If they were professional reviews I couldn’t help but wonder what other estates they tasted at before and after the wine being judged. What was the trip like to professing a wine to be “an 89 point wine” instead of something deemed “brilliant at 90 points”? How could they measure to a fine degree which wine had the “best” raspberries on that cold day in November?

Either way, it was the relevant context of the experience that I was obsessing about. After all, wine isn’t all too often consumed in a laboratory, under intense halogen lighting, while wearing goggles and white gloves with electrodes attached to your sensitive bits. For that matter, it also wasn’t always consumed in a fabulously luxurious chateau draped in expensive furnishings.

I carried this disregard everywhere that I went. That jerk at the tasting that just had to be the first one to yell out his impressions of the wine while others were waiting for their pour irritated me before anyone else, I’m sure. The wine producer that had to tell you exactly what your mouth, nose and tongue were experiencing in real time while tasting his wine. “Now you get the chocolate, a bit of raspberry, not too much though. And…bang! Cinnamon city…” His head nodding in approval of his own acute palate that could mentally penetrate your own. What a douche bag. And, it raked on every nerve I had to hear the comments from either self or group-appointed ‘master palates’ that did nothing but puff up their chest and make the world of wine lovers a smaller and more intimidating place, a seemingly secret society for super tasters that others couldn’t join in on. How many potential wine lovers have I met with the same opening response to the subject of wine. “Oh no, I don’t drink much. I’m not an expert or anything.”

“I don’t even know what I’m tasting.”

Now, that might be true if they were drinking Bordeaux. But, otherwise, I think it is ridiculous for people to not simply trust their own judgement. In fact, it doesn’t matter how you personally catalogue a wine, the tasting note that personally means the most at the end of the day should be your own. Its perfectly fine to listen to the professionals, to your peers, to people that just honestly blurt out what they feel because it feels right… it’s all fine. No judgement on my part. Seriously.

I’ll readily admit that I have gained from these impressions (as they have been complimentary) and have placed record of the professional reviews on both my website, blog as well as in our literature After selling out the vintage in question. So, there are aspects to my decision that may read as hypocritical, which I understand. Personally, I’m not sure these impressions of a wine in one moment of a day in the life of the wine is as noteworthy and concrete as some others may believe. Sure, it can serve as a data point, but only to the extent that others can fully understand and appreciate the context and biases that were present in the tasting and in the communication of the experience. For this reason, I’ve never described my wines, what good would it do anyhow? What would you know about the small wild strawberries I used to ‘borrow’ from my neighbor’s back yard when I was in elementary school?

Wine is constantly moving, and as it turns out, so are people. With just these two factors in frame, it is increasingly clear that placing a label on a wine in the context of freeform tasting notes which serve to do nothing more than speak to how a wine used to be is of decreasing value to me, and I believe to those that actually buy, share and drink our wines. With this in mind, I will start to remove all professional commentary on our website and blog relating to past and in my opinion expired reflections on our wines. The wines have moved on, and so should the commentary.

Alright, now that the big part is over, I can get to the minor part of this post. I’ve decided that our wines will not be offered for professional reviews for the foreseeable future. We have never sent samples in to critics, they’ve always visited our cave. To be precise, we would kindly prefer to not have our wines professionally reviewed. Please keep in mind, I have nothing but respect for those that are in this profession, I just see a different direction for our winery and for our specific wine culture. Any amateur that visits us is encouraged to write as many notes, impressions or thoughts of our wines as they like. Our hope is that this will encourage people that actually drink our wines to think of wine (our’s and others) outside of numerical, emotionless, outdated and exclusive boundaries. There will continue to be notes on wines and there will always be countless variables which cannot be expressed or communicated to the reader, but if what we are left with is just the Mixed voices of our community, I’d say that we are moving in the right direction.

Cheers,

Ray and Christian Walker

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14 thoughts on “A shift in commentary

  1. I am an amateur and hope to stay one. I recently had the opportunity to barrel taste the 2011 wines. I was joined by a Burgundian winemaker who is good friend and whose observations I value highly. We both came away very much impressed by your approach but more importantly by your wines. I knew you definitely are on to something when my friend said “maybe I will try that approach next year with a small cuvée”.

    I fully agree with your points on wine notes. I can’t write them and don’t understand them when I read them. In the end it boils down to one simply point: do I really like this? Your wines I really liked, and a few I really really liked. Your story is very appealing but in the end it is about the wine. It was great to discover that the quality of the wines more than back it up. Thanks!

  2. A very interesting and bold move. Have you thought about making a site where people can write about and share their experiences with your wines?

    Cheers,

    Andreas

  3. “Exactly right!” “Spot on!” I wish more producers would follow this example, but unfortunately too many consumers rely on professionals and don’t trust their own palate. Community notes like those found on CellarTracker are of more value to me than one outdated data point from a professional.

  4. Hi Ray, as a proud amateur, one of the things I love most about wine is the revelation that is comes with tasting something that I know I love but don’t have the words (or palate) to describe. As long as the company is right, I’d don’t find this frustrating and in fact, I believe there is a certain romance to that experience which is more valuable to me than knowing if the [insert characteristic] is just right. Forgettable wine is easily forgotten but a great bottle becomes an integral part of a memory – and that quest for great memories with great company is my aim.

    This addition to your ethos seems a great fit for allowing your consumers to enjoy an honest product in a honest way, congrats!

  5. Sure, tasting notes can be meaningless, but I don’t think they have to be. As a consumer, I find them very helpful – if it’s someone I trust and understand. For example, I’m a big Champagne lover. So I find Peter Liem’s excellent work pretty helpful. He gets to taste more vintages and producers than I can. Out of this, I’m probably able to avoid some bad wines as well as find some good wines. I don’t agree with everything he writes, but I know where I disagree and it’s just a matter of taste – so that’s ok.

    This may not be an apt example though as Liem focuses a lot on the house, what they do and their style – which plays a big role in the houses I choose to taste and explore.

  6. I will be taking your advice right away! Thank you very much for the idea. My buddy Dan Bailey had the idea at pretty much the same time, you guys are great help!!

  7. The pleasure was all mine. I really liked your friend too. Straight shooter, I enjoy people like that. You guys are welcome anytime., And thank you for bringing those bottles. Very kind of you. The Freeman was excellent. Brings back fond memories. I still feel like a rookie, and proud of it!!! Haven’t tried the other yet, but I will.

    Thanks again for your flattering thoughts on our 2011s!

  8. Excellent perspective. Being ITB and a consumer, I provide tasting notes merely as a guide and hope and encourage wine lovers to be comfortable with what hey taste and smell. The journey is the reward.

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