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james laube's wine flights

Get It Write From The Start

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 3, 2006 4:51pm ET

When you taste wines, seriously or for fun, do yourself a favor.

Take notes. Written ones.

This was an important lesson I learned early on in my career.

Before I wrote about wine, when I simply drank it, one way my friends and I kept track of what we liked was to place the empty bottles on the hearth above the fireplace. Until it got too crowded….

That lineup of dead soldiers changed with time, with better bottles bumping off lesser ones.

One image I have in mind is that by the time I moved from that house in Cardiff, in San Diego, the names of Heitz Cellar and Louis M. Martini were prominently displayed.

When I began writing about wine, I quickly learned from the likes of Michael Broadbent that the best way to capture your thoughts and memories was to write a note.

You remember that drill from school. Writing down your thoughts is another way to help your brain visualize the words.

You don’t have to be poetic or prolific in your choice of language. Ratings are a good idea, too, whether it’s a numerical scale, A through F letter grade, or any other method you find useful.

I use a couple of scoring systems.

Ninety-nine percent of the time I taste wines, I’m sitting in front of a computer, in my office, so I simply type the notes in a database, with a description, a rating on our 100-point scale and a drink window.

When I’m at a trade tasting, sampling barrel samples where it’s not blind and there’s less room to write detailed notes, I use a system of three ratings: + for wines I really like, usually accompanied by a few descriptors; 0 for wines that are good; and – for wines that don’t impress me.

When I’m out for lunch or dinner and want to make a note, I either use my notepad or a scrap of paper.

What’s surprising is that when I taste with winemakers, I rarely see them take notes.

And when I’m dining, I can count on one hand the people I’ve seen writing notes.

Which makes me wonder: Do you take notes?

How do you capture your impressions--on a piece of paper, notepad or handheld device? Photographic memory?

I know lots of people who still soak off the labels of their superstar wines and place them in a scrapbook.

That helps preseve the memory.

Jim Nuffield
Toronto —  August 3, 2006 6:02pm ET
James (there are just too many James around here), I designed a database to keep track of my wines and I enter tasting notes in that. If I'm out, I'll try to write down my notes on a scrap and then enter them later. I've pretty much moved to a unified tasting method of evaluating wine by Color (value, intensity, clarity), Aroma (fruit, vegetal, floral, wood, earth and other notes, plus intensity) and Palate (as in aroma, plus body, acidity, length) and Overall Impression. I don't give points (yet), because I've never tried a 99 or 100 point wine in its prime. I believe that one needs to experience close to the best to give a relative ranking below that.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 3, 2006 6:34pm ET
I used to capture everything in a spreadsheet, but then my wife bought me a wine tasting notebook and I've become very fond of making entries there. It has spots for all the pertinent details and I beef it up by including 4 additional items: Taste, Value, Cost, Where Bought. The Taste and Value components are each based on a 0.0 - 10.0 scale. I write a comprehensive tasting note if the wine is worthy, particularly calling out the nose, mouth and finish. Then I'll state when I should next try another bottle along with whether or not my wife enjoyed this particular wine (very important!). Everyone thinks I'm a cork dork for taking things so seriously, but I only do it when I'm at home so I just tell them to "shaddup."
Rob Lang
PA —  August 3, 2006 7:34pm ET
Hi,I have tasted the 2002 estate Chateau Montelena 3 times and have consistently rated it very highly. Same with Robert Parker. How can you drink the same wine and rate it so low?Thanks,Rob.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 3, 2006 7:39pm ET
Rob, I can only write about what I taste and my experience with Montelena Estate is different than yours and apparently Parker's.
Steve Ritchie
Atlanta, GA —  August 3, 2006 9:25pm ET
I have made my notes in an online cellar management system that has been invaluable to me. I can remember my experiences anywhere I travel, can add new favorites, and compare my opinions with the pros. My laptop is my notebook, I guess.
Chris Moody
Saint Charles, MO —  August 3, 2006 9:35pm ET
I have gone to using a wine diary that lists all the pertinent information about the wine and the basics of my impression of the wine (appearance, nose, taste, and balance). I also use this to record with whom I tasted and the accompanying meal. It is a great record of my changing tastes and good memories.
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  August 3, 2006 10:04pm ET
I take notes when I'm at a tasting and want to remember specifics about a wine. Mostly its with the intention of buying it later. If its served in conjunction with food, I may want to highlight what elements of the food seem to be working with the wine as that will assist me later when I decide to serve it with my cooking. I may also take a note or two when I'm having a bottle of wine that I have more of to evaluate if I think its ready to drink and how its coming along. But when I'm having dinner with friends, I don't take notes or over analyze the wine. Its about the whole experience - the wine, the food, the people, the conversation. I wouldn't want to distract the evening with pen and paper. Besides, I'm not a professional. I need some quiet time and space to focus if I want to get into detail like that. A table of people isn't the right environment. I never try to assign a score. Again, I'm not a professional and don't need to pretend that I am. I usually keep my "score" by evaluating what I'm tasting against what I prefer in wines and what I evaluate its general quality to price ratio to be. Once I settle on it, the wine becomes a "don't bother", "get it", or "GET IT!". The 100 point scale is a good tool for WS to communicate their evaluation of a wine and the level of enthusiasm for it. But I don't need it for my own evaluation and probably can't fine tune my analysis enough to consistently assign a score like that. Dan J
John Wilen
Texas —  August 3, 2006 10:46pm ET
Rob, I have my own theory on why Parkers ratings diverge at times. He does not taste blind. Think about it. He visits a winery that he already has preconceived notions about. Whether consciously or not, he has already formed an opinion of the producer based on the winemaker, the owners, their "commitment" to the business (RP loves wineries that invest $$$), their previous vintages, etc. The result is that RP scores for a given wine do not swing wildly from year to year. If a normally great wine has an off year, he'll give it 88. That is a strong enough slap to send a message. His subscribers know to look for the hints. I also believe he tends to evaluate wine through a "vintage lens": individual wine scores get factored up or down based on the quality of the vintage. In other words, the individual wines from a vintage (he feels) have to bear some mathematical relationship to the vintage score. So most 2002 CA cabs get a bump up, for example. Now JL on the other hand has generally not been afraid to call em like he sees em. That's because he does not see them; he tastes "single blind". That is why you sometimes see his scores of 69 or 77 for well known and expensive wines, even in good vintages. If it tastes like crap, JL tells his readers. Sometimes even trying it 4 times and having "consistent notes"..... Give me an opinionated critic any day....
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 4, 2006 3:02am ET
I was just contemplating asking this very question. How do others take notes or evaluate wines? I use a method similar to your barrel sample one (+, 0, -) and a brief note or 2. At trade tastings I only take notes on ones that I like and am thinking about buying. I'll go back around after a prelim tasting. I try to limit the amount of wines that I taste - ten, twelve max. I don't see how you do it w/ those massive tastings. I do agree w/ Dan, I don't always take notes esp when in a social setting. I may, the next day or later that night, jot down a highlight or 2 when I get home. I'm curious how others organize these notes: By region, vintage, varietal, sequentially. Mine are on daytimers, tasting sell sheets, menus. It's a mess. I really need to organize it all better. I picture Broadbent w/ rich, leather bound, gilt-edged notebooks all the same, organized by the year going back 4 centuries.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  August 4, 2006 9:34am ET
I put everything in my treo (hope it doesn't break) ... When it comes to tasting I just throw away the numbers. Because I don't have to go through 1000 bottles of day (and my tongue thanks me for it). I will be very descriptive following the below list; the color, texture, clarity, viscosity, sweetness, fruitiness, oakiness and in an extra note section talk about anything else that might have stood out. If the wine is a good value after taking my notes, I'll throw the Dan notes of "GET IT" or "don't bother".

If I'm out with clients, and we get a good wine, I'll grab sip before i hit the restroom (tacky i know) and just jot down what i think before i get into the toilet... most restaurants usualyl have a telephone area.
Mark Mccullough
GA —  August 4, 2006 9:53am ET
John, thank you for the excellent post re: RP ratings vs WS. Through trial and error, I have had similar experiences which led to my rule #1 on buying a wine I have not tried: NEVER EVER buy a wine solely on an RP score. WS, on the other hand, while not perfect, has been much much more reliable and consistent. Also, my experience has been that the RP scales are inflated vs WS as well, 95RP is not 95WS in both quality of individual wines and the number of wines that are rated that high. I never really analyzed it, but your post makes perfect sense to me. And JL, keep calling them as you see them. There are too many legendary names making ok (or worse) wines for premium prices these days. I appreciate the efforts of WS to evaluate every wine on its own merits without the label.
Michael Culley
August 4, 2006 11:25am ET
JL...first of all, Harvey needs to change his name so we can call you guys The James Gang. Secondly, when I was involved in the 'trade' I just wrote key words describing what I tasted(no numbers). I could tell by reading the notes how much I liked a wine. Now that I'm no longer in the sales end I just use my head. If I remember it, it was good and worthwile to try a different vintage. If I didn't care for it, there was no need to remember. I love Michael Broadbent but I wonder how much time he spends re-reading his notes.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 4, 2006 12:04pm ET
John, you've captured how we view the situation regarding blind tastings. We're rating wines not wineries' reputations, so thanks for your note, thoughts and kind words. Same to you, Mark. Most of us at WS wish all critics would review the wines blind and use the full range of scores (instead of stopping at 80 or 85 points. That would make for more interesting commentaries and ratings, don't you think?
William Newell
Buffalo, NY —  August 4, 2006 12:07pm ET
Two or three Christmases ago, my wife gave me a software program called Wine Cellar System, which lets you record wine purchases, costs and inventory, ratings from professionals, as well as add your own tasting notes.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 4, 2006 12:08pm ET
So Michael, are you the same Michael I think you are? Old friends of the Thompsons in Napa, now residing in Italy?
Alan Vinci
springfield, n.j. —  August 4, 2006 12:26pm ET
When out with friends and family, I rarely write down comments as to what I'm drinking, but I do make mental notes about the complexity, style and flavors of each wine.I do not try to figure out a particular score but rather base it on the good to classic catagory. We often share comments with our guests about each particular wine and it's characteristics, and how well it paired with our dishes.I do write down notes when attending a wine tasting, where I have the time to concentrate on each wine tasted.
Robert Gott
Doral/Florida —  August 4, 2006 3:28pm ET
James, I always take notes on a wine. I think dated notes are essential to keep track of how a wine is progressing as it ages if you have multiple bottles. When I'm out to dinner with my wife and we have a single bottle, I just remember what I thought about it and write it down when we get home. At the South Florida offlines I take on the job of being the 'scribe', keeping track of the wines we taste and posting notes on the WS forum. Everyone that attended can add their own impressions after I post and everyone seems to be happy with that.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  August 5, 2006 1:12am ET
I wrote notes in a little booklet in my kitchen. Like most I write various impressions (aroma, taste, richness). I also note how it evolved after opening, if significant. If away, I write what I can remember. I decided I wanted to record a final "score", and after much pondering decided on a letter grade based on value: A=buy a case or more, B=buy 3 more bottles; C=I enjoyed it, but that's enough; D=no thanks. I felt this distilled my thoughts best and with this scheme you can't rate too many wines an "A".
Michael Culley
August 5, 2006 9:29am ET
JL...yes, the very one, thanks for asking. Russell...with such a vast array and so many good wines your system is a good practical and simple one and basically what goes through my head when tasting.
Greg Raynor
August 5, 2006 12:07pm ET
The "Tasting Notes" section of the Wine Spectator forums serve as one great source to post and review other's tasting notes. James Suckling and James Molesworth are frequent posters in this section (We'd love to see you there more often, Mr. Laube!) I am a huge fan of CellarTracker.com as well. As full service inventory management, tasting note depository and organizational tool, I haven't found anything like it.

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