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Lessons Learned from 100 Days of Tasting Notes
By Christy Frank
Jul 13, 2022
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Back on April 1st I signed up for a 100-Days Project.  This one was with The Isolation Journals, an online community of creatives that sprung up, like so many online communities, during the early days of COVID.  The idea of any 100-Day Project is to create one tiny, beautiful thing each day, for 100 days.  I decided my project would be to write a daily tasting note.  

You would think that as a card(board)-carrying member of the wine business working in retail, I would be writing tasting notes all day, every day.  But that hasn’t been the case for, well, years.  Way back in the early days of owning a wine shop, I was regularly writing notes about incoming wines for my blog, the nascent shop webstore (this was back in 2009/2010, so most wine shop webstores were nascent), or my monthly wine club.  There was always something new to taste and the samples that the sales reps dropped off were a novel treat.  But over the years, as the shop got busier, as a sister shop (or maybe a cousin shop, because wine shops in New York can only be distantly related) entered the fray, as I started to take on various consulting projects, tasting wines and turning them into lively, pithy tasting notes became more of a chore and less of a joy.  The rise of Instagram didn’t help either.  Why bother with a note if a picture was worth a thousand words (or more specifically, 2200 characters, the upper limit of an Instagram caption)?

My lack of enthusiasm for writing tasting notes was reinforced by a lack of actual tasting.  Was I not tasting as much because I didn’t have time to write up the notes?  Or was I not writing the notes because I wasn’t tasting enough to write about?  Whatever the logic, the sample piles started to pile up, half-opened bottles littered my cooler, and the shelves in my cellar were starting to buckle.  

Something had to be done.  I had to start writing notes again, so that I could taste again so that (if I’m being completely honest) I could start buying more wine again.  

This 100-Day Project promised to kick me into gear.  The rules I set were simple – one note each day, posted to Instagram (generally with my smiling mug, because the Instagram algorithm likes faces way more than bottles).  The wine could be anything, from any one of my many wine piles and on the inevitable days when I wouldn’t be able to grab a new bottle, I would pick a random bottle from the wine shop and write a note from memory.

July 10th was the 100th day, and while I didn’t manage to post a note every single day, I did post 100 notes during the 100 day period.  And more importantly, I got my tasting – and tasting note – groove back.  I remember what a simple joy it is to taste a wine and scribble down a few thoughts about what it brings to mind.  And if the comments I received online and in real life were any indication, a whole lot of people enjoyed this little experiment as much as I did.  

But why?  Why do people like my tasting notes, when in general, this is a written form that gets a whole lot of flack?  Given that I have 100 day’s worth of notes to reflect on, I decided to use this column to reflect on that.  So, what follows are some deeply personal, very non-scientific thoughts on what makes for a good tasting note. 

Map It Out
Why write “Central Otago” when It’s just as easy to write “New Zealand’s Central Otago?”  Not everyone is a map person, but for those that are, weaving these extra bits of location data into a note is extremely helpful.  I find myself making references to mountains, rivers, oceans, and borders.  I assume if someone is intrigued enough, they’ll pull up a map and see for themselves what I’m talking about.   

Talk a Little Tech
As with maps, I don’t shy away from the technical talk, I just try to weave it into the larger note.  I’ll mention that I suspect a wine sees some carbonic maceration due to its soft edges and high toned-carbo fruit.  Or that a wine is sherry-ish because while it still has some flor-y twang, it hasn’t actually been fortified.  If a newbie doesn’t know what these terms mean, I’ve set them out in a way that’s very easy to google.

If It’s in a Bottle (or a Can, or Already Open, or Potentially Past Its Prime), It’s Fair Game
I was not at all precious about what I tasted.  Little blind bottles from the early days of the pandemic.  Bottles that had been open in the cooler for, um, yes, years.  Bottles that probably should have been opened five years ago.  And yes, a few very fancy bottles that were always awaiting the perfect moment which never seemed to arrive.  This was a huge part of getting back into the tasting grove – reminding myself that it’s difficult to write a tasting note unless I let myself just…taste.  

Cook up Some “Word Spaghetti”
Word salad is annoying.  But word spaghetti?  Delicious!  I do realize that you shouldn’t actually throw spaghetti against a wall to see if it’s done, but it’s an apt metaphor for compelling tasting notes.  Throw whatever you’re thinking on the page and something will stick.  Some wines make me see colors, some bring to mind music or fabric or astronomy, candy or flowers, or high school memories.  Sometimes I’m struck by a detail from the boring tasting grids – acidity that’s just too racy not to mention, or tannic structure that’s straight from a textbook.  I’ve never actually chomped on a rose, thorns and all, but that doesn’t stop me from writing it!

Tell Your Story – Not Just the Wine’s
We hear over and over and over that it’s the stories that make wine interesting.  Which is true – it’s important to weave in tales about the winemaker, the grape grower, the region and its history.  But many of us aren’t able to make that trip, touch that land, shake that hand.  And those of us that are – we wind up telling the same story.  Yes, vineyard lunches are magical, but on paper, they all start to sound the same.  The real secret to a great tasting note?  I’ve learned through these 100 days that it’s about weaving my own story together with the wine’s.  Why did I pick this bottle, how did it wine up in my hands, what weird memories and liquid onomatopoeias is it bringing to my mind?  Those are the stories that make tasting notes a joy to read – and to write.

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To read the first 100 tasting notes (and the next 100…I’ll be counting backwards!), follow me on Instagram at @christy.frank.wine

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