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Tasting 200 Wines in 3 Days: Sensory Overload?

Do you think an average wine blogger can really ‘taste’ wine and get a good assessment of it at the Wine Blogger Conference 2010 (#WBC10)? A discussion with Jay Soloff, owner of Delille Cellars (@DelilleCellars on Twitter).

I’m sitting here having tea and gluten-free muffins with Jay Soloff, co-owner of Delille Cellars, which has been deemed ‘Washington States Best Winery’ time and time again. My meeting with him was not to interview him, it was tea between friends. But our conversation developed into a perfect blog topic. It went a little something like this…

Barbara: I tried well over 30 new wines a day at the Wine Blogger Conference 2010 last week. Not only was the amount of wine tastes that were thrown our way overwhelming, but there was a constant buzz of music, conversation and sales pitches, along with a general palate fatigue of 30+ WA wines a day, which started at 9am, and ended well past 10pm. Can a non skilled palate make a sound judgment under these conditions? If the point of our tasting is to let our followers in on some best kept #WAWine secrets, is an event such as this effective, as say, an hour in a tasting room or sipping a bottle of WA red with dinner?

While at WBC, I avoided any attempt to tweet or blog wine reviews, and wonder what type of assessment could truly be made in an atmosphere of that nature. For me, tasting wine in a crowded room, filled with music, people chit chatting with me about up-coming wine events etc is almost impossible (even with many years in the wine industry, and many trade tastings and events such as Taste WA). The distractions are just too numerous. I decided, instead to focus on the personalities of the wine makers, their history and story, and how I could help them get the word out on their wine. Every wine maker I spoke to, and every wine that I tried did leave an over all impression on me… but man was it tough to make a sound assessment!

Jay: Yes, that is something that wine makers/owners think about when at tastings. We at Delille Cellars have discussed our presence at large tastings numerous times, and what it means to us in terms of Return On Investment (ROI). We conclude that we don’t care about ROI at all… not even a little bit when we pour our wines to hundreds of people. We can’t weigh the value of any of our marketing effort, our aim is just to be accessible! You never know today what participation will yield down the road. What you give is what you will get. Not everyone we taste on our wines in a crowded, distracting, room will take away what we really want them to (a great introduction to our wine), but they may take with them the experience, a bit of our history, and the ability to have asked me direct questions.

Barbara: That is so perfectly ‘wine’. The wine industry is particularly unique to me in that you are selling more than the juice. You are selling a lifestyle and an experience. It seems similar to what you are saying to having a presence at a large tasting. I am glad to hear that you don’t need to measure the results of giving tastes of your wines to people, such as the Wine Blogger Conference. This leads me to ask you a question about why Delille doesn’t seem to be investing much in Social Media. Why is it that wineries are apprehensive to use that same ROI marketing concept with Social Media?

Jay: Wow… that’s a very great point Barbara, Social Media marketing has been sitting in my gut as something we need to do. Unfortunately, there are 4 owners, not just me.

Barbara: We’ll talk about that next time we meet for muffins Jay. Thanks for answering my questions.

I would like to hear more from the people that feel they are able to make a sound judgment about the wines tasted in this type of environment, especially during ‘speed tasting’. For me, WBC was a great way to learn about new wineries, places to eat and stay etc as a way of steering my followers to new cool things. As for getting a good grasp on the wines that were poured, I may have to buy them all and taste them one by one in my kitchen with dinner!

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  1. July 2, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Barb,

    This is a great conversation. Personally I would NEVER score wines in the format presented at events like Taste Washington or the Wine Bloggers Conference. There are too many factors to cloud judgement (room smell, other wine, palate fatigue, etc). I may remember a few as “stand out” wines and would potentially sit down and revisit them for a more formal analysis but wholesale scoring across the entire lot of tasted wines is NOT something I agree with!

    Josh
    DrinkNectar

  2. July 2, 2010 at 3:45 pm

    I do take notes during grand tastings but I never write full reviews. Those notes go into my files and I use those notes to help me decide which wines I want to purchase and do a proper review of. I also use those notes to gauge trends across varietals, wineries, regions and vintages. They add to my attempts of getting the big picture of a wine.

    Last month I was a judge at a wine event and gave a wine bronze. It was a speed judging but it gave me enough familiarity with the wine to know that the taste I had of that wine the next day was bad. It was being poured by a volunteer unfamiliar with the wine and didn’t recognize it as being off. They didn’t believe me it was off and kept pouring. But I tasted that same wine again at another tasting that night, poured by the wine maker that night and he told me there were some issues with some of the bottles. Repeatedly tasting wines, even in crowded and loud settings, does educate my palate about the wines and styles, building my relationship with the wine when I do get a chance to write up a bottle

  3. July 3, 2010 at 8:19 pm

    I don’t think it’s possible to accurately score a wine in that setting at all. You may get a glimpse of what the wine is like, a quick peek into it’s character. Whether or not the wine is memorable will definitely be answered (MollyDooker Velvet Glove anyone?)but trying to assign a score or serious sensory evaluation is futile. I agree with Josh, externalities will definitely affect your senses and could even dull them.

    Beau Carufel
    Beau’s Barrel Room

  4. July 3, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Hi Barbara,

    I think this is an excellent point. Having only about 5 years in the industry and being a relative newcomer to speed tastings/en masse tastings, I’ve thought about this issue a lot since my introductory experiences didn’t yield much in the way of increased wine knowledge. Palate fatigue is a definite killer for me.

    More recently I’ve tried to approach these events as a brief introduction to the wines and make a point to hit wines I’m most curious about early in the event (duh) and then focus on the networking and other knowledge I’m able to glean from the winemakers. Then I *do* go home and try everything I can with dinner!

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to judge/make serious scoring decisions/write meaningfully at an event like this; very difficult at best considering all of the factors you mentioned. Kudos to the pros doing all they can, however!

    Enjoyed the read —

    Cat
    wine_event_chic

  5. July 4, 2010 at 6:58 am

    Barbara,
    Everyone is different with regard to their tasting procedures, concentration, focus, etc. Certainly, you must spit and refresh your palate every so often in a large tasting, but if you do so, there is no reason you can’t score wines accurately, even though you don’t have the time to write a detailed review. I’ve been doing this a long time, and have often compared our scores in this type of environment vs tasting the same wine in another setting, and they are very close.
    The biggest problem for us in this setting is not the number of wines, but the fact that we are not tasting blind.
    John

    • July 4, 2010 at 8:56 am

      Thanks for the comments Jon. I suppose I mean that the average wine blogger does not have the years of experience tasting wines en mass. As for your comment about blind tasting… have you ever been to a blind tasting with over a hundred wines poured? I would love to attend or organize something like that.

  6. July 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm

    You know, with so many wines available at the conference, I actually mostly limited myself to tasting wines I hadn’t had before (or at least those that were unfamiliar to me). This meant that some of my faves, like DeLille or Woodward Canyon, were ignored. . . and that I spent more time at places like the sherry table and with Lake Chelan’s lineup. It was really fun to try a bunch of new flavors and to get a sense for what else is out there.

    Ultimately, I think that is what large tastings like this provide. A “sense” for what is out there, with a few personal favorites and highlights that stand out. For instance, I was pleasantly surprised (shocked, really) to discover that there was a decent Washington pinot noir out of the Chelan AVA. I already know that we have some of the world’s best syrahs, but pinot? 🙂 I actually had to address my own pre-conceptions.

    Several people at the conference told me about wines that surprised them or the general styles and trends that were catching their attention. Over and over again, I heard raves for DeLille and Buty and semillon white blends in general. I’ve seen this mentioned in a few blogs as well. Even for those wineries that don’t get specific mention, it is a good thing to get the kind of press that comes from a lot of positive reactions about a type of wine. . . or the general upbeat and super-nice winemakers that characterize Washington state. . .

  7. July 5, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Hi Barbara,

    For me it was the noise in the room more than the number of wines. I go to lots of trade tastings and am able to write decent tasting notes but the night at the MW hotel with all the WA wines I was so overwhelmed by the noise and the crowding that I simply couldn’t do it. At some tables it was total chaos. So I know that I probably missed out on some great wines.

    Jay was incredibly accessible and I feel very lucky that I got on the bus that tasted Delille, Buty and L’Ecole because those wines were my “find” of the weekend. I was already familiar with Delille from my retail days back here in NJ but I did not know the other two, nor did I know that these Bordeaux style white blends have such potential coming out of WA.

    I commented on Paul’s post that I wished it was all WA wines for the entire weekend. I understand the need for sponsors but I kept hearing about the 700+ WA State wineries and was wondering why there were not more of them present at the speed tasting and lining the hallway tables during the day. Attending the pre and post conference events gave me a better opportunity to taste and assess and I highly recommend those venues to others.

    Sue

  8. July 6, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Barbara,

    Very telling interaction with Jay. I was very impressed with Jay while talking with him at the sponsors tasting as well as on our Post-conference tour. Interesting to note about the difficulty with measuring marketing ROI as it relates to interactions and impressions… yet, the detractors of social media want to build their case against it by throwing that term (lack of ROI) around.

    Nice work.

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