Why Community Tasting Note Sites Will Fail

A lot of you are going to disagree with what follows. Especially if you use one of these services or, worse yet, have spent a lot of your time, energy, and money building one of them. To you folks who will dismiss the analysis and predictions below, I have this to say: I hope I’m wrong. I really do. But unfortunately as I see it today, the recent rash of community-based tasting note web sites will not succeed.

When I started this blog two and a half years ago, one of the first folks who contacted me asking for a reciprocal link were the guys running a service called WARPA. I never really knew what that acronym stood for, unless they were suggesting that they were a wine version of DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the guys who invented the Internet). In any case, these guys had a nifty little service that they pitched as the answer to the hegemony of the giants of wine criticism. As they saw it, they were going to inject a little democracy into the wine reviewing process. The idea was simple: have lots of people write tasting notes and scores for lots of wines and with enough reviews in the system, it would gradually, through the power of statistics, become a much more authoritative source on which wines the majority of wine drinkers actually liked, and what they might like if they tried them. Think “Amazon.Com customer reviews for wine” or some such notion.

In principle this isn’t a bad idea. But as Yogi Berra once said, “In theory there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is.” But I am getting a little ahead of myself.

For a couple of years these services operated (or should I say, languished) in relative isolation. None of them really picked up any steam, for reasons that I will come to in a moment.

Then, Web 2.0 happened. About 18 months ago, AJAX started popping up on the Web. MySpace was taking off, LinkedIn had built critical mass, Google was wowing the world with maps and the power of search, and new services like Flickr and Del.icio.us were showing that there was a future (not to mention a lot of cash) in user-generated content.

It was only a matter of time before someone applied these principles to the world of wine, and sure enough, starting about six months ago, I began getting e-mails about every three weeks from new websites that promised to bring the power of Web 2.0 to wine. Corkd, LogABottle, Winelog.Net, TastyDrop, OpenBottles. The list is still growing, as I’m sure there are a couple of others still in development.

While they may have slightly slicker designs than clunky old WARPA, they are all based on the same model, and founded with the same principles — amassing a large community base of tasting notes as a viable alternative to the established oligarchy of wine criticism that you might call The Park-Tator.

Yet, just like WARPA, all of these services suffer from the same four fundamental flaws.

#1: In order to be really useful, you gotta have a hell of a lot of wines in the system

Imagine going to the library searching for a book on American rattlesnakes and once there, finding that not only does the library not have the book on American rattlesnakes you wanted, but they only have one book on snakes, and it’s about the benign garden snakes of southern France. The librarian tells you, “well, you could write the book yourself, then we would have the book you need!” but what you really wanted was to take a look at the book and see if you wanted to go out and buy it.

Most of these sites have exactly the same problem. Because all the content is user generated, it takes an incredible amount of time to get enough wines into the system to make it useful to anyone. Add to that the fact that the majority of people only drink a very small minority of the wines available on the market, and you’ve got a huge problem getting anything more than the few most common wines into your system with any certainty.

Don’t believe me? Try searching any of these services for one of your favorite wines. Nothing totally obscure, but something reasonable like, say, a 2003 Spencer Roloson “La Herradura Vineyard” Syrah. If you’re like me, you come up with no results 18 out of 20 times. If I’m looking for tasting notes or recommendations on when to drink a wine, or what to eat with a particular bottle, none of these services actually help.

#2: We users are stupid and we don’t know how to write.

User generated content is always dependent on the user. Unfortunately one of the biggest problems with users is that they are not dependable. They make mistakes. Or worse (and much more common) they don’t know enough about wine to actually enter the wine names into the site correctly. My last search one one of these sites was for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape, a notoriously hard to spell wine. Imagine my surprise when the system actually came up with a result. Here’s what it provided me:

1995 Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Tasting note: Loved it !

I don’t think I could have invented a more perfect illustration of my point. While this user had, through sheer luck, or by copying the text right off the bottle, managed to spell Chateauneuf-du-Pape correctly, the lack of a producer name (not to mention country designation) and the extremely detailed tasting note make for a deadly combination.

Even when users do manage to get the full name of the wine right, figure out the appellation if it’s not part of the name of the wine, and list the right country of origin correct, very few people can actually write a tasting note that means something to someone else. Of course, we could get into a discussion here (and a perfectly valid one) about the value of tasting notes in general, but hopefully you’ll humor me and admit that if written well they can be a lot more helpful in evaluating a wine than nothing at all. But sadly, very few users of these systems can actually write. I’m not even going to get into whether their palates are reliable.

One of the ways of getting around this problem is to seed the site with a relatively “complete” wine database, which you force users to select their wine from before they can enter a tasting note (along with a protocol for adding wines to the database if the wine they are trying to make notes about is actually not yet in there).

But even a good wine database can’t fix the biggest problem.

#3: There is not enough incentive or reason to use the system regularly

With any online community site that relies on user generated content. the usefulness of the system is directly correlated to how much content it has in it and how regularly it gets used. The more people who are using it (that is, both reading and contributing content) on a frequent basis, the more valuable it becomes.

The problem with these wine tasting note sites is that people just won’t contribute enough. Like all community sites that provide people an opportunity to build an identity for themselves online, there will be a few users at each site who are the core of the community. These people have their egos (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way) wrapped up in their use of the site. They get pleasure out of being the resident experts, and will outperform all other users by a factor of ten. Some of these folks may enter hundreds of tasting notes for their wines, and actively add comments to new wines that other users put into the system.

The problem is, there just aren’t enough of these users. For these core super users, the building of their identity is enough of an excuse to come every day, or a couple of times per week to add new tasting notes, but for the majority of the population, they just can’t be bothered to do it that often, no matter how much they agree with the principles behind the site, and no matter how much they understand that their contribution increases the quality of the experience for everyone.

Amazon.Com book reviews are a case in point. While there are those users who clearly spend a lot of time going to the site for the express purpose of entering reviews on books they have read (again, to build their own identity online) the vast majority of us submit reviews only in the process of shopping for books.

Let me restate that. We most often enter reviews only because we happened to have gone to the site for a completely different (and I might add, more important) reason: to buy something. Luckily for Amazon, a heck of a lot of people buy books from them frequently, so there are lots of occasions for people to go on and write reviews of books they have read.

None of these wine sites really provide any other incentive to visit the site other than to read or write tasting notes, and frankly there just aren’t enough people with the desire or the discipline to do that regularly to ever amass the database of tasting notes and scores that could come anywhere close to achieving the admirable goals that inspired these sites to begin with.

#4: There just aren’t enough wine lovers to go around

It kills me to write this, but it’s true. There just aren’t enough wine lovers out there that are competent and interested enough to make a system like this work. Nearly everyone reads books, and so Amazon can have a pretty decent amount of coverage of customer reviews for their vast inventory of books, but there is nothing like that population in the wine world. If you take all the English speaking (as these sites are only in English) wine lovers in the world; then subtract out the ones who wouldn’t know a tasting note if it bit them in the ass (the ones who are responsible for Beringer and Sutter Home White Zinfandels being the most consumed restaurant wine in the US); then you subtract out the ones who don’t have any interest in doing “wine related” things online; and then subtract out the ones who already have their hands full participating in one of the two or three major wine forums out there, reading their wine magazines, maybe even (gasp) reading wine blogs, and then finding time to actually drink wine, you are left with an unfortunately and pitifully small group of users. This group grows larger all the time, no doubt, but remains small nonetheless.

In that list I just outlined of things I that wine lovers are doing online, I conspicuously left out one thing. This will finally mollify those of you who have been shouting at your computer for the last few paragraphs, “yeah, but what about CellarTracker!?”

Now that is an entirely different story.

For those of you who don’t know, CellarTracker is a free online web application that is designed to help users manager their wine cellars. It provides basic inventory management, cost evaluation, integration with sources of official reviews (so that you can look at one of your wines and see what the Parker-Tator said about it), and drink date recommendations.

It also happens to have one of the most authoritative databases of community created tasting notes in the world. There are a few other free cellar management / community sites out there, like BottleCount but they don’t have the depth of content that cellar tracker

So how does Cellar Tracker manage to get around the problems I outlined above? Well it doesn’t entirely, but it has managed to not fall prey to enough of them to minimize the effects of the ones it can’t control.

First, cellar tracker has precisely the sort of authoritative wine database I talked about. You can’t enter a wine into your collection, let alone write a testing note for it without they system first checking to make sure that the wine doesn’t already exist in the extensive database that runs the site. There is a mechanism for users to correct bad listings, as well as a mechanism to get new wines, new wine regions, and new varietals added to the system, all of which go a long way towards preventing the 1995 Chateauneuf-du-Pape problem. Also because this is a commercial wine database, CellarTracker isn’t dependent upon users entering content for wines to be in their system. Their hit rate for wines that I randomly type into their search field is nearly the inverse of the community tasting note sites: only one or two out of twenty come up empty handed.

Secondly, cellar tracker provides an excuse for people to return to the site frequently. After all, folks are using this site to manage their cellars. The main users of the site are moderate to rabid (isn’t that the spectrum?) wine collectors, who are, with reasonably frequency, adding to and subtracting bottles from their cellar. And this means that they’re coming back to the site to change the inventory of their cellar with regularity. The more they drink and the more they buy, the more they’re online adding and subtracting wines from their inventory, which, just like buying a book at Amazon, provides them the perfect opportunity to take a couple of minutes to enter their tasting notes and suggested drink dates for their wines. Heck, I know one wine lover who has a computer in his kitchen and most of the times I’ve gone over for dinner there’s a web browser sitting open on the desktop with his cellar inventory in it.

Finally, I don’t know how many users cellar tracker has, but it’s been around for some time (6 years?) and has grown slowly to the point where it seems to have enough users, and active ones at that, to actually provide a useful set of data about wine that might have a prayer of being an alternative to (or at least a useful augmentation of) the Parker-Tator’s web sites.

As a purely editorial side note, CellarTracker would be a lot MORE successful if they let someone redesign what must be one of the most godawful web application interfaces I have ever seen. The thing simply stinks, and for this reason only I do not use the service. Did I mention that the UI sucks?

Great. Glad to have gotten that off my chest. Now back to the essay.

Well, that’s a good question. I didn’t just spend the last two hours of this flight I’m on to Chicago to be a wet blanket on the idealistic wine lovers who have spent the effort to build these applications. I’m sure they’re good folks with good intentions and I would love to see them succeed, but I just don’t think they will the way they are going.

So here’s what they need to do: solve three of these four problems.

There’s nothing we can do about the last one, short of sabotaging other online wine destinations and forcing users to relocate their online wine activities to somewhere new. Heck, online wine communities (actually ALL online communities) have a way of imploding one their own anyway, so it may just be a matter of time. But as for the other three problems, the first two are imminently solvable and the third, well, the third may require some changes to the business model.

If my traffic numbers, and in particular the number of referrals I get from Google searches on specific individual wines are any indication there’s definitely a population of folks out there who would love to get more information about the wine they’re drinking online, it’s just a matter of figuring out how to harness their desire to build something that all of us can benefit from. The answer, however, is NOT “just like del.icio.us, but for wine!”

Comments (59):

  1. Terry Hughes

    June 16, 2006 at 4:08 AM

    You make some excellent points, Alder.
    Some Italian friends and I MAY have hit upon a better way to approach this need for organized wine criticism, etc. The Wine Blog Association has just been started, spearheaded by the well-known Italian wine writer, Franco Ziliani, and a blogger you know well, Giampiero Nadali, alias Aristide. The WBA has several goals, one of which is to gather the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of a lot of people in the wine sector–amateurs, producers, journalists, etc.–under its banner, and to provide easy access to a wealth of opinions, reports, and so on, that might otherwise be overlooked.
    Another important goal is to break that “Park-Tator” hegemony you refer to.
    The only downside right now in these very earliest days of the association is that all but one of the bloggers (me) writes in Italian. But we are looking to attract bloggers from all over–the American market obviously being a very big object of desire.
    I mentioned the “accumulated knowledge and wisdom” of the many contributors. The many viewpoints and types of experience are beneficial for a well-rounded discussion and understanding of wine, and the quality control issue you mention near the top of your article is effectively banished by this approach. It may not be a solution for everyone, but it will serve the majority of wine lovers well, some time, some way.
    Applications for membership are being accepted, by the way: wineblogassociation@gmail.com
    Regards from Rome, Milan…and New York

  2. Bill M

    June 16, 2006 at 11:06 AM

    You are right on the topic. Wine reviews and communicating tasting experiences are going to be as flawed as we are human – web enabled or not. No two people ever see same bottle the same way.
    I am a big fan of Vinography.com and CellarTraker.com for that very reason. Eric Levine at CT is a nice guy. His web sight has 16,000 users, tracking over 2 million bottles, 125,000 reviews on over 38,000 different wines.
    I enjoy your insights and CT’s collection of experiences. Both sites are examples of the successful Web communities. I tip my glass to the both of you.

  3. Joe

    June 16, 2006 at 1:56 PM

    Long time reader and a big fan. I appreciate this post from two perspectives; 1) as a wine collector and drinker and 2) as a partner in eSommelier. When we started eSommelier one of our biggest goals was to create a product that made the task of managing a large (when I say large I mean over 1,000 bottles) wine cellar easier and more efficient. Another goal which we are still working on was to create a professional database of wine ratings, tasting notes, drink dates, etc. from respected journalists/publications. Alas, that goal has proven more elusive than we first imagined. The problem is this; unlike CDs and DVDs there is no central, respected database of information on EVERY bottle of wine produced in the world. And by database I don’t just mean tasting notes and ratings, I mean bar code info, country of origin and other basic info. Try this experiment – grab any CD off your shelf and type in the UPC symbol on the jacket into Google. I bet 9 times out of 10 you’ll be lead to dozens of sites that can not only sell you the CD, but give you reviews and other pertinent info. Now try it with the UPC symbol on a bottle of wine. Sure, you’ll sometimes get a hit from Bottle Count, but the information given is minimal and can be found directly on the bottle anyway. Respected publications have websites that you can subscribe to to get this info but who is the “true” authority? Parker? Laube? Tanzer? No one seems to agree here. For a database to be truly all emcompassing it needs to be constantly managed by a team that can aggregate the UPC symbol, tasting notes, ratings, drink dates, wine label, current price, auction price and easily provide that info to users with minimal effort. Again, there is no central respository to obtain all of this information so it must be gathered one-by-one. That takes two things, money and more money.
    Currently eSommelier does not provide its users with tasting notes, ratings and drink dates, but we’ll soon be incorporating a browser into our product that will allow users to search for such info and cut and paste it back into their system. With the limitation to information on wines this is the best solution we have come up with to give our users the info they want.
    Look to us, though, in the future to be the aggregation source for the type of information on wine that collectors seek. Like I said, we’re working on it. It’s going to take A LOT of time though, and oh yeah – A LOT of money.

  4. medmusings

    June 17, 2006 at 11:19 PM

    links for 2006-06-18

    Vinography: A Wine Blog: Why Community Tasting Note Sites Will Fail: no reason to return, unlike cellar tracking websites (tags: wine cellar management) CNN.com – Fast food from gourmands (tags: foodie fast+food) HIStalk: From pokeMAR: “Re: Epic and U…

  5. Jack

    June 18, 2006 at 5:16 PM

    You’re a bit hard on CellarTracker’s interface. It gets improved regularly, too. In fact, I think this one thing that regular CellarTracker users love – Eric is constantly improving it.
    I’m also pretty sure CellarTracker is only a few years old, not 6 or 7. It’s closing in on a quarter of million different bottles in its database.

  6. Alder

    June 18, 2006 at 9:26 PM

    Jack, thanks for the comments. I’ve done some checking and it seems you’re right. The internet archive only shows CellarTracker emerging in 2003. So it’s been around a lot shorter time than I thought.

  7. steve

    June 18, 2006 at 9:58 PM

    Have you tried WineFetch.com? I used to use CT, but found winefetch to have a cleaner interface than CT. And like CT, I think it too will solve some of the problems you outlined above.

  8. Erin

    June 20, 2006 at 8:57 AM

    Absolutely agree. I’m very big on community-based sites in general, but not necessarily in the wine industry. I had at one time considered developing something similar myself, only to realize several of the points that you brought up: bare databases and less than helpful tasting notes. Unless the webmaster has time to devote to entering a vast library of wines themselves prior to launch, it would take years to get up to snuff. Even then, you’ll get stuck with quite a few “It was good.” reviews. A gem every here and there sure, but do you want to wade through the stack to find them?

  9. Alder

    June 23, 2006 at 6:05 PM

    Cool! Thanks for responding. I’m actually surprised that the folks who run any of these sites have’t bothered to comment. Maybe they’re too busy fixing bugs.

  10. Eric LeVine

    June 24, 2006 at 10:46 PM

    Alder, sorry I haven’t had a chance to reply yet. I’m more busy adding features and trying to figure out how to improve the CellarTracker UI. I have definitely been focused on function over form over the past 26 months since CellarTracker launched. Anyway, I promise I will get back soon with a thoughtful, in-depth reply.

  11. Andre

    June 26, 2006 at 7:00 AM

    thanks for all this excelent feddback. I’ve given my owne view of these problems and potential solutions. In general I agree with you and David (Wheeler) but I have a few points to add to the conversation. It’ here http://blog.adegga.com/?p=24
    I’m currently working on adegga (www.adegga.com) which is a social wine shopping application that is trying to solve some of the problems we’ve all been dealing with wine shopping.

  12. Sagi Solomon

    June 26, 2006 at 7:34 AM

    Hi Alder,
    Thank you for your insightful post. You raise valid issues, which I deal with regularly, but I do not feel will necessarily mean that sites like OpenBottles will fail. Allow me to address each of your points in turn.
    #1 Your first point is correct. Content drives the success of any website. Building a large database is not a simple task, but it is also not an impossible one. It has been done before (e.g., phone directories), and it is currently being done (e.g. Yahoo! Answers). The key to building this database is to find the source of the data. My approach is to recruit the wineries to populate the database. Because OpenBottles is a community site, people visit it to find information about wines, not just to review them. Therefore, wineries have a vested interest in providing the most current information about their wines to the consumers (and it�s free advertising). This approach has been fairly successful so far, and I am continuously simplifying the process and adding features to make it easier for wineries to add their wines. And yes, I also allow users to add wines to the database (the information is reviewed and edited before being made generally available. I also populate the database myself.
    #2 I think the real issue here is not that users are stupid, but rather that users are afraid of sounding stupid. Many wine drinkers that I talked to about this issue seem to think that wine reviews have to �sound� a certain way � abstract, complex and generally incomprehensible (i.e., like they do in Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast). You don�t have this problem with product reviews (epinions, Amazon) or restaurant reviews (Yahoo! Local). There is no �standard� for what these reviews should sound like. Wine reviews can be the same. In my opinion, community reviews should help people figure out what tastes good, not who can write like Parker. Remove the misperception of what a review should sound like, and you can focus people on what the review should say. I designed OpenBottles to do exactly this by providing a cheat-sheet to guide people through the process for tasting wine, as well as a checkbox-based form with comment fields to record their impressions. People will write if they feel comfortable writing.
    #3 This may be true if a site provides nothing but community tasting notes. However, not many do. OpenBottles is a community first and foremost. In addition to wine reviews, we offer an online wine cellar, a community wine events calendar, discussions, etc. There is plenty to keep people involved. And that�s the goal � keep people involved and they will keep coming back. Many of the other sites you mention provide other features as well.
    #4 You may be right about this point to some extent. Although I do not believe that there is a lack of wine lovers out there, I do believe that there may be a lack of wine lovers that are ready to contribute. As I mentioned before, people are afraid to sound stupid. We can create more contributors if we can create an environment in which they feel comfortable.
    Thank you,
    Sagi Solomon

  13. Eric LeVine

    June 26, 2006 at 10:45 AM

    Sorry it has taken me time to respond. I very much appreciated and enjoyed your article, and it provides plenty of fair feedback, insight, and criticism.
    Before I dive right in and start affirming or rebutting your main points, I wanted to get a little philosophical and question the very premise of the article. What exactly is �success� both as defined by you and by the authors of the many sites that seek to get users to write wine reviews? As you say �they are all based on the same model, and founded with the same principles — amassing a large community base of tasting notes as a viable alternative to the established oligarchy of wine criticism that you might call The Park-Tator.� Is that really the goal for all of these sites?
    Certainly for WARPA it is, as these choice words are pulled right from their site: �The goal is to get the largest collection of amateur wine ratings and tasting notes to offer a democratic alternative to wine ratings by professional wine gurus. What I feel is very unfair in the world of wine is the following. Today each country has about 10 wine gurus or influential sources that are publishing wine ratings. This means that a group of no more than 100 to 500 people are influencing what millions of wine lovers worldwide think .. ..and buy to try. Together we can beat Robert Parker �nd Wine Spectator and become the largest source of wine ratings on the planet! Why? Very simple: Only with a large group of wine lovers can we make a more honest and fair judgement than the opinion of single person.�
    And for another unmentioned but interesting site, WineDemocracy.com, there is a milder but similar tone: �As avid wine drinkers and collectors, each member of the WineDemocracy.com team found themselves spending an increasing amount of time in online wine forums. These vibrant communities possess more wine knowledge than any one person can ever obtain. We began to learn much more from fellow wine enthusiasts than we ever had from professional wine critics. […] WineDemocracy.com is committed to producing the world’s greatest wine ratings by aggregating the opinions of wine enthusiasts. […] We believe that aggregated wine ratings reflect the market opinion of a wine more accurately than the ratings of any one person.�
    So how are different sites doing then? For the sites that disclose the number of reviews, here is what I could ascertain: (I would love to hear about more)
    Wine Spectator: 161,000 notes (paid subscription only)
    CellarTracker.com: 129,581 free notes
    Robin Garr/WLP: ~80,000 free notes
    eRobertParker.com: ~70,000 notes (paid subscription only)
    Tanzer/IWC: ~50,000 notes (paid subscription only)
    Belmaati.com: 21,831 free notes
    WARPA: 15,387 free notes
    WineDemocracy: 6,975 free notes
    Hmm, some tall hills to climb there.
    So really then, does it come down to jealousy vs. the obvious market success of Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator and other critics? What role does the professional critic play in the industry, as has that grown too large? Is this a problem that needs to be vanquished or toppled somehow? Personally, I have found a number of critics to be very valuable tools in helping me to decide what wines to buy and cellar (and I susbscribe to all of Parker, Spectator, Tanzer, Jancis and BurgHound). This does not even require that you agree with the critic, but rather, if the critic is very consistent, you can use both their positive and negative reviews as an indicator of your own personal likes and dislikes if you are able to calibrate your palate to theirs. So for example, for my palate, I can almost slavishly follow Robert Parker�s advice in Bordeaux, as I have found almost no deviation between our tastes after more than 500 comparisons. However, when Parker used to write about Tuscany, I found many of his reviews to be hit or miss for me. Fortunately, I do find some of what James Suckling writes about Tuscany to jibe pretty consistently with what I like, modulo the fact that he gets a bit carried away with the ripe vintages. One reviewer I never understood was Per-Henrik Mansson when he wrote about the Rhone for the Wine Spectator, as every review seemed to descry the fact that he wasn;t tasting Burgundy instead. You could often tell that he really didn�t like the wines, and his reviews seemed very erratic as a result. I could go on, but I think my point is clear. The reviewers, all of them, can be very useful if you use them as a general calibration resource instead of slavishly chasing every last point or example they cite. The bottom line is that for many wines, they have access before we do. And for many wines, we are forced to make a purchase decision without being able to taste the wine. Now maybe I should wrangle my way over to Bordeaux every spring to taste en primeur, but it�s also not clear to me that I have any idea what I like when tasting wines that are so young and unfinished.
    The main limitation I see with the professional reviewers is one of coverage. The Wine Advocate publishes about 10,000 reviews each year with 95% of them being on current or soon to be released wines. The Wine Spectator publishes a bit more, I think about 15,000 reviews per year, but again, apart from the occasional retrospective tasting, older wines are rarely covered. In fact, the only wines that tend to get 2 or 3 reviews are top classified Bordeaux growths or very high end California Cabernets. After that, we are left to our own devices to figure out when to drink the wines. So if Parker or Suckling write �Drink between 2015 and 2045� well then where are they in 2015 to tell me how the wine is drinking? Well, this is a problem that is much more likely to be solved by the community at large. Even if someone is not able to write flowery prose, I have found that nearly everyone I taste wine with can tell me if thy think a wine is painful to drink (e.g. too tannic, not enough fruit etc.) or round and fruity and fun. And with a lot of the reviewed wines needing 4 or 5 years before you want to drink them, I view this lack of coverage by the pros as a big problem. So, rather than toppling the �established oligarchy� maybe these sites can be raging successes if they simply grow to be useful and valuable complements to the existing critics. That is certainly a lot closer to my stance.
    Ok, enough with the philosophy. Now let me try to address your main points. You say �the recent rash of community-based tasting note web sites will not succeed.� Well here I agree with you completely. There are many new and existing sites that will languish largely unused, and I think this is very much a case of form over function. Success here is not necessarily about pretty UI widgets, and the main �sin� of many of these sites is that the authors really do not seem to know very much about wine classification and wine for that matter. You cite four fundamental problems, and I agree with you on two of the four. In particular, you are correct in stating that �#1: In order to be really useful, you gotta have a hell of a lot of wines in the system� and �#3: There is not enough incentive or reason to use the system regularly.� Great observations and enough said.
    I think you are wrong when you state that �#4: There just aren’t enough wine lovers to go around.� There are tens of thousands of collectors who actively participate in these sites and the dozens of forums that exist. The online communities have a lot of issues and noise, but there are some amazingly bright and conscientious people out there who spend a lot of energy sharing their knowledge with others. Certainly, there are more than enough that, if their voices could be combined in meaningful ways, perhaps great new truths would emerge. Or at a minimum, I might find some great wines with more bang for the buck.
    On your last point, �#2: We users are stupid and we don’t know how to write.� Ouch man. Does everyone need to write like Robert Parker in order to impart useful information that others can benefit from? Sure, a tasting notes that just says �Mmm, fruity and fun; tasted good with roast chicken� really doesn�t offer a lot on its own. However, if there are 10 other notes on the same wine, this forms part of a useful picture of a wine that is food friendly, round, and approachable. And for me, THAT is a very useful piece of information. Obviously a note like this is not going to convince me to go and buy a wine, but if I own the wine already it might easily convince me to open it the next time I roast a chicken.
    Let me add #5 which is really a VERY import extension to #1. Most users really struggle when it comes to reading wine labels. It takes a LOT of effort to get people to classify the same wines in the same way and accurately to boot. By the way, I�m not just talking about consumers, but I would also contend that the folks who manage the wine databases for Parker, Spectator and Tanzer all struggle quite a bit as well. I have personally found and reported thousands of errors in all of those professionally maintained databases, and that is the tip of the iceberg. Maybe there are just too many nuances and labeling schemes, but if people can�t succeed in finding a wine by just typing a couple of words from their label, then doom is indeed nearly certain.
    Just for the record, let�s talk about CellarTracker now. This was a simple tool I built for my own personal use back in March, 2003. The site was publicly launched in April of 2004, just over 2 years ago. I�m not sure where you got your 6 year figure, and I know times moves quickly on the Internet. But sheesh man, how about a teensy, eensy, little bit o� fact checking? I do want to thank you for the praise that you offer, particularly in regard to the shared database of wines. You state �Also because this is a commercial wine database, CellarTracker isn’t dependent upon users entering content for wines to be in their system.� I�m not quite sure what you mean. The CellarTracker database is 100% contributed by the users of CellarTracker as people catalog their cellars and add tasting notes. Now, what is different from other sites is that we very actively add some editorial oversight to help coalesce duplicate wines and ensure that the definitions are comprehensive and accurate. By the way, CellarTracker is just me, plus some part time help from Andrew Hall (a very active CellarTracker user who is also very particular and helpful when it comes to wine classification). As of a few minutes ago, the database contained 213,642 wine definitions from 23,988 wineries/producers. I have never heard of a larger database (although I have seen some sites with very inflated producer figures, because the same producer is in their database with 5 different spellings). Our database gets between 1,000 and 2,000 new wines per week. There are 16,718 registered CellarTracker users, and they have catalogued 2.85 million bottles of wine. On a typical day, 40 new people register, 7,000 bottles are added, and close to 400 new tasting notes are added. In fact, I am (conservatively) projecting the site to reach 200,000 tasting notes by the end of the year and 500,000 by the end of 2007. So in about 3 short months CellarTracker will actually have the largest collection of wine reviews in the world.
    You write �As a purely editorial side note, CellarTracker would be a lot MORE successful if they let someone redesign what must be one of the most godawful web application interfaces I have ever seen. The thing simply stinks, and for this reason only I do not use the service. Did I mention that the UI sucks?� Well, ouch again. You know, you personally registered on the site 6 months ago. A simple email to say �hey Eric, I am trying to do x but find it very cumbersome� probably already would have driven many UI changes. Now, it is entirely fair of course to say that there are a lot of things that could be polished. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I have very much been focused on function over form. I do hope to enlist a graphic designer and do a more aggressive UI overhaul over the coming months. One of the things I never anticipated is how many people would try to use CellarTracker purely for reading tasting notes. That is simply a scenario I did not do a good job of designing for, as to date the UI has been targeted at the inventory scenarios. In fact, I have been shocked to see how much traffic has been rising over the past 6 months with nearly 20,000 unique daily visitors and 500,000 per month. I can only conclude that people are showing up in ever greater numbers to read tasting notes. I plan to do a lot very soon to surface the goldmine of information about most highly rated wines, by price range etc. Here is one baby step, a list of the top 100 rated wines (with at least 10 ratings) of all time on CellarTracker. (Now that is a tasty list!)
    Anyway, thanks for tolerating my ramblings. I can promise that CellarTracker will continue to evolve rapidly into the future.

  14. Alder

    June 27, 2006 at 11:26 AM

    OK, Eric. Thanks for all the comments. Here goes a response to some key points.
    1. You ask “What exactly is �success� both as defined by you and by the authors of the many sites that seek to get users to write wine reviews?”
    My definition of success is simple, and has nothing to do with money. Success is getting enough critical mass (users and data in the system) to be really useful not only to the people who have invested their time in the system, but also a brand new user who comes to the site. This will allow the site to grow steadily in the long term.
    2. You question whether the goals of these sites are all the same, i.e. wine democracy.
    I think that’s a fair question, and I certainly did lump them all together pretty quickly. But the more I think about it, the more I believe that they really ARE all the same. While they may not explicitly be taking a run at the Park-Tator, they all offer some version of “wine reviews generated by others to help you enjoy wine more.” Which, at the end of the day, is an alternative to the traditional wine media whether the sites explicitly have that in their vision or not.
    3. You ask “So really then, does it come down to jealousy vs. the obvious market success of Robert Parker, the Wine Spectator and other critics? What role does the professional critic play in the industry, as has that grown too large? Is this a problem that needs to be vanquished or toppled somehow?…The main limitation I see with the professional reviewers is one of coverage.”
    You and I see eye to eye on this one. Critics get a bad rap, but many of them are really smart and very helpful. I think the objection (not mine, but generally in the marketplace) is a combination of the coverage issue you speak about (especially for older vintages and current drinking notes), AND the fact that there is a perception that the Park-Tator, and other main critical outlets, tend to align fairly closely in their opinions of wine, and many people feel like this doesn’t always represent their taste. To put a finer point on it, I think there’s a lot of sentiment out there like “I like this wine a whole lot, but everyone’s given it 80 points. That’s ridiculous.”
    4. You say “I think you are wrong when you state that �#4: There just aren’t enough wine lovers to go around.� There are tens of thousands of collectors who actively participate in these sites and the dozens of forums that exist…. Certainly, there are more than enough that, if their voices could be combined in meaningful ways, perhaps great new truths would emerge.”
    The operative words in my statement are “to go around” rather than not enough. I completely agree that in the aggregate there are plenty of wine lovers. The problem is that they’re not in aggregate any more. There are sites that they have built extreme loyalty too, because collectively they have turned them into the valuable resources that you describe. The Mark Squires Boards are fabulously successful with good reason. My point is that all those users are essentially “captured” and their (to use a technical business term) switching costs are VERY high. Most of these new wine sites cannot hope to “steal” users away from these well established sites, yet I believe they really have to do this in order to become successful. Simply attracting all the “new” people in the online wine community is not enough, because all these newbies don’t know enough (or drink enough) to put valuable content into the system.
    5. You say “On your last point, ‘#2: We users are stupid and we don’t know how to write.’ Ouch man. Does everyone need to write like Robert Parker in order to impart useful information that others can benefit from?’
    I want to make sure you caught the “we” in there. I include myself in that group of users. I’ve mashed (perhaps incorrectly) two things into that point #2. The first is that we all make mistakes. To your point about reading wine labels, it’s very difficult to get users to enter good data into any system, let alone a piece of combined ordered data like a wine vintage, producer, wine name, appellation, sub appellation. So my point is that people will ALWAYS be making the 1995 CNP mistake unless there is a mechanism in place to help them not do it (like you have). The second point that is mashed in there is the fact that many people, especially beginners, don’t think about their comments on wine in the context of providing them to others, so we get tasting notes like “Mmm. Goood.” No we definitely don’t all need to write like Parker. We shouldn’t and I wouldn’t expect it. But you do need enough people who can write something OTHER than “Mmmm. Good.” in order for a tasting note to be useful, and it can take a really, really long time to get to even five reviews that say “good with roast chicken.”
    6. You mention “I�m not quite sure what you mean [by my reference that CellarTracker has a commercial database of wines]. The CellarTracker database is 100% contributed by the users of CellarTracker as people catalog their cellars and add tasting notes.”
    Perhaps this is my mistake. I thought that you started with some sort of wine database already in place which users have added to over time, rather than having zero wines in the system when you first launched.
    7. Finally, about my statement “Did I mention that the UI sucks?” you say “Well, ouch again. You know, you personally registered on the site 6 months ago. A simple email to say ‘hey Eric, I am trying to do x but find it very cumbersome’ probably already would have driven many UI changes.”
    Yes, you’re right, and it certainly is easier just to sit here with a blog and critique someone’s hard work rather than be a good citizen and help them fix it. But, at the end of the day, that’s the way the web works. I’ve visited the site many times over the last couple of years and seen it gain momentum and a few months ago I signed up to see what it offered in the way of functionality behind the scenes. I found the site didn’t meet whatever my arbitrary threshold for usability was, so I left. Which is exactly what users do every day. It’s not reasonable for you to expect those folks to take the time to help you out. It sounds harsh, but what have you ever done for them?
    It�s like going to a restaurant with really lousy service. After 15 minutes of waiting for someone to bring you a menu or a glass of water, most people just walk out and find somewhere else to get a meal. They don�t take the time to talk to the owner and help them train their employees better.
    Whew! 🙂

  15. Eric LeVine

    June 27, 2006 at 11:39 AM

    Alder, thanks for the detailed reply. I think we are actually pretty aligned in most of our views. Excellent distinction on the “to go around” regarding ‘capturing’ users. It is a subtle thing, but CellarTracker is pretty different than the other sites in this regard. Since I started as a very active board participant (mostly on Squires/eRP but also on WCWN, VinoCellar, Wine Spectator, Belmaati, and on Tanzer’s board etc.) one of the earliest features of CellarTracker was to allow a user to ‘publish’ any collection of tasting notes to the various boards. So rather than trying to draw people away from the boards and build my own highly interactive forums, I would rather just give people a nice way to build their own repository of notes which they can then easily share in turn on the various boards as well as with CellarTracker users. In other words, I have actively sought a symbiotic relationship with the various wine bulletin boards. Some of these newer systems seem to want to draw people in completely, and, since there is only so much time to go around for people to post etc, well they by definition are competing.
    On the poor service in a restaurant analogy, fair enough. All I ask is that you keep checking back, and I think at some point you will be pleasantly surprised… I do appreciate the more than subtle nudge even if it smarts a bit. Ouch… 😉
    Eric LeVine

  16. Eric LeVine

    June 27, 2006 at 11:43 AM

    By the way, put 10/1/2006 on your calendar. CellarTracker just passed 130,000 reviews, and by the start of Q4 it will have the largest collection of wine reviews in the world, free or otherwise…

  17. GregP

    June 27, 2006 at 7:50 PM

    You probably remember my take on your and others’ efforts back before CT even went live. Looks like Alder is hitting on same issues, STILL, after what, 2-3 years later now? UI is a deal breaker for this type of an application and I gave up some time ago and before you even started on yours, and I am a DB and UI specialist going back to early to mid 80s.
    In regard to the number of reviews posted, I hate to say it, but numbers don’t mean a thing in my book. Given my own tracking of TNs on a board such as Parker it is clear to me that 90% of the posters know little about wine, yet post 90% of reviews. What is the value of TNs when many feel that brett is not a problem, can’t detect TCA if it hit them on the head and can’t tell an oxidized wine from a pristine one? What is over-oaked wine to me is most of the time just fine to others, high VA is a virtue for most tasters out there and a point score is more important than actual taste (I should know, I worked in a high end retail shop and the higher priced wine was always considered a “better” one by customers).
    I think an application such as yours does provide value, but touting the number of TNs is not a proper way to measure the success of your business. Save for your users, who else pays attention to TNs on your site?
    There is a reason people pay hefty fees for subscription reviews such as Parker, WS and others, you really can’t substitute a focused, EDUCATED approach to tasting wine for simply having a deep wallet and being able to buying and drinking wine. And I can tell you also that even pros don’t get it right all the time. Another wrench thrown in is reviewers tasting blind or not, WS does it blind, most others do not and I don’t care who you are, knowing what you are drinking WILL alter your perception of a wine and the eventual score, Parker or not.
    How does your application evaluate the actual usefulness of a TN posted? So to speak, weighted score depending on WHO posts the TN? Inherent failure of CT and any other similar application.
    I am also aware of at least one instance where a TN was altered to better fit an “agenda” of a particular tasting between the time it was posted on eBob and CT. So, once again, what is the value of a TN posted on your site if I don’t know which one is the real McCoy? How does one differentiate between a TN (and actual wine knowledge) posted by say, B. Buzz, and Joe Bloe?
    You should simply ignore the TN issue and concentrate on UI and other features. IMHO, of course, and others’ mileage will vary as it should.

  18. Eric LeVine

    June 27, 2006 at 8:04 PM

    Thanks for the feedback. First and foremost CellarTracker is a cellar management tool. The tasting notes have been a surprising and useful by-product. I do understand your skepticis. You say:
    Save for your users, who else pays attention to TNs on your site?
    Well, at this point there are 20,000 daily visitors and climbing 5-10% every month. So there are lots more people coming, presumably to read tasting notes, than there are actually managing their cellar.
    You are correct that rating & reputation needs to come into the picture so that the community can help sort out the truly useful voices. The current simple arithmetic doesn’t do a great job here. Still though, at this point, for all of these sites, it’s really a race for critical mass.
    By the way, I don’t know if you look, but here are a few notes on your wines from the community.

  19. GregP

    June 27, 2006 at 10:16 PM

    All I am saying is that as useful as the tool may be, I would not advertise the TNs on it too much until that time when the value and weight of a poster providing the TN can be established. Not one professional reviewer got “golden” on Day 1 and given the TNs I see on eBob and other sites, I place very little value in most of them.
    I am not saying that each and every professional review is spot on, far from it, but in general I’d trsut a preofessional reviewer more than Billy Joe Bob in Winnetonka with no track record to speak of.
    Your application seems to be doing well and gaining more users every day and I’d rather you spend the time tuning the interface than promote the TNs posted.

  20. Jack

    June 27, 2006 at 10:47 PM

    Greg, CellarTracker’s tasting notes come up in Google searches. Often. — Jack

  21. GregP

    June 28, 2006 at 8:41 AM

    And that’s my point, exactly!
    Why should I trust anyone who is not capable of picking out brett or other faults in wine? Why should people base their buying on TNs that are posted by enthusiastic, but still clueless drinkers?
    Not sure about others, but I have a pretty limited wine budget. I found it appalling that so many posters out there wax poetic about a good number of wines I find very faulty and undrinkable, wines that get big point scores from reviewers for whatever reason.
    For a reference, please search a thread on eBob related to a faulty 2002 Turley PS. When people mocked Laube for scoring the wine low due to it having brett, a good number of posters said the wine is clean and they themselves scored it in mid 90s, a very high score indeed for any wine. Then, to set things straight, and after days of “heated” debate, my tasting group decided to taste the wine in a blind setup to see if we will be able to pick it out in a group of peers, BLIND. Well, we did, and easily so, brett was very obvious. When the results were posted, the same group of people who at first denied there is brett in the wine, switched their tactics and insisted that either A) THEIR bottles did not have brett (right, may I offer you a bridge for sale?); B) brett is actually not bad for wine or C) our blind test meant nothing to their much better palates. Then yet another poster decided to send the wine to Vinquiry for plating, at his cost of the wine and fees and well, the lab results came back positive for brett and in pretty big numbers, indeed. STILL, a number of posters insisted THEIR bottles were clean. But the main point of the argument was that most people don’t know what brett is and/or are actually insensitive to it. Another large group thinks it is terroir. Same goes for TCA, VA, too much oak, RS, etc.
    Should I go on and list hundreds, actually thousands, of obvious examples of why there is very little value in TNs, on ANY site?
    And now that CT and some other sites make TNs available through easy web searches, that is scary, indeed. If professionals cannot be trusted 100% of the time, how can one trust consumers’ take on a wine?

  22. Eric LeVine

    June 28, 2006 at 9:12 AM

    You say:
    Why should people base their buying on TNs that are posted by enthusiastic, but still clueless drinkers?
    Well you just proved exactly what I suspected last night, and that is that you either did not read or did not absorb what I said in my main post. I agree that it is a stretch to use tasting notes from uncalibrated strangers as a primary buying criteria. However, what I am advocating is that these notes are already extremely useful in determining the readiness of a wine for consumption. That is a much lower bar, and it is also an area where the critics basically offer nothing.

  23. GregP

    June 28, 2006 at 9:46 AM

    I beg to disagree, a lot so.
    Just one example for you. Most CA Pinot is consumed within a year of being purchased, roughly. I advocate cellaring it for a few years, even wines from such supposed “unageables” as Loring and others, supposed is the keyword here. Where most of consumers have already disposed of their ’03s and ’04s Pinots, I am still sitting on a good number of Pinot bottles going back to late 90s and judging by the performance of these wines in recent tastings, they are just hitting their peak. For MY palate, of course.
    Drinking window is as subjective as ability to pick out faults in wine. Some people love big tannis, some don’t; some love lots of oak, some don’t; some love primary characteristics in wine, some go for secondary. Etc, etc, etc… Therefore, there is very little value in seeing a drinking window specified in a TN.
    Only YOU can figure out when is the perfect time for consuming a specific wine and this comes from tracking a the wine in YOUR cellar and learning as much as you can about the producer.

  24. Jack

    June 28, 2006 at 1:36 PM

    Greg, sounds like even CellarTracker’s database won’t help you. But hey, that’s now clear.
    And I agree with Eric – the most useful part of Cellar Tracker tasting notes is How the wine is showing recently.
    – Jack

  25. GregP

    June 28, 2006 at 2:12 PM

    Actually, read my comments carefully, I am all for a tool that helps people track their cellars, one way or another.
    What I dislike is TNs and maybe “dislike” is a strong word. I simply don’t see ANY value in them since I rarely agree with 90% of them, give or take.

  26. Alder

    June 28, 2006 at 3:56 PM

    You may be overlooking, or not necessarily addressing one aspect of cellartracker usage that can address some of the very valid issues you’re raising. And that is people learn who they can trust over time. Just as those of us who do use critics scores have learned which critics to listen to over time, heavy users of CellarTracker have found people whose opinions they trust, and new users will too, over time. Certainly this requires an investment of time, but I think some people do find that they can rely on the tasting notes after a while.

  27. GregP

    June 28, 2006 at 5:17 PM

    Notice the 90% number I have been refering to, a number of times? :-))
    That means that 10% of the time I can easily take the poster’s TN as gospel.
    I don’t think I missed anything at this point.

  28. Anonymous

    June 28, 2006 at 5:24 PM

    Great timing!
    Check out this thread, post #26, posted as we speak (hope its OK with Alder to post the link):
    Pretty much sums up my take on why TN feature is becoming absolutely irrelevant on CT and Eric should advertise the CELLAR TRACKING aspect of his application rather than availability of TNs.

  29. Jason Coleman

    June 29, 2006 at 7:58 AM

    I’m too busy fixing bugs to comment 😉 Expect a response from WineLog soon, but I’ll try to write something brief right now.
    First, I enjoy your blog. You and all “wine bloggers” are a great way to get trusted recommendations for wine, as well as a bunch of other insights and information.
    Let me also say that I basically agree with all of the observations that you have made. I would disagree with some of the conclusions you’ve drawn though.
    #1 (…need a lot of wines to be useful..)
    Our site is exponentially more useful, the more wines, wine ratings, and wine comments we collect. This is true. However, this doesn’t keep the site from being useful now. Others have spoken about Corkd’s goal of letting friends recommend wine to friends. Our “friends features” are not live yet, but even without them, this kind of recommendation is happening. It works for me every day. I go into WineLog, notice a comment someone made and think “That guy sounds like he knows what he’s talking about.” Then I send his top 5 wines to my phone and can usually find at least one of them at my local wine shop.
    #2 (…users are stupid and don’t know how to write…)
    Quality is an issue. But I think what happens with a lot of these open system is that the good stuff floats to the top. And we as developers definitely need to help encourage this. So far, the writing is generally good. I myself can’t do a wine review to save my life “it tastes good!”, but I’m learning as I ‘ve been drinking a lot more wine lately. In any case, I do believe that a few good users can support the community. Another way to help in this area is to work with bloggers to find those really good writers and get their input and content for our site.
    #3 (incentive to use the system)
    It’s become apparent to me that there are a lot of users who are signing up to use WineLog for exactly the reason we though to create the site: to keep track of the wines they’ve tried. There may be better systems for this. There are a lot of options. People should go where they feel comfortable. Wineries have an incentive to add their wines because they will like our traffic. In general I just must say that we don’t need as much use as your are suggesting to have useful content on our site.
    #4 (not enough wine lovers)
    I wouldn’t compare our site to Amazon. That sells billions of dollars worth of merchandise every year. We aren’t really aspiring to that, so I’m not too upset that the product we cover isn’t as universal as books or movies. Wine is still a niche interest, but it’s a growing market. I plan on focusing on this issue more, but I’ll summarize by saying that we can still be useful and still be successful despite the size of our market.
    Thanks for starting this discussion. A lot of good stuff is coming from this.
    Jason Coleman
    Co-Founder, WineLog.net

  30. Wagner

    July 7, 2006 at 9:22 AM

    Alder, great article. We have discussed the problems stated in the blog for a while, particularly number 3. Sites and business in general have to evolve and keep users interested… no matter what. Fortunately, we have new ideas on the drawing board that will allow us to evolve (spanking issue 3). In the meantime, we’ll be drinking and reviewing (reducing the annoyance created by issue #1 while adding to the annoyance created by issue #2), reading other sites blogs, reviews, posts and having fun – our definition of success.
    keep up the great work,

  31. Todd

    July 11, 2006 at 10:51 AM

    As an avid user of Cellartracker (my cellar here – http://www.cellartracker.com/list.asp?iUserOverride=11642)as well as long time subcriber to eBob and former wine importer, and most importantly, someone that drinks too much wine, I have to say that CT reviews are quite useful and helpful. To say they don’t have “ANY value” is a dramatic over-statement.
    As with any community or user-generated content, a consumer needs to figure out who/what is credible and relevant to them. People who have similar cellars, or similar thoughts on certain wines have more relevance with me. Furthermore, CT is not meant to be a primary source of research. I often use CT reviews as a supplemental resource to other professional reviews or friendly recommendations, or sometimes, I use it just to get a feel for how a certain wine “might” be drinking.
    I agree that CT notes aren’t putting Bob Parker or WS out of business any time soon. However, many of us recoginize the power and utility of a critcal mass of user generated reveiws. While I agree that CT needs some polish on the UI, I find it to be an invaluable service that gets stronger as more people use it.

  32. Alfonso Cevola

    July 25, 2006 at 6:17 AM

    Ultimately, Wine is a tactile sensual experience. Wine experts and wine lovers alike can illustrate some of the points along the way. It’s the process of coming into this appreciation that compels every one of us to pick up a glass and jump in. Experience on any level can be very rewarding.
    Alfonso Cevola

  33. Vinography: A Wine Blog

    September 18, 2006 at 11:11 PM

    Wine, New York, and Web 2.0

    When it comes to the Internet, I’m sandwiched between skeptic and cynic with a little bit of realist included along with the lettuce and tomato. With a day job running a firm that designs interactive user experiences, including web sites, I know a few …

  34. Eric LeVine

    October 1, 2006 at 12:13 AM

    I just wanted to follow up one on thing. I had posted earlier and claimed that by 10/1/2006 CellarTrackere would in fact be the largest repository of tasting notes on the web. At the time I wrote this CellarTracker had 130,000 notes as compared to 161,000 for the Wine Spectator. The tables did indeed turn back on 9/20, a little earlier than I espected, and as of today the totals are 169,266 notes for CellarTracker as compared to 164,000 for the Wine Spectator.
    Now in the interim, a number of CellarTracker users have pointed out that flogging the number does a disservice to the site and is a bit heavy handed. I don’t disagree, and certainly it is an apples to oranges comparison (comparing amateur notes to professional). I will continue to go on record as saying that amateur and professional reviews can be compatible and complementary resources.
    -Eric LeVine

  35. Colonel Lawrence

    October 1, 2006 at 12:15 AM

    Just to add to the ‘expert’ vs ‘not-expert’ debate. Please note these EWS Expert Blind Tasting results for 1995 Bordeaux. If I read them correctly the ‘experts’ have totally reversed the order of Lafite, Margaux, Latour, Haut Brion and Mouton Rothschild. i.e. a total absence of any correlation! Surely a mere 21 months aging can’t do that?
    Perhaps the ‘non-experts’ should be given a voice Greg?
    CT amateur ratings:
    Margaux 95.3
    Haut Brion 94.7
    Latour 93.5
    Lafite 93.0
    Mouton 92.0
    My rating so far:
    Latour 95
    Mouton 93
    Haut Brion 92
    Perhaps it’s all a matter of individual taste ………

  36. GregP

    October 2, 2006 at 9:36 PM

    Not sure where to begin. Alder knows my palate by now, maybe not enough in general, but enough to confirm to you that my nose and palate are a bit more “spot on” than is a norm. He will also tell you that I run a pretty serious tasting group for years now, a group that includes and invites a number of well known winemakers.
    Now, to the point of your post above and links. I have been observing consumers for years now, as an education of my own palate (in relation to what’s being tasted) as well as trying to understand what is being said in relation to what was actually consumed.
    In general, and I hope people don’t start a lynching party, consumers are not really that educated, even those who think they are. Most people, and I can safely say this is probably a 90%+ group, don’t know and can’t tell obvious wine faults such as brett, TCA and high VA. Moreover, some actually like these (with the exception of TCA) and think they enhance the wines. In addition, that same number and probably more than that, LOVE oak and lots of it. They also dislike any hint of acidity in wine.
    So that we do not go off on the wrong foot here, I will also state that I have tasted with professionals who are also incapable of pinpointing TCA, high VA and brett. Every time you see a “leathery” note in a review, you can be sure it is brett. Yet, if you examine the number of TNs that state “leathery” without also saying “bretty” you’ll see how big a disparity really is and just how poorly educated palates generally are. And this does include a fair number of professionals in retail and press.
    I stopped posting TNs some time ago, mainly because I don’t want to bash competition and more so, because I got into heated arguments with many who argued with me that brett, excessive oak, low acidity, TCA or VA I am picking up in wines is nothing more than my imagination. Never mind that I do blind/double blind tastings only and have no idea which particular bottle I am tasting at the time and thus, I have no reason to pick on a particular wine.
    The people I trust with TNs on Parker’s board could be counted on one hand, there is not one consumer on the list, though.
    I personally know many frequent posters on eBob, tasted with them a lot and will do so again, but I generally don’t put much weight into their notes.
    Do yourself a favor and try tasting with a bunch of winemakers, its a mind altering experience and a great learning one at that, things you never paid attention to are exposed and explained to you on the spot.
    CT is a great tool, but having TNs and access to them is not a feature I am looking to use. It could expensive if one is not paying attention.
    The links you provided prove one thing only: every palate is different as well as all bottles stoppered with natural cork are different. Had both panels tasted SAME bottles I could pay more value to the results, but as is, there is not much to them.
    What does a number mean? Surpassing WS count is no big deal, IMO.
    Sounds like I am not the only one to tell you that TNs is not your selling point, cellar management is. Or at least should be, I know you and I disagree on this point.

  37. Jack

    October 3, 2006 at 8:38 AM

    Greg, CellarTracker is two things – Cellar Management and Tasting Notes, not just one. Both are Incredibly important. Further, the quality of the tasting notes is increasing, as the users get better and better at it (it does help that they get to see what others say). But is there a point in even saying this to you…
    How many more times are you going to whine that the Cellar Tracker tasting notes aren’t useful to you? Fine. We gotcha. Move on! This is so “Duh” when you further say there’s only six on eBob that you trust.

  38. GregP

    October 3, 2006 at 9:40 AM

    Not sure which one of us is whining.
    A post above was pointed at me and asked for a response. I responded. What’s YOUR problem? Did you see me respond to YOUR query?
    Even Eric admitted my views are shared by others, its an open forum and I thought ALL opinions are to be treated similarly? Guess I was wrong, only positive opinions are to be valued and shared.
    You’re upset I included you in the list whose TNs I don’t trust? Sorry, but that’s an honest statement, and I actually have just 5 fingers on my hands, not 6 (and the list of people is less than 5, not sure why you are sticking to a specific number). If it makes you any more comfortable, you’re on the list alongside Parker himself, so consider yourself to be in great company.

  39. Alder

    October 3, 2006 at 10:04 AM

    Let’s call this horse dead, shall we, folks? Clearly no one is going to convince GregP that CT’s tasting notes are worth anything, and I’m sure Greg will never convince those who believe otherwise.

  40. Colonel Lawrence

    October 4, 2006 at 11:26 AM

    I guess the only question left for me is how much is the view of a single taster (e.g. RP or a pretender) worth?
    Well the opinion of RP is critical – it affects the price I pay (and more critically – when he changes his mind -what happens to the value of my inventory). Everyone else – I’ll take in context.

  41. Erwin Dink

    February 11, 2007 at 5:41 PM

    Coming in very late but I want to add a reason I want to see tasting notes from end users. Since I also don’t want to trust the recommendations of people whose palate and experience is unknown to me I look for patterns in TN’s. The more TN there are the more trustworthy the pattern. When I look for professional tasting notes online I usually find no more than 2 or 3 for any single wine. More often than that I find may sites that simply copy and paste the winery’s internal marketing notes. On the other hand, on a site like cellartracker.com I might find as many as 40-50 TN’s for a single wine and if a clear majority of them mention similar qualities I am inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume the wine does indeed possess at least some amount of that quality.

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  43. Leo Cassidy

    August 22, 2007 at 8:24 PM

    I see no one posted on this topic in a while. It is quite a good discussion.
    I’m in the category of a taster who is likely not eloquent describing a wine. In addition, in certain circumstances, and with different companion foods, wine tastes different.
    As a user, what is important to me, if it existed, is to focus on one tangible: if I like this wine, even if I can’t describe how or why, who else shares this primal gut opinion? The more people who like this wine (whether they describe it well or not), the more likely that another one each likes might be interesting to try out.
    In my mind, this is more meaningful and influential to a user than wordsmithing that may or may not be sufficiently worth.

  44. David

    January 31, 2008 at 6:23 PM

    interesting points here. hadn’t given it the thought you had, but I find reading a handful of wine related blogs that seem to share similar interests more useful than the community tasting note sites you reference.

  45. Joel

    February 23, 2008 at 8:54 PM

    I would be interested to hear Alder and Eric LeVine’s take 20 months after the initial post. I use CT regularly to track wine and record notes. I am a little pissed that Eric has chased some good posters (like Wineismylife) away from the site by attempting to enforce a policy preventing “reviewers” from listing the wine rankings of the professional tasters. But I can only assume he has legal reasons for doing this. Nonetheless, after initial skepticism, I have found the site to be worthwhile and I have paid for my use of the site as Erik recommends. Voting with my pocketbook is, I guess, the best measure of success.

  46. Alder

    February 23, 2008 at 9:31 PM

    Notes and scores from folks like Robert Parker are their intellectual property and are copyrighted. I’m sure Eric would like nothing more than to include scores and reviews from professionals, but he’d have to pay in order to do that.
    20 months after this post, my opinions on this subject haven’t changed a bit. I might even be so bold as to say that I have been proven right. While there is a lot of investment activity in this space, not a single player has risen to the top as a truly useful or powerful social community for wine lovers. I regularly visit many of these Wine 2.0 sites, where I perform searches for wines that I like to drink, and I don’t tend to find any tasting notes that are helpful or trustworthy.

  47. billb

    March 11, 2008 at 7:29 AM

    Check out this new site, thebasementcellar.com, it solves most of the problems you mention and has all the features needed. You can store your inventory online and write reviews. You can keep your wine notes private, publish reviews to your friends, or to the public. There is no attempt made to build a community. But there is a neat map interface to find wine reviews. You can also search reviews by price or just your friends…Of course there are blogs, and to register is free.

  48. GregP

    May 20, 2008 at 1:20 PM

    This thread is still alive? Wow…
    OK, just to point out the obvious, and this is taken from a recent review on Wine Rabbi blog (Alder, please let me know if this is legal, had no other way to point out the actual content):
    At this point, I’m going to go on a little tangent, so please bear with me. For today’s posting, we were originally intending to review a Merlot from a winery that we’ve always loved. Interestingly, while we still love the winery, we were caught off guard when we smelled the strong scent of barnyard in our glasses. Assuming barnyard wasn’t the aroma intended by the winemaker (which would mean that we would, in fact, no longer love the winery), the culprit was likely a yeast called Brettanomyces, or “Brett” for short. I only bring this up because the presence of Brett is a common flaw, and it does not necessarily mean that the wine has to be dumped down the drain. Sometimes, exposure to air helps cause the smell to disappear, and the wine itself should otherwise be safe to drink. However, in our case, a full 24 hours in the decanter didn’t do the trick. Oh well!
    Well. First and foremost, a wine is safe to drink, bretty or not. Brett is just another strain of yeast, too bad these reviewers have no clue.
    Second. Brett only gets worse with air contact and what the tasters misidentified is something called “reduction”, which usually presents itself as a “rubber” note. Although a minor flaw, reduction is simply an indication of a wine lacking oxygen (during aging), no big deal and actually a safe way to keep wine in barrel (as opposed to too much air contact in barrel due to lack of proper topping off schedule).
    My point, and going back to many comments above, is that easy access to internet empowered way too many people into thinking they are experts on wine (and other consumer goods as well) when, in fact, they lack rudimentary skill sets required to be one. What they don’t get, and I hope they won’t ever have to feel it on their own skin, is some clueless reviewer “altering” their livelihood using a faulty and inaccurate set of parameters. Wineries, unfortunately, have to endure this on a daily basis.
    As to “strength in numbers”, as someone pointed out above (Erwin D?), why should one trust a clueless group when most tastings are done non blind and by the “numbers” (where each proud owner bringing a wine touts a point score his bottle received as his set of drinking parameters)? These people don’t drink wine, they drink points. Very few are ready to admit that a highly scored wine is not a good wine and many are conditioned to “like” a wine by not only reviewers, but retailers these days who tout point scores as their only guide.

  49. Josh

    July 3, 2008 at 12:37 PM

    The point of WineRabbi is just to share our positive experiences with wine with other people and, hopefully, stimulate interest in the subject in folks who might not otherwise feel inspired to partake. We never talk about technical information (flaws, etc.) – the Brett “tangent” was actually the one exception out of our hundreds of postings, and that has been pulled. We have no interest in projecting ourselves as experts, but rather intend to set an example for how much fun experiencing wine can be. In keeping with this goal, we actually never write anything negative about anyone and, especially, any wine.
    If we come across a wine or winery that we don’t care for, we simply do not write about it or we write about it anonymously (which you can see from the portion that you quoted above, in which we never identified the wine’s producer). The hope is that we’ll help people become more interested in enjoying wine, which we believe would be beneficial for everyone involved in the industry.

  50. Nicolas

    September 11, 2008 at 8:52 PM

    One way to fix the bad-writing problem could be to have all wine distributers agree to print a 2D “bar code” on the bottle, containing all the information identifying the wine’s origin. With all the new smartphones with cheapo cameras, there is a way to build a great application for handhelds.

  51. Alder

    September 11, 2008 at 9:28 PM

    Thanks for the comments. Well, that might fix the problem of getting people to actually identify the wines correctly, but probably wouldn’t do much to correct the unhelpful tasting notes that seem to be most common. But regardless, getting ALL wine distributors to do anything is like asking a group of thirty 2-year-olds to sit perfectly still for 10 minutes.

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  56. James Houston

    December 16, 2012 at 12:28 PM

    Hi Alder– I’d be interested to read a follow-up to this post; your comments on how this has unfolded since 2006 and what the future holds for this sort of “crowdsourced” wine writing. (Apologies if you’ve already done so 🙂 )

Comments are closed.