Engage This: The Art of Wine Tasting Notes


Over the years I’ve seen many slings and arrows aimed at writers of wine tasting notes. I’ve seen half-baked attempts at ‘modernizing’ tasting terms by comparing wines to cars or Barbie dolls or you name it. I’ve seen quotes pulled out of context and mocked relentlessly. You don’t have to be Shakespeare to make fun of a tasting note about gooseberries and cat piss (although such terms are not only appropriate, they are not really uncommon when writing about certain wines. And just this past week the Court of Master Sommeliers, noses high in the air, declared that the terms ‘Old World’ and ‘New World’ were being discarded due to implications of Colonial prejudice.)

Listen, you don’t have to be Hemingway to write succinct tasting notes. And whether or not you are chained to the 100 point system (as I have been off and on for decades), you can still write tasting notes that go far beyond lists of fruits and herbs and vegetables. Notes that briefly and accurate provide background and context for the wine, the vineyard, the AVA, the winery and/or the winemaker. For me the challenge always is to write that kind of tasting note. Not always, not always successfully, but always with that as the end goal.

In large part whether any tasting note succeeds at being interesting and informative depends upon the wine. Let’s face it – the supermarket shelves are crammed with generic, dull, boring, charmless, industrial wines. I do not and will not write about any wine that does not engage me. And it’s not a tough decision to make. As I taste, I write. If I quickly run out of things to say, I don’t try to invent something to fill the empty space. When wines are really good there is always something interesting to say about them. When they are superlative I can go on indefinitely; it’s almost like automatic writing from a trance state. Those wines don’t come along very often.

A wine doesn’t have to be expensive, rare or prestigious to ignite the creative fires. It just has to be engaging. And it is a great help if the submitting winery has provided more than just the bare bones of background information. My standard plea is to include release dates, vineyard sources, case quantities and suggested retail pricing for all wines sent to me. But even extracting that basic information can often require multiple emails and visits to the winery website. When a wine shipment comes to me with all that and more – more background on the estate, the winemaking, the ownership, the history – in other words more story (I know you are passionate about making great wine, but what else can you tell me?)… that’s likely to be a wine that gets extra attention and a more interesting write-up.

Here are my notes on the latest from two wineries well worth your attention, plus a brand new value wine feature.

Red Electric

I’ve reviewed Red Electric wines on two occasions, a small sample, but worth a look back for context, so I’m re-posting the 2018 reviews. Happily these wines are still listed for sale on the website. The 2021 releases are current.

Red Electric 2018 Evening Primrose Chardonnay – Sourced from the Armstrong vineyard atop Ribbon Ridge, this is an expressive wine with compelling minerality. The citrus fruits are tart and complex, running the gamut from lemon to grapefruit to orange. It’s a sappy, tangy, textured, low alcohol style with a pleasing, lingering snap to the finish. 100 cases; 12.6%; $33 (Ribbon Ridge) 92/100

Red Electric 2018 Armstrong Vineyard Interurban Pinot Noir – It’s rare to find a vineyard-designated Ribbon Ridge Pinot at this price. Firm and tight, with an earthy, herbal frame, this offers a balanced mix of wild berry, sour cherry and orange peel components. Roughly one fifth was whole cluster fermented, and new oak was just 8%. 320 cases; 13.9%; $28 (Ribbon Ridge) 90/100

Red Electric 2018 Armstrong Vineyard The Pulse Pinot Noir – All of Red Electric’s Pinots are sourced from the same vineyard, and distinguished by the clonal mix. Here some 30% was whole-cluster fermented, and the flavors are layered and complex. Citrus skins, wild berries, a lick of pretty chocolate and young, stiff, lightly earthy tannins are all in the mix. The aging (17 months sur lie) was limited to just 15% new barrels. 200 cases; 13.7%; $50 (Ribbon Ridge) 91/100

Red Electric 2018 Armstrong Vineyard TGV Pinot Noir – This is principally Pommard clone and used one quarter new barrels, pushing the richness and front-loading the fruit flavors. Tangerine, orange candy, raspberry and cherry lifesavers and more open it up nicely, then lead into a tart, compact finish. The acids promise further aging, and this should drink well over the next six to eight years. 100 cases; 13.9%; $70 (Ribbon Ridge) 92/100

Red Electric 2021 Evening Primrose Chardonnay – A friendly butter cookie note highlights this sleek Chardonnay. All from the estate vineyard, it’s a clonal mix, co-fermented in neutral French oak barrels. It’s got excellent grip and focus, with the sort of precision that suggests it will age gracefully. Crisp apple, lemon custard, grapefruit and pineapple flavors push on through a medium-long finish. 75 cases; 13.8%; $35 (Ribbon Ridge) 92/100

Red Electric 2021 Armstrong Vineyard Pinot Noir – This multi-clone blend covers all blocks from the vineyard. The use of non-neutral oak is restrained (15% new, 10% one-year) and the fruit flavors start out light and pretty. Rose petals, strawberries and tart pie cherries are in the mix, with supporting acidity. The length is impressive, and the wine seems to gather strength and detail as it layers on out through the finish. Give this one extra aeration and it builds nicely, strengthening the tannins and finishing with highlights of toasted walnuts and coffee grounds. A very fine value in an all-estate Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir. 900 cases; 13.7%; $35 (Ribbon Ridge) 93/100

Red Electric 2021 Armstrong Vineyard TGV Pinot Noir – A barrel selection reserve, this resonant, intensely-flavorful wine perfectly captures the essence of the AVA. A streak of minerality underscores tight blue and black fruits. Tannins are firm and ripe but not flagrant. The barrel management (one quarter new, 15% one year) is superb. This is compact, layered, beautifully balanced and ready for long term aging. I can’t say enough about this wine – it’s a splendid example of an excellent vintage from an AVA that many believe is the star of the Willamette Valley. 100 cases; 13.8%; $70 (Ribbon Ridge) 95/100


Co-founder Piper Underbrink, who makes Sealionne and Privé wines, sent the following background along with the latest releases.

“We own two vineyards in Willamette Valley from which we make estate wine – one in Chehalem Mountains called Privé Vineyard and one in Ribbon Ridge called West Wind Vineyard. The Privé Vineyard has a small tasting room and a winery as well as our house. This is where we make the wines for Sealionne and Privé Vineyard. Privé Vineyard was founded in 2000 on this site and has operated here, tasting room and winery, since then. In 2021 we added the West Wind Vineyard to the program and because it is so much bigger (15 acres) we were getting way more fruit, so my husband Ben and I decided to start our own project – Sealionne.

“For Sealionne we source grapes from Walla Walla and the Willamette Valley. For Privé we focus mainly on single vineyard estate wines. We wanted to start making Chardonnay to round out the offerings and don’t currently own any Chardonnay vines. So we sourced from Haakon Lenai vineyard which is owned and farmed by Cody Wright. Eventually this will become an estate Chardonnay, but for the meantime we are sourcing from intentional vineyards that are organic, dry-farmed, and sustainable.”

I really appreciate it when any winery, especially one just starting out, provides such important background. Among the wines sent by Piper these were my favorites.

Sealionne 2022 Halcyon Chardonnay – This is clean, textural and seamless. The grapes were fermented and aged in a mix of stainless steel, French oak and clay amphora, which adds nice depth to the finish. Flavors of apple, citrus and pineapple keep it fresh and focused. 100 cases; 13%; $45 (Chehalem Mountains) 91/100

Privé Vineyard 2022 Reserve Chardonnay – This label is principally for wines from the estate vineyard, but this Chardonnay was sourced from Cody Wright’s Haakon Lenai vineyard. Young, tart and toasty, this saturates the palate with flavors of Meyer lemon, tart citrus, crisp apple and barrel spice. It drinks bigger than the listed 12.5% abv, but not too big. Let’s call it restrained, elegant and flavorful, with the structure to improve in the decade ahead. 100 cases; 12.5%; $70 (Dundee Hills) 92/100

Sealionne 2022 Kilig Pinot Noir – The estate’s West Wind vineyard on Ribbon Ridge is the source of these grapes. It’s a lovely wine with lush flavors of strawberries, raspberries, plums and cherries, gently swathed in a chocolatey frame. Nothing over the top here, but nicely balanced and appealing though quite young. 150 cases; 13%; $45 (Ribbon Ridge) 92/100

Privé Vineyard 2022 Le Nord Pinot Noir – Sourced from a Pommard block now 30 years old, this opens with compelling aromas of wild berries and forest floor, including touches of cedar shakes and pine needles. The core fruit bursts open with pie cherry tartness, carrying on through a spicy finish streaked with coffee and chocolate. 300 cases; 13%; $70 (Chehalem Mountains) 93/100

Featured Value Wine

This new feature is being rolled out here. I’ll offer you a different featured value wine with every post. Please let me know if this is valuable for you, and if you have suggestions for future special value wines from the Pacific Northwest.

Greenwing 2021 Cabernet Sauvignon – This is the second vintage of a new budget label attached to the Canvasback portfolio, here blending the Cabernet with 20% Malbec and a small splash of Syrah. It’s an interesting wine, well-built and accented with pretty spices. The Malbec exerts a strong influence, even though the label reads Cabernet Sauvignon. This is broad, leafy, lightly dusty and shows some grit through the finish. It’s priced well below the other Canvasback Cabs but made with the same care and attention. Purchase here. 13.9%; $30 (Columbia Valley) 92/100

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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