Tasting notes are a great way to get a sense of a wine’s personality before investing in a bottle you’ve never before tried. But how meaningful are they to the Average Joe? On a recent trip to Napa, we decided to put tasting notes to the test by comparing them with our own impressions.

My husband and his good buddy successfully conspired on a surprise trip to Napa for their wives – complete with limo escort, dinner reservations - the whole nine yards. Blessed with a gorgeously sunny yet not-too-hot Napa summer day, we embarked on some new adventures as well as to some beloved old haunts.

The California Wine Club

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Arriving at Mumm’s tasting room, we sat down on the patio to enjoy the warm weather and stunning vistas of the vines, valley, and hills beyond. Mumm, while known for sparking wines, also does some wonderful things with still wine - which makes sense, since many of the same common grapes like pinot noir and chardonnay also give birth to the bubbly.

Each of us ordered different tastings, which provided a happy sampling for our first stop. And Mumm gives out some generous pours for a reasonable tasting fee, unlike some of the more stingy wineries which shall remain nameless for now (next time I see a controlled pouring mechanism on a bottle, I’m going to turn around and leave.) Excitedly sipping and chatting, we described the wines to each other as we oohed and aahed, “Try this, it’s like berries!” or “Wow, that’s really smooth and relatively tannin-free.” As we tried to describe the wine in our own novice vernacular, we decided to play a little game and see how accurately our impressions stacked up again the tasting notes.

We yielded some interesting results from this little experiment. First of all, let me just put this out there that I am not very skilled at identifying what contributes to the bouquet. But once I learn what I should be smelling, I am able to detect notes of pear, strawberry, tobacco, etc. I’ve been told that to get good at this, you can have various fruits and items on hand as you wine taste so you can really start to smell the fruit and get familiar with the aroma, then smell the wine, smell the fruit again and so on to develop your nose.

Secondly, let me also put the caveat out there that the opinions below are from normal wine drinkers. We do not claim to be sommeliers or experts. However, we drink wine fairly regularly and we do have tastebuds and noses, so take that for what it’s worth: as opinion.

One great example was the 2005 Pinot Noir which we adored. I am a Pinot lover and this is by far one of the best I’ve ever had. It does not appear to be listed on their website right now. This pinot had a wonderful smell of flowers and berries that you could detect before the glass was even below your nose. The color was a lovely jewel red and the taste was smooth and balanced with the slightest bit of nuttiness. So what did the tasting notes say? “Velvet texture, dense berry flavors.” Ahhhh! So that is what velvety means! My “smooth” is a winemaker’s “velvety.” Makes sense, doesn’t it?

Here’s another one: 1999 DVX Library Wine (sparkling). This blend of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes received 91 points from Wine Spectator in 2006. The tasting notes said, “bold and rich.” What did our Peanut Gallery have to say? We unfortunately found it “tasteless.”

We found the 2002 Devaux Ranch “light, sharp and very engaging.” This is a new release from a renowned Carneros Region vineyard. The tasting notes mentioned hints of apple, which I think I am discovering means “sharp” to my palate (but in a good way.) Our own description of the 2001 Mumm Napa Grande Année was “creamy with an interesting palate thing.” It’s only crafted when there is an outstanding vintage. And the 2004 Syrah said it had “rich, concentrated blackberry and cherry flavors” but we found it watery with a weak bouquet, even when tasted after the Pinot Noir.

For great all-around sparklings we enjoyed both the Blanc de Blancs, made from chardonnay and pinot gris, which we found to be smooth with no “tinny” taste (much more like a still wine than sparkling), and the Mumm Napa Reserve Brut which seemed very “creamy” to our tastes. This one received 90 points from Wine Spectator in 2006.

Two lessons emerged from this little game. One, you can learn a lot about what the experts mean by their sometimes vague descriptions if you compare those words to your own impressions. You can get a sense for what “oaky”, “velvety” or “balanced” mean to you and your unique palate. Second, everyone has their own senses, likes and dislikes. Just because a wine expert says that something should taste “vibrant and rich” and scores it very highly, does not mean it is necessarily pleasing to YOU. And that’s okay. It’s what makes wine such a fun, unique experience. One person’s “warm terra cotta” paint color might be another person’s “ugly burnt orange.” But at least you will know you are both describing the same wall from a different lens.

Actually, there was a third lesson in all of this: the more you taste, the more you know what you like and dislike, experts be damned. So just get out there and keep tasting. Happy sipping!

Maria Ross is a freelance writer who also runs Red Slice, a branding and marketing agency that helps emerging businesses, including wineries and wine bars, tell their unique story and attract new loyalists.  She is based in Seattle.