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Gmail as database for tasting notes

Posted by Stephen Meuse  January 9, 2012 11:56 AM

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gmail.JPGI'm dedicating off moments this month to reorganizing my collection of tasting notes and at the same time re-thinking my approach to the activity.

I consider note-taking important not just because it's a way to keep track of what wines I've tasted, when, and the impression it made - but also because recording a note forces reflection and tends to fix the experience in memory. You could perform the exercise without resort to writing, I suppose, but this would make it too easy to avoid deciding whether the acid levels in a particular wine were best described as brisk, jumpy, or screeching. 

Also, since writing a note slows the whole process quite a bit, it fosters a more critical and thoughtful approach - or should. 

I'm an orderly sort and I like to creating systems and processes to get things done. I've used the same system for describing and rating wines since I started writing about them in the 1990's, making use of both relational databases and more recently spreadsheets.  I've learned that some applications are better at inputting data; some better at search and retrieval. For example, I quite like the view a spreadsheet gives me and the sense of continuity with recent activity it conveys, but databases such as Access or File Maker have more powerful filtering and reporting capabilities.

After some experimentation, I'm now in the process of shifting over to using Gmail to record and store my tasting notes. Here's how it works: 

  • Each note is composed as an email. 
  • A unique identifier for the wine (property, appellation, vintage) goes in the subject field. 
  • I use the 'canned responses' tool to drop a pre-formatted table into the body of the email then fill in the information for each field. 
  • When complete I send it to my own gmail address with '+wine' appended (like this:username+wine@gmail.com). 
  • Upon arrival, a filter identifies mail sent to this address as a tasting note, applies the appropriate label (ex.tasting notes), and sends it straight to archive skipping the inbox.

Since each label constitutes its own folder, a single click retrieves all my notes in list view with all the subject lines clearly visible - just like an inbox.  Once I have the list in front of me, right-clicking on an email pops open a preview that shows the entire table, making it very easy to see what I'm after. Field searches (Cotes du Rhone tasted in 2009) are lightning quick.

The system seems to have the best of both worlds: form-based data entry and a powerful reporting function. Also, Gmail makes all your tasting notes available to you anywhere, anytime - including on your smartphone. Thanks to the recently restored offline feature, you have access even when you don't have an Internet connection. Changes made while offline will be uploaded when connectivity is restored.

I'll have more to say about the system as I continue to build it out, but I'd be interested in hearing what readers have to say about it. Is this something you can see yourself adopting? If you've never been systematic about taking notes, would this approach encourage you to try it?      

Stephen Meuse can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com

Ellen Bhang

About By the Glass

Ellen Bhang writes about food and wine and reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe. Wine is the focus of her degree in the Gastronomy master's program at Boston University. She can be reached at bytheglass@globe.com.

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