Some thoughts on bottle variation
Late word: At 11:02 a.m. tomorrow (Tuesday 7/21) I will publish the winner of the Murphy-Goode “A Really Goode Job” with pics and up close and personal background info.
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Interesting article by Dan Berger in last Friday’s Napa Register on bottle variation, a phenomenon rarely talked about by vintners because, frankly, they don’t want to talk about it. The most commonly understood (by wine consumers) reason for bottle variation is TCA — corkiness — but Dan points out another: lightstruck bottles (whether by direct sun or indoor flourescent lighting). I have to admit I’d never heard of this before I attended a tasting at Rubicon restaurant, years ago, at which Dan was present. He found some of the wines lightstruck.
There are other reasons for bottle variation:
- Transit. A bottle may have been exposed to excessive heat, say, in the back of a UPS truck on a summer day.
- Poor storage.
- The unequalization of production. Production of a wine is said to be equalized if all the barrels or tanks in which it was raised are blended together in one large tank. If this isn’t possible (and it’s often not), then you can have two different wines, both bottled with the same label.
- Time between tasting. Even if two bottles are identical, they can leave different palate impressions if tasted at different ages. Just a few months can alter a wine’s profile.
- Dishonest winery practices. Just because two bottles have identical labels doesn’t mean the winery didn’t knowingly put different wines in them. What, you think it never happens?
- Glass differences. The same wine, tasted in different glasses, will taste differently. This isn’t exactly “bottle variation,” but we don’t drink wine from bottles, we drink it from glasses.
I think bottle variation is the main reason why critical reviews of the same wine by the same critic can vary, when the wine is tasted more than once. It’s only reasonable for the public to expect perfect consistency from a critic, and certainly we critics ourselves would like to perform perfectly consistently. Unfortunately, consistency in anything is rare, and particularly in so subjective a practice as winetasting. Add bottle variation to the mix, and you have ample opportunity for scoring variation.
I once scored the same wine 9 points apart on 2 different occasions over a period of a few months. I don’t like saying that, but it’s the truth, and any critic who says it never happened to him isn’t being honest. Having said that, more often, when I accidentally re-review a wine (only to discover I’d previously reviewed it), my scores are either identical, or within 2-4 points of each other — a tolerable discrepency. I think that when I rate a wine differently over time, it’s because of bottle variation. I don’t think it’s because my judgment is at fault. But a wine reviewer always has to accept the fact that his judgment may be cloudy on any given day. I will say this: there is a strong imperative for critics to maintain rating consistency, which is the linchpin of our credibility. Imagine if, for instance, Parker started giving 72s to Lafite. Everybody would wonder if he’d lost his mind. That’s why he’s not going to start giving Lafite 72s.
I came across this John Cleese video on wine. It’s quite good, and I think you’ll enjoy it. Lots of familiar California faces.
On the Murphy-Goode contest
I spent the day today (Sunday) with the Top Ten and will blog Tuesday morning on my impressions and, more importantly, the winner. Will post a few minutes after the winner is announced by the winery.
R.I.P. Walter Cronkite
I met him once. I was on my first real job, as a sous-chef in a French restaurant in Massachusetts. Mr. Cronkite’s daughter was going to private school in the area; he was visiting with her. He dined alone, and after dinner, was hanging out in the bar. After I shut down the kitchen, he was still there, alone, nursing a drink. I got a glass of wine and asked if it was okay to talk with him. Of course it was. This was less than a week before Nixon resigned, so Watergate was obviously the focus of our conversation. I had the feeling Mr. Cronkite was happy to talk with me. He was so friendly, unpretentious, unphased by his fame. I was just a young, politically-oriented kid. He was a great newsman, a great reporter. The real deal. I hope his example of fair reporting lives forever.