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More lessons from blind tasting


Just a quick post from here in my Napa hotel room before I hit the road for the rush hour commute, in the rain, for Oakland. Yesterday, I blind tasted 52 Cabs and Bordeaux blends at Napa Valley Vintners’ offices, in St. Helena. And as always happens, there were some real surprises.

My scores and reviews will be published in future editions of Wine Enthusiast so I can’t get into detail here, but I will say that some inexpensive wines beat out some very expensive ones. First, I went through all 52 in sequence, then narrowed down my top scorers into a final group of 12. I focused on that flight of a dozen very carefully, then made my ultimate scoring decisions. The entire tasting took more than 3 hours.

Fifty-two wines is more than I usually do in one sitting, but in this case it was very easy. The Vintners Association did a wonderful job setting everything up, which meant I didn’t have to, which freed my energies. I used a swivel chair to move up and down the table of bagged wines. There was water and Carr’s little crackers and spit cups, and that’s all I needed.

I should add that the particular wines I tasted were ones that don’t normally send me review bottles, which is why I traveled to Napa to taste them. I had the feeling that some wineries that never would have submitted to a group tasting did so because of the economy; just because you’re Napa Cab doesn’t mean you don’t have to get out there and market yourself. It was evident, right off the bat, that these were wines of great purity and grace. When you are at that quality, everything is good. It’s just a matter of splitting hairs. There were truly no bad wines; they all that that Napa Valley je ne sais qua. Under those circumstances you’re looking for nuances, not bold strokes, to make quality judgments.

So what does it mean than an inexpensive wine beats a super-pricy one? When you pay $100 or more for a bottle of wine, much of what you’re paying for is image. On the other hand, when you get something great for under $30, you’ve got a great value. I’ve spent most of my career trying to explain that great wine doesn’t have to cost a lot, and yesterday’s tasting proved that once again.

A final word about the handful of wineries I wish had submitted to the tasting, but didn’t. Why not? Fear? Pride? Because they don’t have to, or because they think they don’t have to? They know who they are.

  1. Without naming names, can you indicate the price spread of your top 12/top 3? And how many under 30 bucks…?

  2. The though just occurred to me; it would be quite funny if the wineries you seem to be calling out just didn’t know about the event.

  3. Tom, the price spread of the top 12 (I don’t have it immediately in front of me) was like $25-$150. There were 2 wines in the entire flight (of 52) under $30 (as I recall) and one of them was in the top 12.

  4. Dylan, they knew.

  5. Steve, Glad to hear the wines are showing well. But I must say your last statement seems painfully arrogant. Wineries choose to market themselves in different ways. Some have tasting room, some have distribution, some have ad’s in trade publications and other submit wines for review. Scores can be both fantastic and painful when you are trying to build a brand. Not only the bad scores but the good scores too. Suddenly that 95 comes through and your wine sells out overnight and everyone has forgot about you when the next vintage comes out.

    I think many wineries are reconsidering the marketing plan at the moment and many are choosing to focus on more traditional brand building through sales representation in the market, solid distribution relationships and expanding DTC business. Not on riding the wave of trade publications love or hate of the wines.

  6. Great – looking forward to the WE story. It’s always a surprise to me how wines measure up when image is negated (even though it shouldn’t be by now).

    Dying to know what the one <$30 in the top 12 was.

  7. Phil, I agree that many wineries are choosing new ways of marketing. What I meant specifically, and it’s not arrogant, refers to a small handful of very well-known “cult” wineries that traditionally allow only selected critics to taste, and even then, only at the winery. You’d be surprised at how many 97s and 98s are generated that way.

  8. Steve, looking at it from the wineries point of view, some are deathly afraid of that “bad” rating, say an 86( which you have said is still a very good wine). Referring back to your previous blog on ” how can we get distributors and consumers to not think of anything less than 90 as the death knell?” , I can say that personally it is an unpleasant experience to go thru, and we are just chump change( a small producer). What bigger guys really worry about is that one “wild hair” review that just sinks their entire marketing program.

    Granted Cerro Prieto is small potatoes, so I couldn’t even imagine a grand old name winery with everything riding on great reviews, and then they hold their breath and pray that they don’t get that “low” review.

    I see both sides of this issue, and agree with yours, but I understand big name wineries’ reluctance also. What should be acknowledged is the names of all the folks who participated(probably in next month’s WE), who took the chance. Obviously, everybody can’t be best, so you have to acknowledge their reluctance. Sure, one or two wines may be top dog and get the recognition, but if things are going really well for you in this economy, why rock the boat with a rating? That would be my take on their non entry, and it also applies to some winemakers I know locally. Things are going okay, good wine club, no need to submit. As I wine fan, I , like you, would love to know how the “too big to submit” wines actually did compare.

    For Cerro Prieto Vineyard & Cellars, a 92 rating for our first bottling of Paso Bordo was terrific PR for us. Surprisingly, it really hasn’t made that much difference w/r/to sales. The foot traffic is flat, sales are flat, and that is experienced by any winery who is honest for 3 counties in either direction. It is tough to sell to people who aren’t here. Sure there are some outliers, but they are few and far between.

    So what is really at stake in Napa is reputation and fortune, if they are sold out before the wines are bottled. Would you send yourself a bottle of ” S.H.Flying Tarantula” for review if all 3500 cases were already pre-sold at $150/bottle? In this economy I wouldn’t…but like you, secretly, I would still like to know…just how good is it?

  9. So the Vintners invited members who don’t usually send wines to you to now send wines for a comprehensive tasting? This was something you initiated or they initiated? Not that I think there’s anything wrong with the tasting; it actually sounds like a very good thing — more reviews and info for the people! I’m just curious how something like this came about.

  10. It was initiated by a third party without my knowledge and with no prior effort on my part. NVV seems to have readily acquiesced. As I have written, this seems to be because many of these wineries feel the need to reach out to people like me, in a way they have not in the past. That’s fine with me. I just do my job. I put no energy whatever into setting this up and it came as a surprise to me that it happened.

  11. Re 86 points–also a good score in Connoisseur’ Guide, I got an angry phone call from a winery owner complaining about a a rating of 86 for a recently reviewed wine. “Obviously, you don’t understand the style” came burning down the wires until I reminded this person that CGCW had awarded the previous vintage a 96, the highest score for that variety in that vintage. “Well, that was last year”, came the reply.

    I know things are tough out there, but this was way beyond the pale. We didn’t kill the wine, did not tell folks to send it back but apparently we are expected to be part of the winery’s public relations apparatus.

    Sorry, but that is not the role of an independent press.

  12. With a similar duty, I would taste for a critic panel back in the day. I found palate fatigue after about 30 wines. How do you go the extra mile?

  13. Blind tasting rules! That’s the only very GOOD weapon we have against label drinkers. Glad to read about this event.

  14. Follow the money, always follow the money.

    Too bad I wasn’t the one who coined the phrase……but i use it quite a lot.

  15. Tannic, I don’t do too many big tastings anymore. When I do, I get a very good night’s sleep the day before, wake up with a good breakfast, and relax. It helps to have others perform the physical tasks of set-up, etc. The room must be ideal (bright, comfortable temperature, quiet). It also helps to remind myself what a rare privilege it is to be able to do what I do.

  16. Charlie, when I give a great score they send a card thanking me for understanding the wine. When I give a lower score they call up complaining. Go figure!

  17. I’ll tell you what really surprises – not the complaints about “bad” scores. I had a winery pillory me after I gave one of their wines a 90 point rating, simply because I had the audacity to note that it was a better bottle than one of their pricier wines. After an exchange of bile-ridden e-mails (from them) and “Huh?” replies (from me), we finally agreed that I would never write about them again. So they’ve been cut out of my next book, which would have offered sincere praise and probably sold a few cases of wine for them. And I will not submit any further reviews of their wines to any publications. I wish them luck finding another reviewer generous enough to give them a 90 point score. Go figure.

  18. Hi Paul–

    Steve has commented about the phenomenon, and, of course, it happens in our tastings as well.

    Frequently, the lower priced wine of a pair will be the preferred wine. Sometimes it is because the pricier wine is more tightly structured and is going to take time to unwind. In that case, we hope that we have seen that difference, and then we have to decide how to handle it in the writing and rating.

    But, there are more than a few occasions, when it is simply the riper wine that gets the higher price, and often the choice about which batch becomes the “Reserve” is made very early in the game, based solely on intensity and then given extra oak. Three years later, the wine may be fuller-bodied and richer but its fruit has simply not come along for the ride. That is why blind-tasting is the only way to go.

    But, Paul, why do you not just buy the wine in question and review it anyhow. That is exactly what I told the winery owner the other day in the example cited. I was told for the third time that I did not understand the style and that they were not going to send wine to CGCW again. I replied, “Thats’ OK with me. If we see it at retail, we will simply buy it and taste it that way”.

  19. RE PaulG: IMO, the more reason for us not to submit wines! Or do you pull your own wines off the shelf to review? We (our winery) believes that critics are not going to be completely unbiased (AVA, price point, heavy bottle, etc.) in addition to the fact that the most important factor in purchasing is, “I tried it, I liked it” – not a review. Again, we might be in the minority, but scores are silly unless you’re buying futures for investment quality wines. Otherwise, drink what makes you happy.

  20. Steve, see Phil’s comments.

  21. Ohh I could say a lot here….but will hold back. I agree a bit with Phil : ) lol.

  22. Charles
    Your “Reserve” comment struck a chord. I understood there is absolutely no regulatory guideline on the use of that phrase. Any winery can arbitrarily use the term with no repudiation. Am I mistaken?
    Also, just a general comment on ratings. I know a number of winemakers who just refuse to play the game and submit their wines. Much of it is out of concern that a reviewer for whatever reason – and those variables are endless, will not be deemed worthy and assigned the coveted 90+ score. And that, like it or not, is what far too many consumers are obsessed with.

  23. Bruce, my 2 cents. Yes, you are correct, there is absolutely no law pertaining to the use of “reserve.” The term is horribly abused. And I agree that some of these wineries won’t submit wines to people like me for fear they’ll get less than the score they think they deserve.

  24. Bruce,
    Your comments get only two cents from Steve yet they cost you a nichol, I will offer a dime. OK, sorry for the inside joke.

    I agree with Steve on both his points.

    And for the record, it is not up to me or any other writer to decide who should or should not send wine. We can taste whatever samples come in, we can buy whatever we want to taste and the wineries have not control over what we do or what we don’t do, what we say or what we don’t say.

    That is why they owe us zero samples and why what they do is their business. I don’t care if they send or they don’t send. I don’t care if they think I understand the style last year but not this year. I am free to be me, and they are free to themselves. And that is as it should be.

    Re: 90+ points. Yes, that is what many consumers care about, but every time this quesiton of points comes up, you will also find folks chiming in that they read the descriptions that accompany any responsble reviewer’s rattings and they often choose wines less than 90 points based on the words, not the score.

    Two examples: There are folks who like deep, rich, chocolaty Zins and Syrahs. And there are wineries who make that style, not because they can sell wine, but because that is what the winemaker likes. The fact that those wines sell tens and hundreds of thousands of cases suggests that someone is buying them. Yet, I don’t much care for them. My response is to describe the wines for what they are, to rate very few of them as high as 90 points unless they also have fruit and reasonable balance, but to be sure to note that lovers of the style will be pleased.

    The same is true for high-acid whites of the type that remove dental enamel. They are wine drinkers, and famous winewriters, who think the sun rises and sets on these types of wines. I find them of value only with a limited number of dishes. Once again, the trick is not to give those wines 90+ points if I cannot in good conscience and yet to be able to write a description and commentary that allows fans of the style to find the wines they like.

    I know it happens because folks have commented on this blog and others that they know how to read and use the words as their guides, not just the scores.

    In fact, if you think about it, it has to be that way. The latest Parker listed about 100 Oregon Pinot Noirs with 90+ points. No one is going to buy all 100, so the question then becomes which ones if one wants OR Pinots. The ratings may be a starting point, but they are not the end point for lots of wine lovers.

  25. Every wine at every point and taste has a market. A restaurant may want a small winery, good price/quality that may get an 84 but isn’t sold in every supermarket. Of course, that kind of sale takes foot traffic on the part of the distributor and distributors no longer have sales staff, they have “take an order” staff. That is where a winery should be directing its anger, not at Charlie or Steve or others.
    Often distributors don’t even know the appellation, let alone have a tech sheet for many wines on their lists (you’d think they could at least identify appellation and ABV…and spell the name of the wine correctly). Yet, they are the ones in three-tier states who are entirely responsible for whether a wine is sold or not.
    And wineries want to blame a tasting point for lack of sales? A tasting is a bonus, regardless of the point. It tells the seller what to say to the buyer (whether ontrade, offtrade or consumer).
    If wineries want to sell their wine and get a loyal following in return, they should visit the three-tier flyover states, not just SFO, LAX, ORD, JFK, BOS, DFW, MIA and IAD. If you don’t have to change planes, you’re going to the wrong place. There are a lot of thirsty wine lovers out there.

  26. well said Kathy.

  27. Kathy while many of your points on distributors are valid. Do not forget that an ocean of wine is out in the market much of it with no justifiable reason for it to be made in the first place. All too often you see Joe’s cuvee out in the market for no reason than Joe just felt like making some wine. No PR or sales/marketing plan to be seen. Then they sit and complain that nobody else is selling the wine for them. Shame on wholesalers for taking up a product they are not going to back and sell but in my eyes the first to blame is a winery with no plan. Understanding your competition and setting your message sell wine not just shoving it in someone else’s warehouse and expecting it to disappear!

  28. Charlie

    Your response to Bruce shows exactly why many wineries won’t submit their wines for judging – reviewers with a bias. At least you admit yours.

    On one hand you say people start with scores, as, of course they do. Yet on the other, you say the “trick” to reviewing wines of the styles you don’t care for is to not give them scores of 90 or above, pretty much assuring most consumers won’t even read the review.

    Your comments on OR Pinot are the perfect example – with so many rated above 90, is anyone really going to pay attention to those below that mark?

    I certainly don’t mean to single you out, everyone has their own bias. But as a winery owner, why would I waste the time and effort to send you wine samples of something I know you already don’t like?

  29. Though I’m a broken record on the subject, the nuances that Charlie notes in his apologia for not giving a wine a 90+ matters to the 1% of connoisseurs; they matter not to the other 99% of wine buyers, as Charlie would be the first to acknowledge. With the advent of Web 2.0, it’s the “users” (peers) comments that matter to other “users”. The professional evaluators sway is decreasing; it’s now People’s Choice, which is more readily available online, that rules, whatever the commodity or service being sold.


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