Is it better to taste alone, or with the winemaker?
I used to do a lot of tasting with winemakers. I don’t mean informal, standing-around-the-barrel tasting where the winemaker siphons off some of the stuff and drains it into your glass, and then the two of you chat about this and that down in the cellar. I still do that. I mean formal tasting: the winemaker invites me to his or her place, and, after some suitable introductory chatter, I taste through a lineup and make formal notes for my Wine Enthusiast reviews. Hopefully, this is done at a table. Sometimes there is no table; you taste, set the glass down wherever you can (usually on the floor), then make your notes, with your pad leaning on the curved side of a barrel or resting on your knee.
It was always a little weird to formally taste with winemakers. It’s a social visit, but it’s also business. I don’t want them to see what I’m writing (especially if it’s negative), so I’ll shield my pad with my hand. And when it comes to the all-important rating, years ago I started spelling out the numbers alphabetically, because I was afraid the winemaker might be able to see a number, even if it was upside down.
In the last few years, I’ve formally tasted less and less with winemakers. I prefer instead that, if they want me to review their wines, they send them to me at home. This is a more expeditious way to taste. It’s less time consuming for both me and the winemaker, and, most importantly, it has the huge advantage of subjecting all the wines I review to the same standard.
But last Friday I had the kind of experience that reminded me how, sometimes, there’s really nothing like doing a formal tasting with the winemaker. I’d been invited up to Kendall-Jackson’s Wine Center, in the Santa Rosa (Sonoma County) suburb of Fulton, to taste through K-J’s new releases with their winemaster, Randy Ullom. Now, I know Randy fairly well; he was in my last book. He’s a very sympatico, no-nonsense guy, and I knew there would be no uptightness, so I agreed to the visit. Randy’s staff had set up about 20 wines to taste: the Vintner’s Reserves, the Highlands Estates, a new tier called Jackson Hills (named after you-know-who), and Stature, K-J’s ultra-premium-super-duper-expensive Bordeaux blend.
If they had sent me these 20 wines at home, I might have disposed of them in 60 minutes. (I wouldn’t have tasted them all in the same flight because there were Bordeaux reds, Chardonnays, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and a couple of Syrahs). I would have put them into flights of the same wine type, and spent maybe 3-4 minutes per wine. You eye the wine, swirl it, sniff it, taste it, repeat all the above, and voila, you’re done. The score and initial review quickly follow. (Later, at the computer, I will generally edit the wording to tidy it up.) True, there’s a bit of wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am to this assembly line of impressions, but while I might wish for more time, the truth of the matter is that I don’t have it, and neither does anyone else who tastes as many wines as I do. On the other hand, don’t make the mistake of thinking that the longer you linger over a wine, the higher the score will be. Ain’t necessarily so. The better a wine inherently is, the better it grows in the glass. Conversely, the more flaws it contains, the more starkly they reveal themselves with breathing. So a longer period of time spent on each review can cut both ways. Bottom line: like I said, as long as every wine I taste is subject to the same standards, I think my method is fair.
By contrast the tasting with Randy took about 3 hours. I scribbled my notes onto my pad, and made my ratings, making sure Randy couldn’t see what they were. But between the two of us there also was a more or less continuous flow of words. Randy could see when I was concentrating on writing and thinking, which is when he kept his mouth shut. But he was there to answer questions and volunteer information, and best of all, when I found myself struggling to understand something, or to find the right words or metaphors, it was helpful to bounce ideas off Randy. His feedback helped sharpen my own insights.
I suppose you could say this isn’t fair, because like I said, nowadays I taste very few wines this way. I agree there was an element of unfairness. I suspect the wines struck me as better than they actually were, or better than they would have had I tasted them at home against flights of their peers. On several occasions over the last few years, when I’ve tasted at a winery (not necessarily K-J, but others) and given the wines very high scores, I lowered them by 1 or 2 points when I got home to counter what we at Wine Enthusiast call “tasting room bias,” which is a very real phenomenon. That’s what I think I’m going to do with the K-J wines. The K-J people probably won’t like to hear that, but it’s the price of tasting wines in so thoroughly a pleasant and convivial atmosphere as I experienced with Randy Ullom.
The bottom line is that where, with whom and how you taste can absolutely influence your impressions. Consumers who go by the reviews of others are right to demand complete explanations of the circumstances under which the tasting occurs.