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Is it better to taste alone, or with the winemaker?

21 comments

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.

  1. Very salient and thoughtful article Steve, but I wonder if we’re asking the right questions about transparency? Life is about context, and no matter when I am tasting a wine, I will be influenced by several factors, all of which will influence my take on a wine. Assuming that I’m tasting at home, the flow of my day, my emotional state, and even the environmental influences such as wafting aromas from neighboring kitchens will contribute to my review. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t be transparent, but is the winemaker the only major influence? If I find a winemaker becoming a friend, will my future reviews be 100% objective, and should I put in quotes: “Note that the winemaker is a friend of mine”? Should I tell people that my reviews may be influenced by a recent death in the family, a slight head cold, or a new love in my life? I suppose my question boils down to, will consumers trust my reviews based on time and proven credibility, regardless of context, or is communication about context the key in creating trust with a consumer? From my point of view, a consumer should cross reference several reviews to gain a well rounded picture of a wine, rather than demanding that each one of us list the circumstances of when we tasted the wine; whereby justifying life’s influence.

  2. Carlos Toledo says:

    As a wine buyer/importer i agree completely with your words. Worse yet is when we get to know the winemaker or winery owner personal life. Their struggles, their lives, their love for the land, for the wine… To have that cold heart is awfully hard sometimes.. but on the other hand when it comes the sales time, we can all unload that emotion onto the consumer and sell more, a type of concern wine critics don’t need to have.

  3. It depends… (the only true answer to every question, right? :-)…

    I think for the purpose of objective reviews and hard-core QPR comparison, you need to be away from the influence of the winemaker.

    If you’re after deep coverage of the story behind the wines, then I’d say you’d want to be as close to the winemaker as you can get.

    Personally, I prefer the later and I think it’s one of the reasons why people read my blog. But if I was a reviewer for WE I’d be opting for the former, I think.

  4. Steve–

    Is there any reason why you could not request the same wines from K-J and taste them blind in your own setting, against their peers, not knowing which wines you are tasting? Or better yet, wander down to a local retailer and buy some of them.

    That would seem the ultimate in measuring tasting room bias. You acknowledge it exists and lower your scores in compensation. We all know it exists. It has to exist. K-J knows it exists. Otherwise they would simply send you the wines to review no matter how talented they believe you to be as a reviewer.

  5. Charlie, I could easily ask KJ to send me the wines. But then there wouldn’t be much sense in tasting with Randy. I don’t want to completely stop tasting with winemakers. That would isolate me. I’m trying to find a balance between tasting at home (98% of my reviews) and still going out on the road. There are no ideal solutions in our jobs. All we can do is try to find a balance that works.

  6. Dude, well I do opt for the former. Like I told Charlie about 98% of my reviews are formal at home. And most of the tasting I do at wineries is informal. For example, the same day I tasted formally with Randy I tasted informally with Melissa Stackhouse at La Crema. I could have gone formal there too but didn’t feel like it. I enjoy the experience of formal tasting on occasion with winemakers and would not want to stop it entirely for some theoretical reason. On the other hand there are certain wineries I will never taste at formally again because the experience is so stressful (no names please).

  7. Steve I think it is always better for professionals to taste with professionals. You miss things tasting in isolation, and palate fatigue sets in earlier than any of us want to admit. Back when I ran a wine shop I rarely ordered any wines that I had tasted alone – there were three of us charged with buying, and most of the time we would not buy unless two of us agreed that we could sell the wine in question. Of course if one of our favorite writers had already rated something highly, any one of us could order because we knew a few customers would buy by scores…

    What I’m trying to say is that two palates are better than one, even if that other palate is the guy who made the wine. I’d say you are safer tasting with the winemaker than, say, tasting with the head of marketing or PR. Most of us know exactly where our wines fit into the grand scheme of things, and I’d say that more than half the time we are likely to be brutally honest. And most of the rest of winemakers who perhaps aren’t brutally honest with writers know enough to keep quiet and just answer questions – they don’t want to jeopardize their scores by setting off the journalist’s finely-honed BS detector.

    Rather than worrying about transparency or ethical standards, were I in your shoes my thoughts would be more about the value of my time. If you are going to travel to and from, and spend hours tasting and in conversation, I would hope the publication is going to get more out of it than a set of scores and tasting notes – more like 2,000 words of substance, with some photos to go along with it.

    And that gets me to my only professional objection to “tasting with the winemaker.” I might invite you for a social visit, on your own time (what little there is of it) to come taste out of barrels or shoot the breeze. But I’m not going to invite you to come up here to taste with me in your full professional capacity unless I think I have a story for you. And then I fully expect that you or your editor may decide to take a pass. But do you guys ever take a pass when K-J calls, even if there is no story? Are there other wineries that get 3 or more hours of your time? Is there a risk in declining such invitations? Just asking.

  8. I really enjoy tasting with winemakers, either at home or at the winery. I do it often. The potential “bias” you reference can be easily adjusted for. What I do most of the time is bring (or keep) the bottles home with me and re-taste after the winemaker is gone. That shows me how the wines develop, and helps adjust for any excessive initial exuberance. But as you know, this is a very time-consuming way to taste. I offer it as a service to those wineries and winemakers who have earned my respect and admiration. They have shown consistent excellence. They have submitted wines via the regular channels, whether they got a good review or not, so I could track them over a few vintages. Of course I hear from plenty of gripers who think it’s unfair, but it’s my methodology and my choice. There is no possible way to taste in person with more than a small percentage. But I do my best to mix it up, and visit new people each month.

  9. Mark Osmun says:

    Hi Steve,

    I like Gabriella’s comments about the great variety of factors (beyond a winery’s ambiance) that might affect scores. If, for example, the reviewer is tasting at home on a day in which they’ve received some personal good news, should they deduct a point or two to compensate for their elevated mood? Perhaps all tastings should be done in a standard way designed to eliminate all possible influences (of course, then every reviewer would have to subscribe to that protocol). I don’t know.

    Another option is something we (Jackson Family Wines) introduced last year: the “e-tasting” in which the wine reviewer is both at his own home and in the presence of the winemaker via web cam. The winemaker can’t see your notes, there is no winery-ambiance influence, and yet he or she is available to answer questions. We offer these routinely and would like to do more of them–particularly if they’d get an exemption from the ambiance point deduction. Cheers!

  10. Steve–

    The point of requesting all or even some of the wines, or simply going out and buying them if WE gives you a budget for that purpose, is to measure for yourself the effects of tasting room bias. Your trusty assistant could put them into tastings from time to time and you would get a kind of feedback that is far more specific than deducting 1 or 2 points.

    You may be so objective that there is no tasting room bias or that bias, regardless of your best efforts, may actually amount to several points for some wines. I am not predicting anything, by the way, but I do believe that you can test your own premise with just a little effort. Could make for a very interesting followup if done with enough rigor so that you did not know when the K-J wines were slipped in.

    You have been completely above board and transparent on the way this came about so my comments are not at all meant to be sharpshooting or snarky. But, I do think you might owe it to yourself and your loyal band of readers, like me, who hang out here and hang on your every word to see what would happen if you tasted those wines truly blind and unknowingly in a peer-to-peer comparison.

  11. Charlie, I take your point. But it leads to a larger question: If you retasted almost any wine you’d likely come to a different conclusion. I would not be surprised to find myself giving a wine 2 different scores on different occasions. Hopefully the numbers would be too far apart. The trick is to be as fair as you can in a review and, when you’re certain it’s the best you can do, go ahead and publish it.

  12. Paul, you make excellent points. It’s a complicated job we have.

  13. All this bending into pretzels to compensate for this or that influence or bias is largely alleviated through tasting notes and scores generated by a range of wine enthusiasts vs. the opinion of the Lone Wine Enthusiast. Having a multitude of serious evaluations nullifies the interfering noise factor of different variables.

  14. This just goes to show that wine tasting/scoring is even more subjective than many originally may believe and why scores from an individual should be taken with this in mind regardless of credibility or experience. We are human beings and are consciously/subconsciously affected by many internal and external influences (music, what we ate, time of day, head cold, time of year, our friend the winemaker, etc.) Is it fair to the winemaker you subtract 1 or 2 points because of this known “bias”? How do we know that’s the right adjustment? This adjustment could mean a lot of money to some winemakers.

    So, for a consumer to get comfortable with a review and score, it would make more statistical sense to look at scores from as many reviewers as possible, much like they do at judgings (upwards of 10 judges) to look for consistency and identify outliers. Not sure, though, if this is really feasible as the many reviewers out there may not always review the same wines. Nor is there a single database (I am aware of) that can show this information and make it easier for review by the consumer.

  15. The more time I spend in our wine industry, the more I think that it is difficult to separate the winemaker (I use winemaker as a broad term, not the individual, but the set of circumstances that leads to make a particular bottle of wine) and the wine itself. Of course one can try to be very analytical and cold about wine reviews and that is a viable way to test a wine no question. But there is so much more in a bottle of wine than just the taste – how was it made (what techniques were used), where are the grapes from, what was the intent behind this wine. The value of knowing the tid bits are as important to me as the wine itself. I relate wine to Classical music; some folks just like to listen to a piece and give it a thumb up or down while others want to know how was this written, why was the composer pushed to write this – sometimes a not so good sounding piece of music becomes interesting once one knows the reason for its being (there is no understanding without knowledge, just opinions). The details are not for everyone, many people just want to know the score and that’s it and we should respect that. For the few for whom the context matters, and I think in some way this is what Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher related to in their last WSJ article, wine should be reviewed with some emotional background and I would love for us to keep some of that.

  16. NicoRiesling, I couldn’t agree more about reviewing with emotional background and context. There’s a fine line I tread between sheer objectivity and having some context that gives me a feeling. I doubt that we’ll ever resolve this tension.

  17. Hi, Steve;

    This topic is so interesting that I just have to reply from a winemaker’s perspective. First, I agree wholeheartedly with Charlie’s comments and the comments that concern the great subjectivity surrounding the judging of wine in general.

    It’s valuable to taste with the winemaker, in the cellar, if possible. Consider how well we are acquainted with our wines and our vineyards. We see them begin at budbreak in March, through set, veraison, harvest, fermentation, malolactic fermentation, racking, barrel aging. I feel my wines are my partners in a great experiment. In some vintages they are better partners than in others when we have weather surprises to overcome. Winemaker’s add this depth to a tasting experience. If you are in the cellar, it’s easier to make a point about a particular wine in bottle if you can compare it with the current wine in barrel.

    Another point: I always want a critic to tell me what they honestly think about my wines. It’s important to get feedback from folks who are exposed to a lot of different wines. It’s also important for winemakers to educate critics about new techniques/re-educate about basics of winemaking, especially so with the new crop of young writers and bloggers.

  18. Readers, Margaret Davenport was the longtime winemaker at Clos du Bois.

  19. Margaret works with several wineries, maybe still at Peter Merriam, and has her own winemaking project under the Davenport label.

    Nico, of course, is the winemaker at Pacific Rim.

    Both of those people, very successful and respected winemakers, love their own children (wines) and want us to love them as they do. My kids (not wines) are too old for me to write you a treatise about them, but I can write you a long story about my six-year old granddaughter. Or I can show you my slides.

    But, either way, that is more information than you need to know when reading through several hundred reviews of wines. That it, it is more than most consumers want to know in that context. If Steve or I tried that–writing 500 word essays on each of several hundred wines, the readers would get a book in the mail, not a magazine.

    Now, when it comes to specifically enjoying a bottle of Davenport Pinot or Peter Merriam Cab Franc or Pacific Rim Riesling, we would be all ears for the kind of information that Margaret and Nico have to provide. And, there is a place for that information. Put it on the back label. Write your short story there. Put it on your website. Put a small brochure attached to the neck of every bottle.

    But, please, and I admire you both, do not ask me, or any other writer to do your PR job for you. We are wine reviewers, not cheerleaders. Getting that longer story in the hands of the folks who are sitting down to enjoy a bottle of your wine is your job.

    And while Steve started this topic with a visit to K-J, he clearly has neither the intentiion nor the ability to visit 3000 wineries in CA or 2000 negotiant bottlers on any kind of a regular basis. No one does or could, and so while there may be some value to wineries to introduce us to their children (wines) first hand, it is just not in the cards for more than a handful of producers a year. As to whether those visits should lead directly to tasting notes or just to learning, well, that is a judgment that Steve makes on the side of writing and I make on the side of not writing, just learning. No real rights or wrongs, I guess, but it is not the way that most wine reviews done in substantial numbers can come about.

  20. Charlie,

    You mean, you won’t come and see me……

    You break my heart man……

    Got your point though and this is why we have such an extensive website.

  21. Me and my friends love to go wine tasting with the winemakers at the winery because you get to learn a lot from them. They teach you how to choose wines that best fits your taste or for your party.

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