BevMo tasting shows strengths, weaknesses of group rankings
Wilfred Wong’s blind tasting at BevMo (I think his title is e-cellarmaster) was a first of its kind, and quite an interesting affair, as it brought together an impressive range of industry types, most of whom came not only for the tasting but out of respect for Wilfred. Over a long career (longer, even, than mine!) Wilfred has stored up a deep repository of goodwill.
The purpose of the tasting was to measure some of BevMo’s bottlings (wines made for the chain) against others of their type and price. All four flights were blind. As is always the case, a group blind tasting is fascinating and frustrating. On the plus side of course is tasting the wines themselves. If they have been well-chosen (and Wilfred did a good job) it’s an interesting exercise in judgment. Then too, it’s always of academic interest to see what the group does. A group is a nebulous creature with no mind of its own, except a statistical one. On the debit side is that a group ranking is simply a mathematical number crunch. The fact that wine “A” came in first means only that more people preferred it than the others. It does not mean that nobody detested it.
There were four flights. The first was three Sauvignon Blancs. The group favorite was Husch 2008 (Mendocino), while mine was Vigilance 2008, from Lake County. I always did like those Lake County Sauvs that are so rich and savory. Last place was “75” Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley). But in truth, all these wines were pretty much of a piece.
The second flight was red table wines. Here again my first, Kumbaya non-vintage, was the group’s second, while their first, Red Truck 2008, was my second. And once again we agreed on the last place finisher, Folie a Deux 2008 Menage a Trois. This was a boring flight, but such wines are useful in the market. (Average price: about $10)
The third flight consisted of three Mendoza Malbecs. All I had to say was that there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference between them. Here, the group and I were of accord, in this order (all 2008s): Alta Vista Classic, Zolo Gaucho Select and Crios de Susana Balbo.
Things got interesting in the fourth flight, which was ultra-premium Pinot Noir. The quality of these wines, as opposed to the first three flights, was instantly obvious. You knew you were dealing with wines of substance. From the discussion that followed — even before the results were announced — it was clear that there was widespread discrepancy between people’s impressions. Why would there not be? One person raves about something; another loathes it. Still others, one imagines, are not sure how they feel. In this instance, you have to wonder whether a group score possesses any credibility at all. That’s why I wonder about some of these online sites that purport to aggregate many different critical reviews, or to add them all up and calculate some kind of average. I noticed also during the discussion something that struck me, which I’ve been dimly aware of for some time, until this tasting really brought it home to me. That concerns how some professional tasters are so eager to discover what they fancy are technical flaws in the wines, and then announce them to the group. Somebody will find TCA, or brett, or some other kind of mold or imbalance. It’s a kind of gamesmanship. I recall very high level tastings with some very famous names in which, as soon as the wines were poured, there was a race to sniff through them all to be the first to cry out, “Corked!” It’s like playing Bingo.
Anyway, in the Pinot Noir tasting my scores and the group’s were wildly divergent. All the wines were 2007s. Here are my preferences, from first to last, with group rankings in parentheses, followed by my Wine Enthusiast rating, if applicable.
1. Dutton-Goldfield 2007 Devil’s Gulch, Marin County (Group 6th) (I scored this 90 points in Wine Enthusiast.)
2. Roar Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands (Group 1st) (WE: 94 points.)
3. Patz & Hall Hyde Vineyard, Carneros (Group 4th) (unreviewed)
4. De Ponte Baldwin Reserve, Dundee Hills (Group 12th) (unreviewed)
5 (tie). Beau Freres Ribbon Ridge (Group 8th) (unreviewed)
5 (tie). Peay Scallop Shelf, Sonoma Coast (Group 11th) (unreviewed)
6. Failla Hirsch Vineyard, Sonoma Coast (Group 9th) (WE: 94 points)
7. Kosta Browne, Sonoma Coast (Group 3rd) (unreviewed)
8. Navarro Deep End, Anderson Valley (Group 7th) (unreviewed)
9. Testarossa Sierra Madre Vineyard, Santa Maria Valley (Group 2nd) (unreviewed)
10. Dahlia Reserve, Monterey County (Group 5th) (unreviewed)
The fact is that all these wines, with the possible exception of the Dahlia (which was pretty simple) were quite good. Their order of ranking would easily shift if you repeated this tasting the next day.