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Point score reflects quality, not my personal opinion

89 comments

I spoke on the phone yesterday with a winemaker who wanted to know what I thought of his wine. He was very excited about it, he said; the wine was in high demand by restaurateurs. It was a Sangiovese-Cabernet Franc blend from up in the Foothills. Alcohol 14.8%, case production only 65, retails for $30.

I told the man I liked his wine okay and gave it a decent, but not great, score. Even though he was 200 miles away and I couldn’t see him, through the telephone line I could feel his spirits sink.

This happens a lot. It’s always a tough thing for me to tell someone I wasn’t doing handstands over their wine. Often, they’ll rebut by telling me how “X” or “Y” gave it a big score, or how it won this or that medal someplace. I listen. I commiserate. I feel bad. I try to figure out what to say next without being hurtful, prideful, defensive, whatever. These are real people, with real bills to pay.

I told the man that I could see why a restaurateur or sommelier would want his wine. It’s very high in acidity, as Sangioveses are. It also was a little green and minty, although it had some good, rich cherry fruit flavor and a spicy dose of pepper. I said that, while my palate veers more toward a softer, lusher style, as exemplified by Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, I could see how, if I were a sommelier looking for a food-friendly wine, I might choose his. Napa Cabernet is not particularly versatile with food. It’s practically a food group in itself. But this guy’s Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend would be pretty good with lots of different things.

But, I explained, I’m not a sommelier. I’m a wine critic. I’m not looking for food-friendly wines, although I like to praise them when I find them. I’m looking for wines of high quality, as we define them at Wine Enthusiast. Now, this gets back to some discussions we had here last week concerning typicity versus taste. Should a Sangiovese-Cab Franc blend from the Foothills be acidic and slightly green? I suppose a case could be made. If so, then was this man’s bottling a good example of one, and thus deserving of a higher score than I gave it? In other words, was it unfair or inappropriate for me to give it the score I did, simply because it lacked the richness of a Napa Cab?

Well, let’s break it down. High acidity works for me when it feels completely balanced with all the other parts. If it’s noticeable — if it tingles my mouth with tartness that’s almost sour — then it doesn’t work. A touch of green works for me, if it’s the kind of herbaceousness that Cabernet (or Cabernet Franc, or Bordeaux for that matter) sometimes shows. But too much green doesn’t feel right. Let’s admit these are questions of subjectivity.

Here’s another example. Somebody sent in a $75 Zinfandel from Paso Robles. This is a winery I’m quite familiar with. They make a lot of different SKUs, which I’ve tasted for years. Usually, I find the wines hot, sweet — and way overpriced (not that that has anything to do with the score). I don’t give them good numbers. The proprietor has let me know that others think a good deal more of his wines than I do. That’s fine. But here’s my question. Are we supposed to posit that Paso Robles Zinfandel should be hot and slightly sweet? After all, a lot of them are, maybe most of them. So am I being unfair, or biased, or inappropriate when I give them low scores?

I honestly don’t think so. There’s a slippery slope here. Consider Clarksburg Chenin Blanc. There’s not a lot of it, but it’s quite distinctive. I’ve had Chenins from Dry Creek, Vinum, Baron Herzog, Dancing Coyote, Ehrhardt, Bogle and others, and have given them a lot of Best Buys — 19, to be exact. That’s because, at average pricing between $9-$13, they’re exactly that, best buys.

Yet the highest score I ever gave a Clarksburg Chenin Blanc was 88 points, and that was only one of them, the Vinum 2007 ($12). All the rest scored 87 points or lower. So should I have given the Vinum a much higher score, because it was the best Clarksburg Chenin Blanc I ever tasted?

Again, I don’t think so. I have a Platonic vision in my mind of perfection. It’s a wine — white, red, dry, sweet, fortified, unfortified, oaked, unoaked, sparkling, still — in which all the parts are in the most exquisite harmony. I’ve never had a California Chenin Blanc where that was true, or even close. Ditto for Paso Robles Zinfandel.

Look, wine critics forever have made distinctions between great wines and coarse ones. One of the best literary examples of this was Professor Saintsbury’s very famous observation concerning Hermitage. “It was…not a delicate wine,” he wrote; “if you want delicacy you don’t go to the Rhône…But it was the manliest [italics Saintsbury’s] French wine I ever drank.” The Professor recognized Hermitage’s essential Hermitage-ness, and could not bring himself to put it on the same level as Bordeaux. Yet he found a way of praising it even while condemning it to lesser status. I try to do the same thing: I have described Paso Robles Zinfandel as lusty.

Saintsbury

Professor Saintsbury

I suppose if I had a completely open mind, I would allow for the possibility of a 100 point Temecula Viognier. I do; and will let you know when, and if, I stumble across one.

  1. Mr. Olken,
    With all due respect to your opinion on “causality”, I couldn’t disagree more. It seems you underestimate your reader’s ability to learn and understand wine.
    Perhaps wine used to be treated in this scholastic/dogmatic fashion, but the world has changed pretty much in the last decade.
    Just to give an example, you claim “it is enough to say that a wine smells vinegary or sharp or like airplane glue without telling the readers about the legal limits of volatile acidity”; but isn’t the reader entitled to know that a vinegary smell can be derived from an excess of volatile acidity? And is it not part of your responsibility as a wine critic and educator to instruct your readers about these flaws?
    Alas, your proposition to discuss solely the superficial character of wine can give the dangerously false impression that it is purposely aimed at keeping most wine drinkers exactly where they are: in ignorance.

  2. Charlie,

    You may not taste the raisins, I am tasting mostly pruny ripe, flat, viscous flavors from a number of your listed producers from the ’02 and 03 vintage! Really? Already reduced, flat flavors from wine a mere 4-5 years in btl??? Come on now!

    You may enjoy drinking those types, however they leave much to be desired from my stance. The good thing for you guys who like viscous, flat cherry soda… There’s a tons of them at your service right here in the RRV! Come and get ‘em!

  3. Charlie:

    We are getting closer. My problem is not with believing that Chardonnay is more glorious than Albarino and the best Albarinos will never achieve the same level of X than the best Chards. Agreed.

    Just compare the Albarinos to the Albarinos and the Chards to the Chards. Done.

    Re: Peter’s point about education…I think more education is better than less, trying to explain to people who come to our tasting room why we filter some wines and don’t others and what role ML plays in this decision (for example) is where most of the fun is. But, I’m sure Peter recognizes that certain forums are better equipped than other to give the VA answer.

    And Randy, one man’s raisin is another man’s plum; and your preferred style of wine is just that. There’s no point in trying to make a moral equivalence.

  4. Steven M–

    Just comparing Albarino to Albarino and Chenin to Chenin is fine. I don’ t put them in blind tastings with Chard or Riesling or anything but themselves. But, in so doing, I am still obligated, in my opinion, to score wines on a basis that is wider than Wonder Bread is Wonder Bread and thus the best is worth 100 points.

    Does this mean that we now agree that I do not need to score the best Chenin Blanc as high as the best Chard if I find the Chenin less worthy? If so, we agree. If not, well, thus endeth the lesson one way or another.

  5. Steve,

    This is why I like reading your blog. It’s not that I necessarily agree with WE’s objective policy. But, to have a 100 point scale you have to have an ideal of what a 100 point wine is. A comparison to that ideal based on recognizable criteria, such as those you mentioned, is objective, despite others protests. It’s objective because it should be possible for others to taste the same things and in comparison to that ideal rate the wine similarly. This is not subjective unless you have a different model in mind. (Like your own wine.) I have always suspected that most American wine rag’s scales were based on the model of Napa perfection, not Bordeaux, Aloxe Corton (possibly my ideal), or Eola Hills. I appreciate the article and discussion as it lets me know that that truly is the case, and should I submit my Rhone varietal wines next year for our inaugural release, they will be judged against that model rather than a Chateneuf d’Pape. While this is in some ways discouraging to those of us not making Napa Cab style wine, at least it gives us the necessary information to make an informed decision about whether submitting to a magazine will increase value and sales.

    If only all reviewers were as forthright about their scale and criteria, I doubt you’d hear the complaints. Morton is correct, reviewers who write solely a description of the wine, without context to the scale’s criteria, waste everyone’s time with a seemingly subjective review that gives wine critics a bad name.

  6. Morton Leslie says:

    Not yet with the lesson. Compare that conversation you might have with the fellow ringing up and bagging your groceries at the checkout counter of the supermarket with a brief conversation you might have with the Dalai Lama during which he blesses a prayer shawl you brought to him. The relative value you place on those two interactions in analogous to the value one might place on a particular grape variety or wine versus another. In the first instance you interact with another human, get groceries, and decline an offer to help you to the car. From the latter you also get a brief human interaction and your prayer shawl back after some words are spoken over it. You probably will immediately forget the friendly banter you had with the clerk, but might cherish forever that shawl and being in the presence of The Chosen One. Both the clerk and the Dalai Lama will certainly forget talking to you.

    So does one human interaction have more value than another? Was that interaction with the Dalai Lama any more earth shaking than your discussion of the cover of the National Inquirer with the clerk? A disinterested third party might say at least you got a laugh, something to eat and kind offer from the first interaction, a lot more useful that a piece of cloth you already owned and which you now keep in a box and bring out now and then to impress your friends.

    It’s the same with wine. Chardonnay doesn’t really have anything that Albarino lacks other than what we subjectively have attached to it. It is important to keep this in mind because it can otherwise make us blind to seeing things a different way. The Dalai Lama, himself, would probably tell us that the conversation with the clerk should be cherished as much or perhaps more than his words and the damn shawl. And I bet he would happily chuck down either wine with equal relish.

  7. Morton, I don’t think the Dalai Lama drinks alcohol. Anyway, what you say is inarguable but of limited value, since these statements of the inherent moral relativity of everything mean that nothing can ever be either praised or condemned. This is neither a wise way of looking at things, nor a practical understanding of how human nature works. We judge things all the time. When the Buddhists suggest being non-judgmental, they mean it in the sense of not being unkind to our fellow creatures; also, of not being overly attached to things that please us. Those are noble sentiments, but they don’t apply to a wine critic (or any other critic). We are not attached to the wines we give high scores to; we are simply recognizing their quality. It might be argued, from a Buddhist point of view, that is it unkind of me to give a bad score to a wine, as that harms my fellow creature who made it. I have written here, at some length, that I do have mixed feelings about that.

  8. Mr. O’Connor–

    You make a series of assumptions and undermine your own cause in the process.

    –You miss the notion that a taster is far more instructed/far better informed by describing the sour aspects for they are than for dropping in the term “Volatile acidity”, which shows up in a variety of guises from airplane glue to old apple (aldehydes present) to vinegary. Readers, as opposed to scientists like yourself, want to know about character, not chemistry.

    –You mistake the purpose of a tasting note with the purpose of essays. A thirty to fifty word tasting note is no place for a lesson in volatile acidity, ethyl acetate, aldehydes, etc.

    –You assume, incorrectly in my view, that the average reader of wine journals care more about causality than character. Even our good buddy, Dan Berger, with his deep love of low pHs and high acidities, does not publish statistics. He publishes descriptions.

    –Your choice of words “superficial character of wine” and “aimed at keeping most wine drinkers exactly where they are: in ignorance” is misbegotten.

    A wine’s character is not superficial. It is its character.

    On the one hand, you argue that the world of wine drinkers has changed and on the other you then describe those readers as ignorant.

    I have great respect for the brilliance of your technical analysis and your deep and elaborate knowledge of wine, growing conditions, economics. It is not clear, however, that you have as much knowledge of the wants and needs of the average wine consumer.

    There are many interesting technical aspects to this business. They get discussed in articles and in books. They cannot be discussed in any meaningful way in short tasting notes.

  9. Morton Leslie says:

    I invoked the Dalai Lama. You can’t argue with me.

  10. The D.L. actually owns a vineyard in Switzerland. See http://gailharrington.net/devinewine.aspx

  11. Steve M.-

    It becomes a moral issue when growers continue to be told to leave their grapes on the vine longer and longer all while the grapes dehydrate out 15, 20, 25% of its water (weight), then the grapes are finally harvested only to be hosed with h20 the moment the grower’s leaves with this light weigh tag because the winemaker (engineer) is looking for 28-30 brix sugar. If you’ve ever seen this condition of these clusters, you’d bring it to a moral level too… Then again maybe you wouldn’t. I will continue to call bs when I see it. Those screwing growers out of legit weight are hurting the industry (artificially driving up the cost per ton for all) and I can assure you Steve and any other out there airing on the side of riper is better is on the wrong side of history… we only need to pop some pop corn and watch this thing play out.

    IT IS A MORAL ISSUE to leave the delicate clusters to shrivel. They certainly don’t respect the grapes or the region or the grower or the vines as they stress in the late october sun waiting for reprieve. Anyone harvesting at obscene sugar levels don’t give a shit about the grapes. It’s rather a very selfish way to make wine. Moreover, no one in this industry talks about how much water and acid added at the crushpad. Why? Cause “everyone’s doing it”? I can tell you there’s more hydration going on than anyone will mention. Everyone always quotes, “brix at harvest’ and no one really talks about the concept of “sugar up”- We should quote brix post sugar up. Maybe we should adopt the French style where NO water is allowed at the crushpad… no hydration, no “washing out the crusher”, no water additions at the crushpad might get the grapes in a bit earlier.

  12. Randy-

    I commend your courage to write what’s right.

  13. Randy, hydration doesn’t bother me. Neither does acidifying. If it makes better wine, why not?

  14. Steve-

    If hydration and acidifying doesn’t bother you, that’s fine.

    But, what about the consumer? Don’t you think the consumer should know if water and/or acid was added to the grower’s grapes at the winery?

  15. Chris, it’s fine by me to reveal everything about winemaking. But why stop with adding water (a natural product) and acid (ditto). What about other chemicals and enzymes? What about spinning cones and yeasts (natural or commercial)? What about oak substitutes? What about fining agents? Micro-ox? The list goes on and on. And where precisely would all this information be listed? You’d need a gigantic label that would cover the entire bottle. I think most consumers could care less about this stuff — and those who do care can usually find the information they want through the Internet.

  16. Chris Jones – time for winemakers to put a stake in the ground. At least I am going to.

    No – consumers in general don’t need to know how a wine is made. They need to know that it was made according to legal regulations. They need to know if it contains things that trigger dangerous allergic reactions.

    If YOU want to know answers about water and acid and anything else in the manufacture, ask the winemaker. He or she will probably tell you the truth. But if they tell you “I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you” that’s their right.

    Fred – “…it is bad business to stake your success on ‘tasters’ versus ‘drinkers.'” It is bad business to stake one’s success on anything other than buyers. I’m happy to help critics sell ads for their publication, so long as they help me reach more buyers.

  17. Jeff V. says:

    steve,

    I respectfully disagree that people don’t care about what is in wine and how it is made. True, maybe most of those folks in limo’s coming up to Napa to taste the newest ‘cult’ wine don’t care, but if you’re basing the health of your industry (critic included) on those consumers then your time is going to be short.

    There are more shake up’s in store for the wine world. People are asking about additives in wine, people are looking at wine/food as compliments to each other not enemies. People are asking about Organic and Biodynamic wines. The pendulum is swinging back towards these more traditional, less manipulated wines.

    Steve, the question really becomes, why do they need to add water, acid, commercial yeast, commercial enzymes, Valcorin, oak chips, food coloring, or micro-ox….I’m sure you know the answer.

    In my opinion, it is absolutely the critics responsibility to educate the consumer on the vineyard and winemaking techniques. Unfortunately, it is not enough to just use words like blueberries, supple, tobacco, leather, cassis, and oak, to describe a wine. I’m sure you realize how many wines are made to recipe for the critics palate. It’s a big problem when a big chunk of winery economics is tied to the scoring system. Certainly, you must realize this, which is why it is disheartening that most critics don’t fully understand their role.

  18. Jeff, speaking for myself, I’d prefer to know where these “vinted and bottled by” wines come from. Who’s selling off to whom? Where is this vast supply of California wines really coming from? I would be in favor of far more transparency on the labels in terms of the true origins of wines.

  19. Steve,
    Bonny Doon discloses, in the back label, all ingredients used in their wines since 2007.
    Soft drink and food product companies always did that.
    I am definitely against wineries being forced to do it by law. But why not do it anyway?

  20. Gee, Steve, I am really looking forward to your expose series in which you name all the wineries that have ever hydrated their wines or acidulated them. You’ve been wasting your time with tasting notes and opinions. We need to know which wineries have ever hydrated their wines, added acid, used Innerstave, destroyed wines by putting them in new oak and made dry sparkling gewurztraminer. And if you do go back to writing tasting notes, you need to comment on those factors plus tannin powder, megapurple, micro-ox, number of times each wine was racked and what yeast was used.

    Your job is to out the folks who offend Randy and Jeff V. I am surprised that you did not know that. By the way, these guys do not let you review their wines so they have no worries.

  21. @ Jeff V

    Do you really believe that just because a winery is Organic/Biodynamic that they actually follow the rules. Hydration and acidulation happen at the “greenest”. Don’t be fooled. How about we take it a step further, and disclose what happens in the vineyards. Is it OK to sulfur, or is that wrong too. How about bringing in cover crops, lime, compost, fishamulsion, potash…etc. If these things can help produce better fruit, than well you know the rest.

    Side note – I sold some pinot last year, harvest brix ranged from 24-33 before soak up! Although as a farmer I would prefer the lower brix, I liked the wines from the later picks. If growers don’t like the way a winery is treating them or their fruit, don’t sell to them. The consumer seems to prefer the “riper” style, and if/when tastes change, wineries will adapt.

    As for Randy, if are running a sound business, and selling out of your wine, more power to you? I think its good you are offering the consumer an alternative style.

  22. Steve,

    Don’t think all is lost with Sangiovese, I am in the midst of major breakthroughs (well kind of). My preliminary rating is 100 points (85 on your scale) . No water or acid.

  23. Hey Jake that’s very exciting. Will you dare to send them to me for review?

  24. Steve-

    We’ll see if I can overcome the anxiety. Have you have Millton Chenin Blanc from Gisborne NZ? If you haven’t your not living life. And that’s sad.

  25. Jake, have not had that wine. There are many things I’m missing out on and, yes, it is sad. But we can’t have everything can we?

  26. I think the extra cup of coffee got the best of me this morning. Very true Steve.

  27. Randy:

    I was referring to a “moralistic” tone that proclaims one and only one style of wine being the “right” style.

    As to whether leaving grapes on the vine for a longer period of time (than what you do) is showing a lack of respect for the fruit, one could argue that any manipulation of nature, including planting a vineyard and trellising and harvesting is contra grapes as they would grow naturally, and thus a disrespecting of same. Not an argument that can bear much fruit.

    But, in regard to the harm that extended hang-time can do to growers’ incomes…I agree with you there.

  28. Jess V. and Chris J. are on target. The existing structure of judging or scoring wines AND the way we make wines should change… At the very least, we should come clean in this industry on the watering back and acidification. These two components are crucial and consumers should know how much water was added at the crushpad. The fact that Charlie and Steve don’t care or even seem to want to discuss these facts (or even mentioning the alc on reviews) is disturbing. This should be a line in the sand. Either reviewers start caring about the background details or we need a new breed of “pro” reviewers, preferably those who actually have experience growing and making. Keep telling us you don’t care about the essential parts and facts and we’ll show you the door to early retirement.

    The fact is there’s so much bs being put on tasting sheets about “brix at harvest” and the final alc. We all know this is total lies. If a pinot is 14.1% on the label, you know damn well it’s more like 14.8 (or higher).

    If the average RRV Pinot is harvested at 25.5 brix. 25.5 at harvest means 27 (at least) after soak up. So 27 brix X .62 = 16.74% alc!!! So in order to get it to 14.5%, they’re watering back a shit ton of water!!! This is clearing immoral to do this for a number of reasons already mentioned. In my opinion, what many of Steve’s, WS and RP’s favorites wineries are doing is actually illegal as they are “hydrating” more than what the TTB allows. Oh well, right Steve? As long as it “tastes good”? Unless they are spinning out 3.5% alc… which leaves a 16.7% alc mouthfeel (glycerin) on a “14.5%” alc wine. Why do we hold high esteem for cheaters and liars in our industry? (liars by route of purposefully not disclosing what engineering happens to these “cult” wines)

    Jake F.- can’t wait to taste your sangio. It sounds fantastic.

  29. You are simply wrong, Steve.

    There are no standards for grading the quality of wine. Therefor any grade, score, or ranking given to wine can be nothing more than opinion. It is that simple, and you have eluded to this before.

  30. Leanu, yes, I have often alluded to it. It IS opinion. I think of it as opinion expressed through words, with a numerical element.

  31. Randy, I appreciate you taking the time to write in, but please don’t misrepresent what I say. When you say “don’t care or even seem to want to discuss these facts or mentioning the alc on reviews” it shows me that either you don’t read what I write, or you choose to ignore it. If you will read my reviews in W.E. you’ll see that I talk about alcohol extremely often. And I have said over and over that, in the limits of a 40 or 50 word article, there are more important things (in my opinion) for me to write about than “This wine tastes watered down.” How would I know? How would you know? Do you think you can blind taste a wine that’s been watered down? Do you think you can blind taste an acidified wine? If you can do so consistently and correctly, maybe you should have my job.

  32. Jeff V. says:

    @ Jake F

    If a winery or vineyard has gone through the rigors of Organic/Biodynamic certification then yes, I am going to feel a heck of a lot better about how this wine was made or more importantly, grown. I’m sure there are wineries/vineyards who profess “greeness” that are not. Sulfur in moderation is good. I’m sure you know that your body produces sulfur naturally everyday. I drank a Breton wine today…..10ppm of sulfur….it was only used at bottling.

    @ Charlie O

    It’s not about “outing” anyone, it’s only about ‘educating’ everyone. They do some crazy stuff to make that $3 bottle of wine on the shelf…is it healthy for you? What is in it exactly? I wonder what would happen if more people asked “how were these grapes grown?” What is used to make this wine?

  33. Jeff–

    Education is fine, but if all wine descriptions became short stories, no one would read them. The first part of the answer is to separate the long explanations of technique from descriptions. The second is to have tighter laws, better enforcement and more informative wine labels. Wine critics are not the answer to the problem. It is like asking newspaper reporters to clean up the oil spill. Wrong solution. The Govt needs to make the industry more transparent, and more responsible. Reporting can do some of that, but until there is a requirement for wineries to publish more information, the consumers and the critics are not going to know everything that goes on.

    There are plenty of educating articles around. Jamie Goode has written an entire book called “The Science of Wine”, whose purpose is to make wine science accessible to those who do not have advanced degrees in chemistry or biology or other natural science.

    Randy–

    For a guy with such good ideas, you undo them every time with polemics and irrationality. But, I will grant you one thing. There will be new critics replacing the old critics. We (all of us who are in our 60s–me, Heimoff, Laube, Parker and a bunch of others) are going to age out of the biz at some point.

    So, let’s see who is out there. Go look at the Wine Blog Awards nominees for Best Tasting Notes. See anybody there whose tasting notes for hundreds of wines per month meet your criteria? Let me help you since you obviously have not read those other blogs. The answer is “no”.

    And the answer is “no” because you are proposing that writing become boring in the first place and totally within your own image in the second. What silliness.

    A line in the sand on alcohol level? Do you know that DRC wines are mostly over 14% and some are over 14.5 %? Are you aware of the alcohol levels in Chateauneau du Papes? Or in Right Bank clarets? Or in Sauternes and Barsacs? Ever hear of Amarone?

    What you really want is for people to stop liking the wines that are not in your image. It is not enough for you to suggest that your style is solid and legitimate and deserves a following. You want your style to be the only style.

    Sorry, bud, but the hell with that.

  34. Steve,

    Although I do not read the WE (thus I don’t know you talk about alc as you say), I do read the words you write on your blog. Understanding a person’s perspective is the first step in deciding whether to agree or disagree. You have said in the recent past that you don’t care or it’s not your job to know all the background details of a wine, and (more or less) if you like it then you rate it high. No sir, I do not want your job. I think industry politics would get in the way. I do think you can objectively look at “general quality” and be accurate, I just think knowing a bit more about exactly how a wine is made should and would affect your feelings about that wine and ultimately its score. Again, the moral thingee dingee.

    The fact is there are many marketing people in this industry telling untruths or purposefully omitting key tidbits of how, for example, they get a 14.5% alc wine to have the mouthfeel of a 16.5% wine.

    I feel it’s kinda a “pro” wine critic’s job to ask for specific details on HOW it’s made, not just what it tastes like when it arrives at your doorstep. Almost like a wine investigator. I think your readers would appreciate it too.

    Uh and Charlie,

    Nah bud, I just want a bit of balance back in the industry I live in. I promise you that I am not crazy or irrational. I know exactly what I’m doing;).

  35. Randy–

    Balance is good. Why can you not be a proponent of your idea of balance without denigrating the views, tastes and work of others?

    I respect your ideas. Ideas must be respected, even when they seem to come from left field, but the manner in which they are presented does not need to be. And, Randy, your ideas would hold a lot more weight if you were actually reading what Steve and I and others publish professionally and you were having your wines reviewed by critics rather than simply railing at those critics.

  36. Adam LaZarre says:

    It’s good to see the conversation still in progress after a week’s time. I was hoping to weigh in after spending the week attending VinExpo Asia in Hong Kong. It is kind of disappointing, however, to see the thread digress from a discussion on quality standards v. subjective preference to a bitch session on a couple of winemaking protocols which have been used for many years in virtually every wine producing region around the globe.

    I have tasted with Steve a few times in the past and can attest to his commitment to defining quality as something that doesn’t necessarily reflect his personal opinion. Some years ago, while in the barrel room at Hahn Estates, we were discussing the massive Santa Lucia Highland Pinots and Westside Paso Robles Rhones that were the big topics of the time. He said that although these were wines he would probably never choose to drink at home, he had to give them high marks for being academically brilliant wines – the boldest expression of what the grape can deliver. I think many winemakers would agree with me that the best a wine will ever taste is the last day it sits in a barrel. And most of these monsters find their way from the barrel to the bottle to the reviewer’s offices in short order, while they are still harmonious and balanced and fresh.

    We went on to discuss aging potential (or lack thereof) and he went on to explain that he and the others at the magazine are taking a “snapshot” of what the wine looks like today and reviewing it thus. That’s all he can do. And that makes perfect sense to me. There are other publications that make some pretty bold predictions of when to drink the wine, but today, in this glass, this is what the wine tastes like and this is what it’s score is. I live in Paso Robles. I have tasted some of these wines that have received perfect or near perfect scores. I have watched them turn into prune juice after just three years. A dry wine with an alcohol of 17.1% and a pH of 4.10? It doesn’t take a biochemist to predict what will happen. But when they are freshly bottled and released, they are remarkable wines for what they are. Steve and the others aren’t being asked to score the wines based upon what they will taste like in three years time, just what they look like today. But now I’m digressing…

    What I really want to bring into the discussion on quality is something that’s talked about in hushed tones amongst those of us who submit wines for review – the quality of the critic. I don’t mean how good a reviewer is in defining quality – I assume that after tasting tens of thousands of wines over a career, a professional critic has a pretty good handle on the definition of quality (which I believe is far less subjective than many assume…).

    Nor do I mean the ability or inability of a reviewer to pick up on certain technical flaws. I know much of that is genetic. The ability to detect certain sulfides or TCA or 4-EP requires receptors that may or may not be present in any quantity. We all remember when one well-respected magazine took a number of wineries to task in a series of editorials over TCA levels in the cellar that most of us can’t detect. As for me, I have an extremely low threshold for mercaptans, but still after 20 years of making wine I still can’t pick up on Brett even if the “wet dog” jumped out of the glass and peed on my leg.

    What I’m referring to is consistency and accuracy. The ability of the reviewer to accurately identify and quantify those traits within the wine that they use to compare to their standards of quality as defined in their brain’s database, repeatedly and with an acceptable level of consistency. I would guess that many critics make the assumption that because they taste wines day in and day out, they can always trust in their palates to provide an accurate assessment of quality as defined by that critic. I could be way off base, but I’ve seen enough evidence both anecdotal and empirical, to draw the conclusion that some reviewers from the major wine publications exhibit radically different levels of consistency.

    I think everyone who reads the magazines and newsletters has at least once said out loud, “how the heck did that get 80 points? That wine is almost identical to one that just got 90 points…”. That person may actually have a legitimate bitch.

    I along with others I know am in the unique position to review the reviewers. I’ve both produced and purchased wines for negociant brands, line extensions, control brands, and second labels. I am often asked to produce wines for others. Many of these wine brands share the same blend, often being bottled out of the same tank. I can think of almost a half dozen times over the last couple of years where one of my labels was bottled at the same time and out of the same tank that someone’s negociant brand and/or a control brand were bottled. Same wine, two or three different labels, all submitted for review by the respective brand owners. This is where the fun begins. There is one major publication that has routinely given the wines similar scores and virtually identical write ups even though the wines mostly appeared in different issues over the course of the year. There is another major pub that gave wildly different scores and write-ups within the same issue. I would ask Steve or Charlie if the timing of reviews in their respective publications actually correlate to the time the wines were tasted. I’m not convinced that just because two wines show up in the publication 6 months apart, they were actually tasted 6 months apart, or conversely, if they show up in the same issue, they were tasted at the same time. I would guess that their answer might apply to most publications. I don’t want to make any assumptions of how or why there are drastic differences in consistency, only to point out that it exists. My only conclusion is that there are publications that I can continuously trust to provide me with accurate and consistent reviews based on their definition of quality and other publications that are far more suspect.

    Will I ever post the data? Nope. I have to respect my client’s confidentiality. Also, it would serve no positive purpose any more than if the WE were to publish a 52-point score for someone’s wine. Will I ever drink too much and share some of this with my friends? Probably. I am in the wine industry after all. Hell, that’s what we do.

    I do think however that many concerns over consistency can be mitigated with a simple fix. Rather than posting alcohols with reviews as was suggested in an earlier post, both consumers and producers would benefit if the actual date the wine was tasted was posted alongside the review. That would give the consumer a real-time assessment as to bottle age and variation and could certainly help explain why they might be tasting something entirely different than what is described to them if there is an exceptionally large time difference between the review and the consumer’s experience.

    For the producer, we can gauge the wine’s critical first year changes as a particular reviewer sees them. We also get the more practical tool of knowing how long our wine sits in the magazine’s storeroom before it actually gets pulled out and reviewed. And although I will never claim to have as advanced a palate as Steve or Charlie, I have been judging a number of the big competitions every year for nearly two decades and know that on certain days my palate is just a bit sharper when it comes to say, Gewurztraminer, than on other days. Knowing that my Pinot Blanc was tasted along side certain other Pinot Blancs on a particular day would be helpful in trusting that the reviews were like comparing apples to apples.

    Perhaps it would even give the critic the ability to spot trends of their own. Maybe Steve will see over the years that when he tastes Clarksburg Chenin Blancs on Tuesdays, the day after he hits his favorite Thai place (or Japanese place, or Malay place, etc.), scores are generally higher. Who knows?

    Irrespective of which publication falls into what category of accuracy, I do submit my wines to the WE because I know that they are looked at with integrity and fairness. I don’t often agree with the scores I receive, actually very rarely, but I figure I have a biased view. I also know that if someday I get REALLY pissed off at a score, Steve would probably let me call him and vent. I don’t know any other editor that would let me do that nor do I know another editor that offers a forum for all of us to complain.

  37. Adam,

    I am flattered and embarrassed to be mentioned in your very thoughtful comments. This is Steve’s home, not mine, and even though he lets me horn in, it is still his place to give you the long answer you deserve.

    For my part, wines that get reviewed in Connoisseurs’ Guide are tasted in peer-to-peer blind tastings that spread from three to six weeks prior to publication. We routinely retaste every wine that gets a big score, a low score, split scores from our panel and scores that seem out of line with past performance. We have a very short lead time to publication because we are in the newsletter business and not in the slick paper, full-on magazine business like WE or others of that ilk.

    And complaining to us? Go ahead. Join the cue. Most publications have a forum for reader comments. Some are limited to subscribers, but most publications have them.

    I wonder, if for discussion sake, you would be willing to identify yourself more fully. Steve may know who you are, but I do not, and I am guessing that most of us who have enjoyed reading your comments also do not know you.

  38. Adam, you say “I would ask Steve or Charlie if the timing of reviews in their respective publications actually correlate to the time the wines were tasted.” The answer is no. It’s out of my hands when my reviews run in the magazine or online. You also ask “if the actual date the wine was tasted was posted alongside the review.” I don’t know if this is possible, but in general, you can assume that the wine was reviewed approximately 3 months before the review appears. As for “how long our wine sits in the magazine’s storeroom,” in my case, not too long. I review wines anywhere from 2 – 14 days after receipt, with most within 4-5 days. I do try to review wines alongside their varietal peers. As for the palate shifting from day to day, that is true. But what is a reviewer supposed to do about that? If I’m handicapped by that, then so is every wine taster who ever lived. There are definitely days (thankfully not many) when I know I’m in no shape to taste, and so I don’t. As for “Steve would probably let me call him and vent,” yes, of course, and I’m always willing to retaste upon request.

  39. Steve, since few will see this, I’ll just remark on the coincidence of stumbling on this earlier post of yours and seeing that on March 19, 2012 I referenced the same idea of essence (Again, I don’t think so. I have a Platonic vision in my mind of perfection.”); it reminds me of the time I found a picture of wine with The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire in “Bigger Than Your head” while I had done so as well with 7 Deadly Zins. I never did believe in coincidences!

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