Lately I’ve seen a spurt of requests for me to retaste wines. The way it works is, I do my reviewing and scoring, then send it all in to the magazine electronically. That’s theoretically the end of my involvement — I say “theoretically” because, as you’ll see, sometimes it isn’t.
At some point after I send in my reviews, Wine Enthusiast notifies the wineries what the scores are — not the text of my reviews, just the scores. That lets the wineries buy a label ad, if they wish; whether they do or not has no bearing on my reviews, nor do I know if they do or don’t buy an ad, nor do I wish to know. Over the years, a few wineries, upon learning their score (and being disappointed by it), have asked me to retaste the wine, which I’m always glad to do, provided it’s okay with my colleagues in New York, who have to adhere to a fairly tight printing schedule.
Almost always, when the winery asks me to retaste, they use the words “bad bottle” as their reason why, accompanied by the verb “afraid,” as in, “We’re afraid you may have had a bad bottle, and we’d like to resubmit the wine for a retasting.” Well, what else could they say? They’re not going to say, “We know our wine deserved that middling rating, but we’re hoping that, by some miracle, you’ll like it a whole lot better the second time around.” “Bad bottle” also seems to be the most delicate way of saying, “You idiot! You must be out of your mind if all you could give that wine was 84 points!”
In my experience of retasting, I’m pretty consistent. Sometimes I’m tempted to score the wine even lower the second time around. Sometimes I’m tempted to rate it higher. If the former, I usually let the first score stand. If the latter, I’m happy to give a higher score. Why wouldn’t I be?
I don’t know why lately I’ve had more requests for retasting than ever. I hope it’s temporary. I obviously couldn’t retaste everything — instead of 5,000 wines a year or whatever it is, it would be 10,000. As long as the requests are reasonably paced out, I don’t mind. But I do know that our staff in New York generally frowns on retasting, unless there’s some reason to think that the original bottle really was “bad.” Like I said, I’m liberal about retasting, but if the requests start piling up, I’m going to have to start saying No.
So what does a “bad bottle” mean? It could be anything. A bottle can suffer in the delivery process, usually from high temperature. A bottle can be corked, but I would recognize that and would not hold it against the wine. What about inherent flaws that mar wine? Does volatile acidity make for a bad bottle, which a taste of a second bottle will correct? Brettanomyces? A super-high pH? Those things make for bad wine, but I don’t see why a second or third taste would change anything, unless the winery hadn’t “equalized” the wine, i.e., put it all into a single blending tank before bottling, to make sure all wines with the same label are indeed the same wine. Doesn’t everybody do that?
My hunch is that when a winery tells me they’re afraid I had a “bad bottle” they’re hoping against hope that lightning will strike and an 84 will turn into a 90-plus. I guess they could always put something else in the second bottle — not the actual wine, but a reserve or special bottling — and try to get the score raised that way. But I don’t think anybody in California would do that. Would they? Maybe over in Europe, where they’re all corrupt ; > But not here. (Disclosure: that is my way of mocking xenophobic Republicans. We love Europe at steveheimoff.com!)
Sometimes a winery will ask me to retaste, not because they think I had a “bad bottle”, but for some other reason. If the winemaker is very sure he made a terrific wine — if that wine has gotten good scores from the competition (and I don’t mean a bronze in Indianapolis, but from a really reputable critic) — then I don’t blame the winemaker one bit for thinking I made a mistake. I’d probably do the same thing if the shoe were on the other foot. Just today somebody asked me to retaste a wine I gave 85 points to. It was a good wine, but I thought it was too oaky. The person explained that the wine only had 40% new oak on it. Well, what can I say? Sometimes 100% new oak is fine. Sometimes 40% new oak is too oaky. Depends on the wine.
Anyway, lest I forget that every time I review a wine, I’m playing with people’s lives, these requests for retasting remind me. It’s a very humbling experience.
Off to the Napa Valley Wine Auction for the next 3 days. Will do my best to post everyday.
P.S. Award of non-distinction for the worst bottle closure in history: Castello di Amorosa 2006 Late Harvest Semillon. I had to chop this stupid hard plastic coating off with the edge of my corkscrew, and my kitchen counter had about 100 tiny little pieces I had to clean up. What were they thinking? Fortunately, I don’t let this kind of nonsense interfere with my reviewing process. If I did, this wine would score minus-zero.