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Reopening the blind vs. open tasting debate

50 comments

When I was down in the Santa Ynez Valley a week ago, I tasted through a bunch of his wines with Doug Margerum. Doug is a longtime factor in Santa Barbara County, having opened Wine Cask restaurant and wine store in 1981. It’s hard to describe how important and influential Wine Cask was to the county’s nascent wine scene. Doug began his own Margerum Wine Co. in 2001, and also crafts the wines for the Happy Canyon brand. He sold Wine Cask, after 26 years, in 2007, to devote himself fulltime to winemaking.

I tasted and reviewed the Margerum and Happy Canyon wines open, not blind. In doing so, I explained to Doug that I usually review wines at home, blind, under stringent circumstances; and I was feeling a little guilty that I was tasting them open, with the winemaker, at the winery. I added that I could only try to be as objective as I could despite the non-blind circumstances.

Well, Doug had what can fairly be termed a strong reaction to that statement. He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t believe I should be tasting his wines blind. (!!) We ended up having a discussion, and here are Doug’s reasons, as I understood them, why a critic shouldn’t taste blind.

First of all, Doug said, “There’s no reason to feel guilty about tasting open.” His feeling is that “You can give so much more to your readers if you come into tasting the wine with knowledge” of its origins. “You need to judge wines by the context in which they fit. There are wines meant to be aged, wines made for aperitif, wines made to go with richer or lighter foods, wines for the table — and then there are wines meant to win blind tastings. They’re the wines that stand out — but they’re not often the wines that are outstanding.”

Okay, I stopped Doug at that point. The argument that only Parkerized wines get high scores is at least 15 years old. Nothing new there. But I wanted to know more about why Doug feels that a critic like me is better off tasting wines openly, so that he knows the context.

Doug could best explain himself by way of a specific example. “Okay, take Chinon. If you taste it blind, especially against a California Cabernet Franc, you might not like it much. It’s green, it won’t do well in a blind tasting. But if you know it’s Cabernet Franc from Chinon, then you go, ‘Okay, it’s Chinon.’ So now, you can judge it by how well it fits into the Chinon category. It might be great with steak frites in the summertime. So if you understand the philosophy behind the wine and winemaking, you can approach the wine in a much more educated way. That’s why it’s an injustice to rate Chinon against California Cabernet Franc, because you’re not rating it in the category in which it belongs.”

I was getting a little confused. So let’s say I’m tasting a flight of Chinons, to rate them for my readers. (Actually, Roger Voss would do that for Wine Enthusiast, but this was just a thought experiment.) Why, I still wanted to know, would it be better for me to taste that flight open, instead of blind?

Doug backed up a little. He allowed as to how a Master of Wine, who was seeking to learn about wines and regions, might profit from tasting blind. “But an M.W. learning about wine isn’t the same thing as a wine writer making buying decisions for readers.” How are they different, I wondered? “Because, for an evaluation of the wine, and telling people what to buy and what they should actually drink, it’s a totally different story. You can’t discern that in a blind tasting. You can’t tell people what’s good and what’s not good.”

I’m still not sure I understand where Doug’s coming from, or the distinction he’s making between how an M.W. tastes and how a wine critic tastes, or ought to taste. As I’ve written here many times, both blind tasting and open tasting have their virtues. Neither is perfect.

When I taste blind at home, in flights of similar wines, I work very hard to discern the minutest differences. Those differences may be small, but they result in one wine getting 87 points and another getting 91 points. And, as we all know, that’s a huge difference in the market. But when you visit a winery and the winemaker wants to taste you through the range of his wines, it doesn’t make much sense to taste blind, when you’re dealing with different varieties, vintages and wine types. I know that I’ve stated in this blog that I’ve tried to minimize my formal tastings at wineries in order to avoid being influenced by the set and setting (as Timothy Leary once put it). But if Doug Margerum is right, I — as a wine critic — actually should be tasting openly with the winemaker, in order to transmit the best, most accurate, and contextual information I can to my readers.

I sure would love to hear what you all think, because this is a topic that’s not going away.

  1. Margerum has it backward in my opinion. A Chinon would win blind due to its freshness, while most CA Franc would come across as fat, jammy and hot! Better Chinons from great terroirs also have remarkable concentration even if they tend to be more acidic, green and lighter bodied. Only a few SB County CFs I’ve found come close in terms of concentration–Foxen’s and some older ones off of Thompson Vineyard (Bedford & Silver).

    Still, I agree tasting disparate regions like Chinon and Happy Canyon together doesn’t make sense. But what about Happy Canyon and Los Alamos, or Happy Canyon and Ballard Canyon? I think this would be fine as it would highlight the diversity of Cab Franc in the region. And do it bind in this peer group to avoid unintentional bias.

    Personally, I don’t really “get” Happy Canyon. The Cab Francs from that region tend to be the jammiest in SBC and often seem rather flabby due to the high alcohol even if the acidity is technically well-balanced. Some also seem to be very earthy to the point of seeming dirty, which makes for an odd juxtaposition next to super-ripe characteristics. Of course, I am partial to Los Alamos and Tinaquaic Vyd (technically SMV) Cab Franc, which oddly enough is from a cooler area yet seems generally cleaner despite lower ripeness.

  2. Steve,

    I think you’re taking it too far when you say, “If Doug Margerum is right, I — as a wine critic — actually should be tasting openly with the winemaker, in order to transmit the best, most accurate, and contextual information I can to my readers.”

    I think it’s more accurate to say, “If Doug is right, I should be tasting non-blind at home instead of blind.” Or, perhaps, “If Doug is right, critics should at the very least know the region or appellation when tasting wines.”

    Good debate, and I think Doug makes some important points.

  3. Steve,

    A couple of questions —

    1) Have you ever gone back and looked (in retrospect) at the reviews you have done in blind tastings vs. the ones you did with the winemaker/at the winery? If so, were their differences? Were you harder on the tastings with the winemaker or easier?

    2) Have you ever retasted, say in this case, the Margerum wines later in a blind setting and, if so, how have the reviews/ratings correlated?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. I think if you’re scoring wines and trying to remain impartial above all else (including above making a connection for your readers with those wines), then tasting blind makes all the sense in the world.

    If you’re aim is not scoring but drawing a connection – trying to impart the palpable experience of tasting – to your readers, then you can do either but my experience has been that I succeed more in doing that non-blind, because that’s how people drink their wine (with dinner, having all the knowledge they could possibly ever want about that wine at their fingertips).

  5. Adam, in my experience the wines taste better when tasted openly with the winemaker. I try to “correct” for that in my mind. As for retasting, it’s difficult to do that routinely. However, I have inadvertantly retasted and reviewed wines on occasion, and sometimes my scores differ by several points. I’ve written about this phenomenon here on several occasions. I attribute that to everything from the passage of time to bottle variation and the effects of shipping. Normal fluctuations in body chemistry may also be at play.

  6. A taster seems handicapped when wines are tasted discretely, blind or not blind, compared to peer group analysis. Steve, I think two things are blending here. 1) Tasting a wine by itself alone, blind or not, and giving it a contextual rating and 2) tasting wines in peer group, blind or not, and giving it a contextual rating. The blind part takes care of personal bias, but the peer group approach takes care of nuances discovered in context. I learn more about wine tasting first in blind peer groups, second in non-blind contextual comparison, and lastly tasting them by themselves.

  7. Oy Vey… here we go again. Steve, you are 100% right about one thing: this is a topic that is not going away anytime soon. The final answer to your question is that it doesn’t really matter, you should taste where and how you feel comfortable doing so. It is your opinion we like to hear about, and we wouldn’t know anyhow where you formed it. I wrote a two part series about what I think wine reviews mean on the winery blog and it details what I think happens when you taste blind versus in company.

    I think it is very interesting to see you write: “When I taste blind at home, in flights of similar wines, I work very hard to discern the minutest differences. Those differences may be small, but they result in one wine getting 87 points and another getting 91 points. And, as we all know, that’s a huge difference in the market. ” I have been thinking for a while now that what we think of as the 100 point scale is in reality only an 18 point scale (79 to 97 points where 99% of the ratings really fall). If my early morning math is right, this means that the “minutest differences” account for 22% of the score you give a wine. To me, this reinforces the big picture in this matter. The role of the critics has changed since there are very few shitty wines out there anymore, it now comes to very small nuances that are mostly a matter of personal preference (some of us love licorice, some hate it).

    I say you should just enjoy your trips to wine regions and as long as there’s someone to drive you, share wine with the winemakers so you can make the connection between their personality and the wines they make. Worry about the minutae when you get back to the office.

  8. Oded, I hear you. I sometimes wonder if my involvement (2+ years now) in the wine blogging community didn’t make me think too much about tasting consistency and transparency. The other bloggers were so fierce about both those things that I may have swung way over toward absolute blind tasting, and lost sight of the fact that (as you say) “you should taste where and how you feel comfortable.”

  9. Adam J., I don’t have the opportunity very often to taste in peer groups. That’s just a reality. I enjoy doing so, but on the other hand, I’m sometimes alarmed by the huge discrepency of views in peer groups, where the final result seems to be an averaging out of differences, and extremes at either end being thrown out.

  10. Steve, I may have been confusing…when I speak of peer groups, I mean *wine* peer groups, not *people* peer groups. Give the comment a reread and see what you think. So, tasting a dozen 2007 California Cab Francs next to each other, by yourself, as a peer group of wines. To me, this provides the best learning.

  11. I say taste them as you please Steve and but relay the review (info) however they are tasted to the readers. “The following four wine reviews are from Margerum Wine Co. and were tasted at the winery in front of the Winemaker”

    My customers have always appreciated the honesty from myself and from my staff of 10 on how I came to a conclusion about a wine or wines. This subject has been and always will be over analyzed … it’s like the cork vs screw cap debate… it never goes away and frankly I wish both would.

    And since when do we do things one way. Share all and any info with the reader / consumer and let them decide all the rest. : )

    Cheers,

    Keith Miller

  12. And with that clarification, I have to also enthusiastically agree with Oded that I would be glad to hear your thoughts on a wine despite the setting or format. I sense you will take a serious and responsible approach. That’s enough for me, the reader, when I seek your opinion. When this argument kicked up originally around the blogosphere years back, with attacks on Parker for not tasting blind, I thought it was a foolish nitpicking debate back then. I understood Parker’s palate after reading his reviews for twenty years. He is pretty consistent, whether or not you like his palate preferred wine style, so he serves as a good benchmark. Most consistent critics offer that same benchmark if the reader becomes familiar with their palate and preferred styles. So just keep tasting and writing and dont sweat too much of the details.

    For me…I love to learn in tasting *wines* in their peer groups.

  13. Keith, I can’t write that ““The following four wine reviews are…” etc. because of the way my reviews appear in Wine Enthusiast. They are not clustered by winery brand, but they appear separately, and possibly at different times, under varietal type.

  14. Ov yey, indeed. Perhaps a few facts will help.

    –I consider Oded and Adam to be professional friends. I mean my next comment as no criticism of them. BUT, in this seemingly never-ending discussion, and why should it end anyhow, it is the wineries and distributors who want their wines tasted with the label open. And, from that, I infer that they believe there is some benefit to them. Otherwise, why care?

    –Wineries pull this “I do not send my wines out for review” crap all the time, “but you can come to the winery and I will let you taste anything you want”. Adam and Oded are not among those who do that. So, I asked Tom Rochioli for a second bottle to replace one I bought at a store. His response was “come on up. I don’t send out wine for review”.

    I asked how it was that Parker and Tanzer were reviewing his wine. He said they come to the winery. I asked if he thought that it was appropriate to have wines judged that way instead of in blind, peer-to-peer comparisons and he replied, “I GET BETTER SCORES THAT WAY”.

    Apologies for the caps, but that phrase goes to the heart of Doug Margerum’s comments. He thinks he gets better scores when he is there explaining his wines to critics and explaining the context in which they fit. Never mind that he is not serving them to the critic in that context. He is explaining the context and telling the critic why his wines are better than they seem. Again, otherwise why do it unless he thinks he benefits from that process?

    The point of blind tasting is to make judgments about wines in neutral context and to bring one’s tasting acumen to bear. The argument that one cannot taste Chinon blind against Happy Canyon Cab Franc is a red herring on both sides of the equation. Simply put, no one does that. It is an argument ad absurdum. Speak about context. That argument has no context because it is not done in order to achieve finite ratings by anyone with any sense of knowledge and responsibility.

    Joe Roberts (1WineDude) does make a valid point. There are differences in the ways in which reviewers operate. Guys like Steve and myself are what I call “comprehensive reviewers”. We taste everything of a variety we can get our hands on. Other folks have other mandates, and their comments are far less comparative, can be shorter, like Joe’s, or longer like Brooklyn Wine Guy’s, but they are not meant to be comprehensively definitive, even when they appear with a rating. OK, I get that.

    But, when it comes to the Wine Enthusiast to my Connoisseurs’ Guide, to Parker or the Spectator, the consumer has every right to expect the reviewer to taste blind as a way of eliminating the bias that creeps in otherwise. Yes, context is important, but an experienced reviewer tastes wine blind and supplies the notion of context. “This bright, acid-driven yet not outrageously sour Chardonnay would really work with oysters on the half shell”. Or conversely, “This bright, acid-driven Chardonnay will take the enamel off your teeth, and serving it with oysters is not going to make it or them taste any better”.

    If a reviewer is not capable of tasting a wine and discerning not only its quality but what the right context is for that wine, then the readers of that reviewer are being shortchanged. Tasting at the winery with the labels showing, the winemaker at your elbow chatting you up and winery dog licking your hand is, in my opinion, the antithesis of the way a professional taster should bring context into play. It is the taster’s job, not the winemaker’s job to bring context into the evaluative process.

    I hope you don’t feel guilty, Steve, but I also hope you don’t review those wines, because even if you are totally transparent about where and how you tasted them, you still face questions of unintended bias. I presume that this column is actually part of your process for dealing with that very concern, and I applaud your approach. I just believe that your reviews oght not be done that way.

    Respectfully submitted,
    Charlie

  15. Steve… I understand the format side of things in WE and others… I am saying things maybe should be looked at and changed or, Steve you should have a seperate forum to post reviews. Consumers would love it and well they do love it that I know for sure : )

  16. I think companies (critics) sometimes forget who they are writing reviews for. And approaching it in different ways is fine as long as how it was done is included in that review… Really, it is ok.

  17. Bravo and well said Charlie. I know you went head to head with one of the authors of the Wine Trials but even if you disagree with the methodology or conclusions of the book it would seem that from many of the studies referenced in the book that we are easily influenced by conditions outside of the bottle.

  18. Charlie,

    We have achieved full agreement!

    I’ll retire now… ;)

  19. The blind vs. open is getting a bit old. It all comes down to personal preference. Will you be more biased when tasting open? Probably. Does this mean all wine tasting should be done blind? Probably not.

  20. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Steve,

    I think you know which type of tasting results in fair reviews. That is what your readers want and they rely on your honesty prior to purchasing wines. So keep doing what you are doing.

  21. I agree almost completely with Charlie, except that I don’t think bias ever “creeps in”, it blasts its way in. What you expect influences very strongly what you percieve. This is why in critical tasting of any product methods of removing bias and tasting blind are well established and no person understanding sensory analysis and accuracy would thing of tasting otherwise.

    If the point is to judge wines without bias, it has to be done blind. If the point is write stories that seem plausible and are consistent with “known facts” and consistent stories that others tell you, then you can’t beat seeing the label while you taste or being told a story about what you are tasting.

    Speaking of Chinon and bias I remember bringing a few bottles of a wine home that I bought in Chinon that I loved at the time. Only, I found at home that it wasn’t as I remembered it. It was thin, hard and pretty ordinary. Maybe the fact that I first drank it on a bench outside an old cathedral, with a baguette and cheese, cuddled next to my beautiful fiancee of one week had something to do with it.

  22. Evan and Charlie said or suggested this already, but, jeepers, there’s a HUGE difference between tasting a wine within a context that is fair — alongside wines of comparable variety and/or origin — and tasting at the winery with the winemaker. Blind doesn’t mean picking bottles randomly out of the boxes of samples that arrive in the post. It means, for our purposes here, not knowing the name of the winery and not having the winemaker bending your ear while you taste.

  23. Once again, my Papa Charlie nails it – though I’d argue that a non-blind review can be comprehensive… but the important point is that the aims are totally different. The folks reading my stuff on twitter aren’t necessarily into into what I’m doing in longer format on the blog, and those readers aren’t necessarily into what WS or WE are doing at the end of their issues. The approaches can be complimentary, I think, and reach different audiences – if they’re responding to what we’re all doing, that’s what’s important (to me, anyway :-). Cheers!

  24. Completely agree with 1WineDude’s take. Why would I not? He understands his audience way better than I or Charlie ever could.

  25. Morton, I think there’s more to your comment than you’re recognizing.

  26. I see nothing wrong in tasting wines blind if that wine is in a flight of similar wines from the same region, particularly in a competition.

    Tasting a wine blind and it is only one wine is good to determine if THAT taster likes that type/style of wine but not for competition purposes.

    Blind tastging wines of similar varitals but different regions is good for educational reasons but they can be open also.

    I would expect a wine writer or critic to taste the wine with some knowledge of its origin whether that tasting is blind solo or open, I do not care. You do have to know something about the writer/critic and whether or not you have some simpatico with that writer/critics style.

    Wine tasting is subjective anyway. I am sure each wine maker or his/her marketer would always prefer anyone to taste their wine in circumstances that would enhance that particular product.

    A while back I tasted a chardonnay from Santa Barbara that had a small percentage of viognier added to it. I liked it because it was crisp with a hint of the floral quality that viognier can bring. This was when oak heavy barrel fermenting was popular and lots of chards had the overdone pineappley thing going. So it was not typical or main stream at the time.
    You had to know something about the styles of chardonnay tasting it blind in a competition might not have been a good idea. I do have to say that I am not a trendy wine drinker.

  27. Still a big believer in tasting the wine first completely blind (no region, no variety), taking notes, making an educated guess as to variety and region, and then revealing and restating. Score before and after based on the criteria you think are important for the variety and style of what you believe the wine to be, and what it ultimately is. Combine the scores subjectively taking context into account. Explain your reasoning.

    This is the best of both worlds, is educational, brings a sense of suspense for the reader if written correctly, and keeps the reviewer honest and accountable.

    I also think that if there is any question about the wine in terms of issues or characteristics that affect its enjoyment (perceived high alcohol, VA, EA, Brett) it should be tested objectively. I frankly find it incredible that no wine reviewing body (outside of industry confabs like Steamboat in OR) does even a small amount of testing and tasting. It really is useful to both the critic and the consumer.

  28. Josh, I don’t think most wine periodicals can afford to have every wine tested. I don’t know how much a lab charges, but at WE we taste something like 15,000 wines a year.

  29. Josh,

    I am with you on that score. If an evaluator or critic calls out a technical, it should be tested, especially if said evaluation is done from a subjective rather than from a sensory-trained point of view.

  30. Josh and Tom–

    VA is VA. Professional tasters do not call out VA unless they are damned sure it is there, and have retasted the wine. But, these kinds of findings are not numerical; they are hedonistic. VA exists in all wines. Some wines with high VAs do not smell or taste flawed; others do. The legal limit for VA is 0.12 per cent. It becomes identifiable at about 0.06% in some wines.

    I would suggest that smart folks who have been at the business of tasting wines for years now have tasting memories and recognition perceptions that are way beyond the average punter. Admittedly, there are differences, but, to use an example that has been discussed widely, Jim Laube and Ron Weigand seem to be more sensitive to TCA than most of their professional peers, who in turn are more sensitive than most of the non-professional tasters. The same is true for Brett, VA, RS, etc.

    As for testing, it just is not going to happen for thousands of wines unless the price of subscribing to the various mags goes way up. I was having a conversation with a winemaker about acid levels in the 2010 grapes and he was commenting that the grapes are beginning to show brown seeds and lignified stems–normally a sign that they should be picked, but he said the acids were still off the charts. I asked if he thought MLs would bring them into range and he replied that it was impossible to know how much of the acid was malic vs. tartaric. So, I asked about testing. He said, “sure we can test” but it is expensive.

    My point is that if testing is expensive for wineries, running thousands of tests with several different iterations is not realistic for publications. We do test for RS, but that is relatively simple. And even at that, we do not publish the results. We used to categorize the results, but the problem is that published tasting notes are meant to describe how the wine smells and tastes, not what its chemical composition is.

  31. Charlie,

    “Professional tasters do not call out VA unless they are damned sure it is there…”

    This simply is not universally true.

    I’ve met many who cannot tell the difference between VA and phenolics, Brett and corkiness, toasty oak and cooked, and so on. Why should these people get away with tarnishing a wine that they cannot objectively review?

    Yes, testing is expensive–losing your wine sales because of some Yahoo’s claims can also be expensive.

  32. Tom–

    Wineries stop sending wine to winewriters all the time for all kinds of reasons, including the most often heard complaint–“You did not understand the style”. That is their control point. If a winery sends wine to a Yahoo–or a Google–who calls out VA when it is not there, the simple answer is “don’t send the wine”.

    I don’t often name winemakers by name when I have differences of opinion with them, but the number of times I have heard “you don’t understand the style” or similar complaints over less than complimentary reviews could fill a book. I fully respect wineries’ rights to send wine to whomever they like. But, if all they want in reviewers is a bunch of sycophants, then they should not send wines to those of us who taste blind and call them as they see them.

  33. Charlie,

    Style is not a flaw, unless a flaw is the style, and I can think of a couple of wineries where it is…

    But I am not talking about style. I am talking about flaws.

  34. oops, I hit the button too soon.

    Plus, the ability to identify flaws.

  35. Steve,

    As a consumer, I don’t taste blind.

    It may sound a bit romantic, but knowing the wine helps me to recreate a sense of place. Maybe I’ll remember standing in the vineyard or recall a conversation with the winemaker. Perhaps I’ll remember how the wind was blowing on my last visit or conjer a picture of the sun casting across the valley.

    To me, these sense memories are an important part of the tasting process. You create such sense memories yourself in articles and books so I find it odd that you (and other professionals) would work so hard to eliminate them from your tasting notes. Especially when so many winemakers try desperately to create such a sense of place in their wines. As a consumer, I try to find it in each and every glass. Does this improve the wine? Certainly. But I think it’s a very important part of the process.

    I understand that you want to be even handed in both your tasting and your descriptions. In fact, I greatly respect your intentions. But with your skill as a writer, I wonder what you might bring to the table for your readers if you tasted openly and honestly.

  36. Charlie,

    Hey there — I tried to post my comments over on your site — but wasn’t able to for some reason — you may want to have your website person look into it.

    Anyhow, I do think you are presenting a somewhat wine critic-centric view of the tasting process in your comments. A couple of questions/thoughts:

    1) One of the reasons wineries may pull this “I don’t seen my wine out for reviews” crap but want you to come to the winery to taste is that way they know that the wine will be tasted at least. In this age of new media there are innumerable “wine writers” asking for samples and a winery starts to wonder how many of the bottles actually get tasted. — I remember you asked us, specifically, some time back to send out some of our more limited production wines for you to taste — which we did — but then you didn’t review them in print because production on them was too limited. An occurance like that makes a winery not want to submit wines — but we still do to you — just cause we love ya. :)

    2) A winery would also like to know who is tasting the wine — I don’t think that is too much to ask. Am I correct that CGCW reviews come from a group tasting? Is the group the same each time? Or does the group change? Tasting face to face at least you know who is tasting the wine.

    3) You say that no one tastes Happy Canyon Cab Franc vs. Chinon in a blind setting. Yet doesn’t CGCW doesn’t Oregon Pinot Noir vs. CA Pinot Noir next to each other in a blind setting?

    Just a few points from the (winemaker) peanut gallery.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  37. Walt, you raise good points. But remember that I am limited to 40-60 words per review by my magazine’s format. It’s hard to bring great writing to such a short form.

  38. Charlie,

    Making wine is humbling, and so is tasting it. I’m not saying you and Steve and the rest are bad at what you do, I’m simply saying that *it is really hard* to be right all the time about wine.

    My tasting method above puts as much pressure on the reviewer to be held accountable for their reviews as there is pressure on the winemaker to produce a good wine. When consumers see that, when tasted blind, the hit rate for even the best critics on variety and region is sub 50% I am positive it will be an empowering moment for them. Likewise it will make the reviews more entertaining. And, at the end of the day, it will be the open label review that matters. That’s where the writers training and experience can be brought to bear – but the reader will also have the blind score and notes to calibrate against.

    As for the grower/producer who thinks its too expensive to test for malic/tartaric split – I can do a quantitative colormetric analysis of malic and a standard TA assay in my office for less than $10 and about 45 minutes of work (sampling, setup, prep, etc). Subtract the 2 and you’re done. A minuscule price to pay to help make the all important harvest decision.

    Steve,

    If WE or WS chose to spend ~3K, one time, up front on the right small lab equipment and then “hired” a Chem intern from Columbia or wherever to do the testing they could do most of the needed assays in house. Don’t test every wine, just the ones that seem to be flawed.

  39. Steve,

    I fully understand that your words are limited in this scenerio. It’s a point well taken. In your response above to Adam. You said: “…in my experience the wines taste better when tasted openly with the winemaker. I try to “correct” for that in my mind.”

    I guess I’m trying to say that if such a setting and experience can reflect in the quality of the wine, then so be it. My preference would not be for you to “correct” for that in your mind, but review the wine as tasted and perhaps report how it was tasted as well.

    In my experience presenting wine tastings at a local Art’s Center, participants often will rate a given wine higher than most professional critics. (Could that be interesting blog fodder?) While I’m sure this is due to a less refined palate in many cases, I can’t help but think that its also due to the time, place and method in which the consumer is experiencing the wine.

    I simply don’t see the harm in now and again tasting wine as we do.

    I would think that a reviewer of restaurants, theaters or movies experiences (though perhaps with a more refined eye) their respective medium in the same way as their audience. It’s simply part of the experience. A wine reviewer often doesn’t taste in the same way as their audience, but time and place remain a very large part of the total experience. It puzzles me.

    Anyway, you’ll get no judgement from me. I suppose a professional should be nothing if not consistent. It just puzzles me, so perhaps therein lies my fascination with the whole topic.

  40. Walt, while the majority of what I taste is blind, I do do a little tasting openly with winemakers, as I wrote about concerning the Margerum tasting. And I’m likely to be doing more of that, now that I’ll be traveling and visiting wineries more often.

  41. Steve I understand the genesis of asking the question again, but there has always been a somewhat obvious answer. I love Josh’s idea and think there is a business model there, but for WE the answer seems to me pretty simple: don’t assign scores to wines not tasted completely blind, in the format you have been using over the years in your pursuit of consistency and transparency.

    “Providing context” is a euphemism for telling a story. I like to read stories. But once a reviewer starts putting points scores on wines tasted “in context” the worth of the points-ranking system is jeopardized. And as the value and validity of the 100/5 point-scale is under constant debate that kind of context is dangerous.

  42. MY 2 cents: An emerging region like Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara benefits to be first understood by the professional taster/reviewer. Here is where the tasting with winemaker at the vineyard/winery helps taster/reviewer to have the ability to see what’s going on in the AVA. Taste the wines and give them a rating either in your head or on paper but use that as a primer for learning about the place/area.

    Next, blind taste the wines back in the “white room”, with no outside influences, with other wines from the same AVA or regional AVA or geographic place. (Not all wines are made from grapes grown within a “gated community”.) This would be where a productive and un-biased review is then published.

    There could be a “blind” follow-up tasting with similarly-styled wines from the top scoring wines from around the world to showcase how they differ and perhaps how they have some common thread running through the pack.

    The readers are looking to understand the wine in a given bottle and how it compares to other wines from the same area, how it compares to other areas and whether or not if it is any good to buy/open and drink! They just need a nudge to take away the fear of feeling stupid. You are empowering the consumer to make choices that make sense to them.

    Wine reviews are read by such a small percentage of consumers but those that do read reviews have some influence on their own peers. We all agree that this is a viral movement to better understand wine.

  43. Josh, that’s a great point about accountability. Right now there is none for critics. Miss the drinking window? No problem, blame provenance. Did a wine develop significant bottle variation? No problem, blame provenance. Did consumers not like it? No problem, blame consumers for unsophisticated palates.

    It’s a sort of closed loop. Critics give a rating, consumers buy for the rating. Because people are highly impressionable, the rating leads to more enjoyment. Only when a highly rated wine is truly bad does anyone question the system.

    Critics get away with a lot if you ask me. I’d love to see any critic submit to a controlled study of the consistency of their ratings. Something like putting several wines into peer groups randomly tasting blind. Say 2 or 3 control wines in flights of 6 or 8 with the non-controls being switched out going through a half dozen or more flights total. Right now all critics claim they have no error bars on their points. I doubt that is true, but if I’m wrong I’ll drink a bottle of 2BC as punishment for doubting the arbitrary precision.

  44. Consistency. Isn’t that all that matters?

    If a consumer’s tastes align with a critic’s reviewing style, that consumer gets a good sense of security in investing in wines which that critic rates highly. Conversely, if a consumer’s tastes don’t align with a critic’s reviewing style, that consumer might decide to avoid wines which said critic rates highly.

    As long as there is consistency, what matter does the process make?

    If context is really the argument, then isn’t a huge factor of context for the consumer missing from all the debate? Critics rarely pay for the wine they review. Consumers almost always do. Science has taken at least the first attempt at producing evidence showing that knowing the price alters the experience of a wine for consumers. Will this be the next chewing point, and will it be next on the adjustment block for critics?

    Stick with what works for you, and those who benefit from your reviews will stick with you.

    Cheers,

    Wine Tom

  45. Your have a good take on the situation, Wine Tom.

  46. If you are reviewing wines with precise point scores for a commercial magazine that monetizes the points, you absolutely have to taste blind to have both consistency and credibility. I really think it’s that simple. And I think Steve does it right.

    If, on the other hand, you are giving descriptions, rather than points, or you or your employer can’t monetize your review, that might give you a bit more freedom, for there is no reason to believe you will find “deep flavors of mulberry with a hint of nutmeg” just because it might bring in a few more bucks.

    Steve, understand clearly, please, that this is in now way an accusation directed at you or your fine magazine. Rather, I laud you for doing exactly what you should in your position.

  47. David, thanks. I didn’t think it was an accusation.

  48. Taste wine with knowledge. Be smart, know what you’re drinking. Be critical – especially if the wine is out of it’s context, too expensive, or not right. We can then communicate that information to our friends, customers, and readers. Imagining having wine without food – that is where it is meant to be tasted and consumed. Yet the line em up and pick which is best ignores that part. Tell me another industry where the people who are the cognoscenti purposely blind themselves to what they are suppose to be so smart about. Taste with wine makers so you can see many vintages and know the wine and what it is being made for… lamb, aging, pleasure, freshness, or for our children to enjoy. Know the soil, and climate from where it originates so you can understand the climate and foods of that area. Blind tasters are blind to all of the other views that make wine so wonderful and diverse. Lumping wines into a linear line-up of best to worst ignores a global approach to wine and helps no one appreciate or understand it more.

  49. Nope. Sorry Doug but your system is not intended to produce an unbiased view of the wine. It is intended to make your wine look good. Critics are not cheerleaders. That is your job. Critics do not work for wineries. They work for the consumers.

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