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Blind vs. open at the winery, redux

50 comments

Nearly a year ago, I wrote that I wasn’t going to taste with winemakers at the winery anymore.

That was in reference to my annual trip up to Sonoma to taste through the new Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates wines with Randy Ullom. You can read the post, but essentially, what I meant was that I thought I could be more objective tasting everything at home, blind, under my normal circumstances.

I’m now going to revise my position. I know that opens me to charges of inconsistency, but it’s the best of the various options open to me. Let me explain. There are some winery brands in California that I want to review, and that my readers at Wine Enthusiast want me to review, but the proprietors flat out refuse to send their wines to anyone. Instead, Mohammed must come to the mountain.

Up until now, my attitude toward these proprietors has been kind of, “Well, fine. If you don’t care about me, then I don’t care about you.” But I’ve realized that it’s not simply that they don’t care about me. It’s that they feel strongly about not sending their wines to anyone, not just me. And they’re perfectly happy to host me at their wineries, if I care to come down.

That’s actually news to me. I never formally reached out to a lot of these guys, because I was so loaded down with wines that were sent to me that I barely had time to review them. But then, as many of you know, we divided the state up, with Virginie Boone tasting the inland part. That freed me up and gave me more time to focus on the coast. So I put the word out, and I have to admit I was a little surprised when invitations immediately came in from the following Santa Barbara wineries to taste all their SKUs: Au Bon Climat (via Jim Clendenen), Babcock (via Brian Babcock), Sine Qua Non (Manfred and Elaine Krankl, and so in demand I can’t even find a website for them), Bonaccorsi (Jenne Bonnaccorsi and Clarissa Nagy) and Qupe (Bob Lindquist). It’s about 70 wines in all, and while that means a lot of driving to and fro around Santa Barbara, it’s something I’m planning on doing in the not so distant future.

Look, these are important wineries. I pride myself in being the non-snob critic here in California, and it thrills me to be able to recommend a Best Buy under $15 or something like that. But an important part of my job also is to let readers know about these rare and coveted wines. If that means traveling to them, it’s something I’m more than willing to do.

Which raises the question, when I go, do I taste blind or open? I don’t know the answer. (I do know the proprietors are happy to leave me alone while I do my tasting thing. They just want the opportunity to talk about their wines before or after.) I don’t know if they’re willing to put their bottles in paper bags. I used to go up to Harlan to taste every year with Bill Harlan and Bob Levy, and we tasted open while we talked. Then, one year, I asked them to bag the bottles for me, and then leave me alone, which I think startled them, although I hope it didn’t offend them; but what stunned me was when they said I was the only reviewer who had ever tasted there who asked them to taste blind! If you roll some famous names around your head, you can get the full impact of that.

I’m curious to hear what readers think: on these visits to wineries (which admittedly will still remain rare), should I taste open, or should I insist on the wines being blind? A few perhaps relevant quotes. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” That’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson; he might have added wine critics. Also, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,” the immortal Joni Mitchell sang. So have I, and I still really wonder if I know life or, in this case, the best way to taste, at all.

P.S. Check out my story on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Lexus online.

  1. In my humble opinion – if you are at the winery, taste any way you think will give you the best perspective on the story you are being fed. Or taste open, THEN taste blind and check yourself – or the other way around.

    Look, I believe that all of us producers really do care what you (and other reviewers, as well as our customers) think of our wines. Especially we care how what you reveal in print about your impressions of our wines might impact our sales.

    Rhetorical question: if I had a winery that was selling everything we could make without a review from you, why would we send you wines and risk you not liking them as much as our current customers do? That would be insulting to those customers – “haha, thanks for blowing your wine budget on our products, but STEVE’s review suggests you are an idiot for doing so.”

    Also, consider that every winery potentially has a unique branding strategy. Some brand themselves as “we produce gold medal-winning wines” while others tout “our wines were rated XX(X) points by [insert influential wine ranking media here].”

    It should not come as a shock to you that there is a third way, with a thousand variations, that doesn’t require outside validation: along the lines of “our wines are just good. Let us introduce you to the person who made them for you. Here’s what we’ve made. No they weren’t ranked by [insert influential reviewer here] – if you like them, buy them.” This group is not made nor broken by a blind review. But in your role you could aid and abet this group with a good on-site story.

  2. I have no issue with tasting with context, and tasting non-blind. My big issue is having the producer standing at your side, watching you taste, and then having you bestow a score right there on the spot. It’s exactly my problem with the new videos promoting James Suckling’s new endeavor. He’s seen laughing with some of the world’s highest-end producers as he passes out 99 and 100 points, right there in the winery or chateau. What you’re doing, Steve, is miles apart. Thanks for taking a thoughtful approach to this issue.

  3. Steve,

    I think that as a consumer, I simply want an honest assessment of wines that the reviewer is consistent from tasting to tasting.

    I judge marching bands all over the country. Assuming the criteria are consistent (unfortunately for me, they are not), if I give a band a 17.6 out of 20, it should be the same in Indianapolis in Lucas Oil Field where I judged last week to Cajun Field at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette where I am judging tomorrow.

    I understand judging dynamics. If I see a weak band sandwiched between fairly strong ones, their score might be a tenth or two different than a comparable band that was the best in it’s neighborhood. While you do your absolute best to make sure that the comparison is as fair as possible to minimize what we call “contest dynamics”, the luck of the draw can result in slight variations.

    That is no different that what you do. Is a cab scored 89 points in a flight that was mostly plonk really better than an 88 point one that was tasted in a flight of heavy hitters? Maybe, maybe not. The point is that they were comparable wines because the points are comparable. Your stated tasting methods try to minimize the chance of outside influences. I think your challenge is to make sure that an 89 point wine is comparable no matter the conditions under which it was tasted. Based on your openness and concern that you show about the the transparency of the tasting process, I am sure you will find a way to balance these issues in an appropriate manner.

  4. James McCann says:

    Score the wines however you feel comfortable and add an abbreviated notation at the end of your notes as to how the wine was tasted, for those who are curious.

  5. Monte, I appreciate the analogy you make between band judging and wine judging, but there’s one huge difference: when you judge a band, it’s the only band in existence at the time you’re judging it. However, when I judge a bottle of wine, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar bottles. Not all bottles of the same wine are identical. There is a such thing as bottle variation that will cause identically labeled bottles to differ from each other. Likewise, when you judge the same band at intervals of, say, six months, it is roughly the same band both times (assuming personnel didn’t change), and might even be a little better due to increased practice. Wine however is a living thing that changes drastically in the bottle, even after short periods of time. Add in the fact of bottle variation, and it becomes much more difficult to achieve the kind of consistency you refer to. To my mind, consistency is an elusive goal and however desirable is not the end all and be all of wine judging.

  6. Transparency trumps all, IMHO. :)

  7. As much as I may like the style of producers like Qupe and Au Bon Climat, I don’t think creating a double standard is the right approach. Basically you are saying these producers have a reputation, therefore you will allow them special treatment. This is a major step backwards. The whole principle of wine criticism is to separate what’s in the bottle from the external associations. Here you have created a special class of producer that will be able to wield its influence to garner better reviews.

    Sine Qua Non has had an unprecedented run of extremely high ratings. If the wines were tasted blind in peer groups by Robert Parker instead of with the producer, I am certain one of two things would happen. Either the scores of their peers would creep up, or Sine Qua Non’s scores would have a larger variance. Maybe not by much, but the results would not be identical.

    At the very least, I think it is important you list in your review how the wine was tasted. Even a superscript that is elaborated upon in a footnote would suffice–and it wouldn’t eat up precious print space. In those cases I’d be able to trust your organoleptic descriptions, but certainly not your scoring, though that tends to be how I use wine reviews anyway. The score is a mapping of hedonic enjoyment to a number, and this is always subject to environmental influence.

    Another possibility: get bottles to take home for tasting in peer groups blind. This seems like a suitable compromise. The producer get to wield his or her influence upon you, while the review can be a synthesis of both contexts.

  8. Uh, I hate to break it to you Steve. But when you taste wines at Harlan which you know are Harlan wines, brown bag or not, Levy in the room or not, you are not tasting Harlan’s wine blind. Under that definition, tasting blind could just mean “I knew it was the ’08 Harlan, but I tasted it blind. I didn’t look at the label after the wine was poured and while I tasted it.”

    But now we know how to get you to visit us, just refuse to send you samples. Hear that everyone?

    This reminds me of a New York wine writer who was really big on aeration. He would open a bottle of wine and pour out a glass of wine and immediately put the cork back in. Then he’d taste the glass of wine. Then he’s pull out the cork for like 30 seconds carefully watching his wrist watch, pour out another glass, put the cork back in, taste the second glass, talk about it, and repeat this until he “discovered” the perfect amount of aeration to give the wine… which he reported in minutes and seconds to his readers. He thought that the action of putting the cork back in the bottle (despite the huge ullage filled with air he created by pouring glasses of wine) stopped aeration while he tasted and talked about each glass of wine.

    He didn’t taste anything blind either.

  9. Not surprising to see the cross promotion of Lexus and Napa as luxury goods. Napa is part of the “Lexus Lifestyle.” How novel, a car that comes with a lifestyle in addition to ABS, side airbags, rear view camera and GPS! I guess if it has some of the features touted by a competing brand that prevent one from crashing or driving off the road, it’ll be beneficial for those who like to drive intoxicated.

    It’s sad to see how far Toyota, Lexus’ parent company, has drifted from its roots of reliable, value-driven cars that last 200k+ miles. Even the basic Toyota line has been dumbed down judging by its commercials. First the annoying parents who cling to immaturity instead of acting like adults. And now the bratty kid who bashes his parents because he “does not tolerate dorkiness” and prefers to ride in the ostentatious SUV driven by the neighboring soccer mom.

    Not exactly looking like Toyota has much substance these days if this is how it follows up major safety recalls.

  10. Steve – I agree with Morton. You’re not tasting blind since you know where you are. I would be insistent on tasting from freshly-cracked bottles — ones you watch being opened — rather than wine being poured from opened bottles. I’ve worked for many a producer that would decant, double-decant, decant overnight, etc etc before an important tasting. Sorry, but that ain’t the same wine as when the corks just been popped.

  11. Kathy,

    No. Really? I’m shocked! ;)

  12. Steve–

    There is another way, and I consider it to be far more appropriate on the parts of the producers. Put on a blind tasting of those wines, and others perhaps, stretching over a couple of days perhaps, and let it be open to all legitimate comers.

    Invite every recognizable critic from Parker and you to lesser lights who have a recognizable audience. Pour all the wines blind in reasonable groups and let the evaluators taste them in silence without outside comments and direction.

    Then, allow the producers time to make their presentations.

    I recognize that you are being accorded a singular honor of rising to the level of folks like Parker and company by being given the individual time of the wineries. But you understand, because you have taken a principled stand on this kind of offering before, that the potential for bias exists and the potential for perceived bias is enormous–and no amount of pre-event transparency can possibly change that.

    Wineries only offer these kinds of opportunities if they think it is to their advantage. Our job as journalists is to deny them advantage and to provide a level playing field for all wineries. Your readers are not ill-served by your not tasting every last offering from some of those wineries. And as fancy as the wine from the Krankls might be, it is unavailable to mere mortals.

    You knew, of course, that I would feel this way, because I have taken this stand before. So have you, and I hope you will continue to insist on high standards for our end of the wine world.

  13. taste open at the winery, enjoy yourself and feel free to report on it. bring some bottles home and taste them blind or with a panel for “critical evaluation” and scoring at a later date. seems simple enough. visiting producers is an important part of what you do, scoring their wines on the day that you visit is unnecessary.

  14. Steve your conscience’s name is Charlie Olken let him guide you. Additionally a blind tasting at a winery would most likely consist of wines only from that winery how blind is that.

  15. Steve,

    I think the analogy I am making is closer than you think. Tomorrow I will be judging 32 bands from 8 AM to 5 PM – one every fifteen minutes. Then at 7 PM I will judge the top ten scoring bands again. Just like the issue of palate fatigue is discussed in relation to wine, contest fatigue is an issue to judge bands. Will my score for a band that performed at 9 AM be the same as it will if that same band performs again at 9 PM? I doubt it because the performances will have slight variations – just like bottles of wine. In fact I have never seen what I would consider “identical” performances – we are dealing with a bunch teenagers performing and those of us in education know how predictably unpredictable teenagers can be. However, unless the performances have a significant difference, the scores should be similar but probably not identical. We use a criteria based system just like you do – a band scoring a 9 or above out of 10 has to meet specific criteria.

    My point is any judge or critic, be it of wine, marching bands, food, art or even political rhetoric, should attempt to be as consistent (and as fair) as possible in their approach to evaluation. You on many occasions have shown how you try to be consistent and are very forthcoming about how you taste. The criticism levied against some other critics have not been made of you because of your transparency. As a result, I am more likely to take your rating into consideration on a purchase than a rating from someone else.

  16. Monte, of course you’re right. We should strive for consistency. And everybody I know does. Thanks for weighing in on my blog.

  17. John, I have the greatest respect for Charlie. However each of us has to do our job the best we can. His job is very different from mine. As long as we’re upfront about our methods, I think we’ll do fine.

  18. Charlie, your particular suggestion (tastings lasting over several days, multiple participants) is obviously not viable. However, I am inclining toward asking the winemakers to allow me to taste their wines blind, by myself without their distracting presence. Of course we can talk about the wines both before and after. That’s the way I’ve tasted at Harlan in recent years. I’m still thinking all this stuff through, and will let my readers know what’s up.

  19. Kathy, I hear you. I’ve heard these tales of Parkerized bottles being poured for critics. I’ve heard rumors of Parkerized bottles being sent to critics. How do I know that somebody’s not sending me Margaux, re-poured into a Napa bottle? I don’t. So at some point I have to trust the people I’m dealing with. I would hate to get so paranoid that I have to bring a notary public with me to tastings and have people swear they’re telling the truth, nothing but the truth, etc.

  20. Umm, Morton, you’re not breaking anything to me. I know. But tell me, what am I supposed to do? Put yourself in my position. I have a job. I’m expected to taste these wines. Hell, I want to taste these wines. At the very least, cut me some slack for not being a toady like Suckling. So come down from your holier than thou perch in Napa Valley and tell me, if you had my job, how you would handle it.

  21. Greg, one thing I am thinking of doing is bringing certain bottles with me of wines I’ve previously rated highly, and then including those bottles in the flight, and tasting the producer’s wines against them. Believe me, I understand that these are HUGE issues, and I am trying to deal with them in the most transparent, honest and ethical way I can.

  22. Okay but just a question….what does any of this have to do, or how does it relate with how the end consumer tastes and enjoys the wine. A great wine is better at the last sip than it was at the first….blind, double blind, out in the open, none of this matters when the wine is one the table…with food and between the lips of someone that is drinking the bottle.

  23. Greg Brumley says:

    Greg’s and Morton’s arguments are persuasive.

    The real question here is commonplace in journalism: How much of your reputation are you willing to risk, in order to obtain access?

    Surely, we all realize why these wineries — which, presumably, would not send you wine to review — now welcome you with open arms to come have a drink. Control. They want to control what you taste, and be able to look you in the eye while you taste it. And obtain your immediate evaluation in that stacked environment.

    Steve, if you have no problem tasting under those conditions, and telling a vintner to his face, “I really don’t like your $150 wine much” or “I think this is a disappointing vintage”, you’re a better man than I am. Maybe you can do that. Even so, reputation is largely the appearance of objectivity and independence. Working in this environment puts that hard-earned commodity at risk.

    With respect, you should always taste blind and alone when visiting a winery. Your reputation requires it. I’d recommend doing it first, then visiting with the vintner and touring the property.

    Don’t be surprised when a lot of those wineries don’t invite you back — or refuse to do a blind tasting.

    The question, really, is what you value most: your reputation, or access. A person must always sell part of one to get the other.

  24. We developed a simple tasting scorecard that identifies the various dimensions and enological constituents of wine (color, umami, density, maturity level, acidity, tannins, flaws…), and connected it with a proprietary algorithm that assigns weights to each one of them and calculates the final rating (100-PS).
    Following, we ran thousands of tests with several tasters blindly assessing/rating wines in two ways: 1) via scorecard reducionist/step-by-step evaluation. In this case, tasters were unable to grasp the final score; 2) through the holistic all-encompassing hedonic evaluation, when they solely assigned a final score to the wine.
    When analyzing the results for each taster, we were surprised by the low degree of correlation between the ratings, assigned via the two tasting methods, for the same wine. Then we observed there was a much higher correlation (and negative Kurtosis) among the ratings obtained for each wine via the reducionist/scorecard tasting method, among all tasters, than through the general/holistic assessment.
    Subsequently, we ran the same tests, with the same tasters, rating the wines in the two modes described above (reducionist/scorecard & holistic), but openly. We found similar results, but with less dispersion among ratings assigned by one taster for the same wine through both methods.
    At this point, we are pretty much convinced that reducing wine to its parts and analyzing them separately is a more reliable way to provide an accurate, and impartial, description; regardless whether the tasting is done blind or non-blind. It is also a consistent manner to crowd out personal preferences of the evaluation process.

  25. Peter,

    “…we are pretty much convinced that reducing wine to its parts and analyzing them separately is a more reliable way to provide an accurate, and impartial, description…”

    At last, you and are on common ground.

    Still, doing what your tests suggest would face problems if the owner/winemaker is standing right in front of you while you taste.

    To me, scams and bias can be removed by blind tasting wine that comes off a retail shelf.

    To Sam’s point, there are two ways to evaluate wine: evaluate the entity, the wine; and evaluate the wine’s utility, with food.

    Few critics offer the second way, for a variety of reasons. But some critics do try to offer food recommendations with their ratings.

  26. Steve,
    IMHO you may be missing the real point, or A real point. And, like I wrote in my winery blog: Just because I am a winemaker, it does not stop me for being an opinionated consumer… As a writer (with more time now to be on the road) you have great access to wine experiences that most consumers could only dream of: sitting with winery staff and tasting their wines at the place the wines are made. 99% of folk can only get as far as the tasting room staff (if they are lucky enough), most have to get by on written material and web content to learn about the wines they are drinking. As a consumer, I would devour every bit you would provide about the setting, the story behind the people, what makes them tick and how it might manifest in the wines they produce. I would hope there would not be more than a few general sentences of how the wine actually tastes and I could care less what numerical score is attached to them. You just blogged that you are in a place where you don’t give a s*** about what folk think of you, GREAT, then give us the real story about the folk you meet, the bulls*** they TRY to sell and the real human story hiding behind it. It is authenticity we crave and you are in a great position to give it to us. I honestly think that most consumers, even novices, know that the same bottle of wine will taste different depending on circumstances, time of day etc. But the real story remains.

  27. Oded, you make a good point. Remember, there are constraints on what and how I write. In a 40-60 review in the magazine, I am obviously not able to describe “the setting, the story behind the people, what makes them tick,” etc. Nor am I necessarily able to do that in a feature story in the magazine. I am very fortunate, though, to have this blog to do that sort of impressionistic writing. I have done so in the past, and I guarantee you I will do more in the future.

  28. I think a lot of wines need context– where they are from (specifically– not just BS ava), how they were made, what is it and why?

    The wine should stand on its own, but the story of how it came to be shouldn’t be removed.

    Unless you are tasting with winemakers, how else will we hear you exclaim “100 points! Perfect wine!”

  29. I think that most of us who “do wine” for a living, in whatever capacity, have seen enough to raise the sensitivity levels on our personal BS detectors. Thus, when I’m tasting at a winery and sitting with the winemaker, discussing the details of what went into the barrel, I usually have my “BS filters” in place. I can ask questions, poke a little more for clarification and then make up my mind about the product.

    There may be fewer distractions while tasting blind at home, but if the situation requires you to visit the winery, I trust in your experienced tasting senses to be able to filter the spin, the story and the BS. And I’ve never had a problem in telling a winemaker what I think of their efforts, as I’m being honest about my reactions and can usually elucidate exactly what it is that I think is right or wrong about the end result. I’m sure that Steve can do the same, and do so in a constructive, civil manner that will allow for a return visit.

  30. Sherman, thanks for your faith in me. I do try and do my best.

  31. Hardy, the few 100s I’ve given were never with the winemakers. They were always in blind flights.

  32. My personal feeling is, the best approach to reviewing wine is doing so in person. At a certain level, the content of character matters to me as a consumer and the land the winery is a steward of matters to me as a consumer. In other words, if you tasted two wines of the exact same quality, but one was produced by jerks who farmed in harmful ways, and one was produced by pleasant enjoyable people with high respect for the land, I would want to have the later recommended to me more so.

    It isn’t possible to taste all wines in person of course, but as long as you as a critic are open to visits with the cult kings and the humble new kids, then I say visit on! You are serving the consumers in a much more meaningful way by getting out into the field and reporting on what you find. If you are encouraged by an enjoyable experience to reflect that in your words, than this too is the role of a critic. We should want to know what is special out there and you are in a unique position to help share that.

  33. Okay Steve, you asked for it.

    First I would make sure I was tasting what my readers see on the shelf. I would insist on buying the wines I taste off the shelf. You have no idea how many wineries send you a different wine than the sell on the street.

    Oh, you say you can’t afford to do that? Well here’s a solution… by the time a winery sends you their samples they have spent $100 at least. (freight, packaging and labor). If you add up the expense of doing two bottlings, one for sale, one for samples to critics, it is a whole lot more. Legitimate wineries should be willing to re-imburse you for the samples of wine you buy. You will not abuse the privilege. A winery should be delighted you chose their wine. The winery just gets billed when you buy one of their wines from a retailer. If you set it just like a wine club…you can even use wineclub software… for billing and keeping credit cards current. The work is done by software, the environment benefits from minimal packaging and styrofoam waste.

    A winery can drop out of the Steve club anytime they want. (listen, Steve, if a winery who normally sends you samples objects to this…you know they are one of the cheaters.)

    You don’t think the above is realistic? Listen, sending samples to writers is a pain. It usually is the job of the PR dept and, Steve, keeping track of when a wine is released and who gets the samples and dealing with mis-shipments and summer temperatures and winter freezes is a royal pain in the ass. On the other hand, every wine you buy of mine, it is a depletion, and that is some money in my pocket that makes this alternative even more attactive than the pain of shipping samples.

    Second, but most important, I would never score a wine or make a recommendation off anything but a strictly run, double blind tasting. I would insist on following the best practices and having the highest tasting standards of any wine critic. (You expect a winery to have high standards, why not have reciprocate to them with high standards for yourself?)

    I would not shop for and know the specifics about the wines I will taste. I’d buy wines for Ms. Boone per her general requests. She’d buy wines for me. Winery credit cards would be charged by your billing dept. I would be unaware of the specifics of the wines she buys for me and only aware, in a general sense of what I am tasting and what they should be judged as.

    If you don’t like that because it is too much work…just work out a deal with K&L or another retailer to secure the wines and deliver them to you. Keep it confidential or move it around, else wineiers will know where to deliver their “best bottling.” The retailer will do this for you, because you will be their biggest customer and it will be worth it to send someone out to other retailers for that occaisional bottle they do not have. Heck, make them bag and number them for you as well. I have done this for competitive tastings and retailers love the business.

    I would not taste all of the $100 Cabs in one tasting and the cheap ones in another. If I did , I would subconciously raise my scores for the more expensive flight and deprive my readers of finding that great bottle of $20 Cab that beat out all of the $100 Napa Valley Cabs. The fact that this rarely happens is because you most often group wines together. Not just you….the Wine Spectator does it too and a winery can easily get 5 points by being in their top flight…if not more. Parker adjusts his points based on the label, so he is in a different league.

    Ms. Boone, another employee, or an unpaid intern sets my wines up for a blind tasting, numbered and sacked. Someone else who has no idea what is in the bags pours them for me. (This is called double blind.) The wines are not grouped by price or region….(why not give Sonoma or Bordeaux a chance to beat out a Napa Cab.)

    Listen Steve, when you drive up to St. Helena and taste all those Cabs that the Vintners have nicely laid out for you, or when Parker does the same like he did last week, you are doing a dis-service to every other Cab producing region or unknown winemaker working his ass off to be successful… and it is just laziness on the part of the critic and a lack of respect for the people who follow their recommendations that they agree to these conditions. Why do you think the vintners are doing this for you? They want you to have the “best view” of their production.

    I know you like to taste some wines at home and set up your own tastings…but there is no way of actually doing a blind tasting unless you have someone else there to set things up and pour the wines and insure there are no clues passed. I personally would turn my scores into someone declaring the tasting and all score permanent and unchangeable before I unbagged the wines and studied the results.

    I would never change a score even if I felt I may have made a contrast error or a mis-judgement. This is the nature of BLIND TASTING. The benefits far outweigh making “a little score change” because..”Harlan could never have scored below those wines.”

    You can still go visit all the wineries you want. You can taste wines openly with the labels showing and listen to the winemakers spin. But you don’t base your quality estimations or any recommendation or any score on that visit or on that tasting with the winemaker. The winery wants you to do otherwise and that is why they gladly buy you lunch and show you around. They know that even if you don’t buy their spin you are unlikely to be an unappreciative guest. If you don’t like a wine, you won’t be brutally honest in your comments, nor will you be brutal in your scoring. If you like the wine and tell them you like it…then you have bound yourself to a really nice score irrespective of how that wine might have compared to others if tasted against them blind. You unconciously set up a double standard when you judge one person’s product one way and another person’s product another.

    Of course if I did this the number of invitations would diminish since it would become apparent that buying lunch, etc. did absolutely no good…but then I would know who like me for me being me versus who likes me because of what I do for them.

    In short what I would do, if I were you, is establish myself at a level of wine criticism that is higher that any other critic in the business. In the long run, the public would find their way to me. I would make more money. And then with some of that money, I would buy some of those wines that won’t agree to my conditions and I would make sure they were tasted against a broad spectrum of wines and prices.

    People would soon learn about my standards. Wineies would learn to appreciate them. And I wouldn’t have to try to justify what I know is wrong or accuse someone of being “holier than thou” who points this out to me. I would also have the positive feelings that come from doing what is right for my readers and showing some integrity.

    Steve, think about it, since I would do it this way, maybe I might be, in fact, holier than thou.

  34. Morton, lots to think about. I’ll say one thing now: When I taste flights I almost always mix in less expensive wines with the expensive ones, e.g. a $15 Sonoma County Cab alongside those $75-plus Napas. I also like to throw in ringers. I’ll include a Grenache with the Pinot Noirs, a Syrah with the Cabernets, just to see if I can tell. Sometimes I can, sometimes not. Usually, the cheaper wine reveals itself as being thinner, but not always. Anyway, you are suggesting a veritable revolution in wine criticism.

  35. I beg to differ. This whole discussion is killing me.

    If you take out the business of wine publications paying for wines purchased at retail through some form of reimbursement procedure, than I know a publication that operates substantially in the manner that Morton describes, and I wish it had made as much difference as he thinks it would.

    In point of fact, Morton, in this discussion, gives that publication no shrift–not even short shrift.

  36. It is important, I think, to also reflect on the question of practicality here.

    No writer of 4000 wines per year can possibly convey the context of each of those wines. Whether one is writing in 60 words or 160 words, a full contextual explication of 4000 wines is not going to happen.

    That is not Steve’s dilemma nor the raison d’etre for this blog entry. He is still going to write 60 word descriptions and will absorb context, as we all do, to inform at his thoughts of the wines he tastes.

    The crux of the matter is that tasting unblinded of wines when you know what they are and the winemakers are around results in the thought process being informed aforehand. The tradeoff, then, is the potential for bias regardless of best intentions and attempts at intellectual honesty against the ability to taste and comment on a wider variety of wines.

    Morton’s stance is a solid one. It makes intellectual sense. But, it fails to differentiate between the rock and the hard place. Some publications will not taste at wineries and review wines. Some will. Some readers care, and some readers do not care, and one need only witness the parade of opinion here to see that scenario in action.

    The wineries, of course, believe that context matters, not so much that you see the dirt and the vines, but that wine always tastes better in the winery. They know that. They expect some sort of advantage or they would not make the offer. The question Steve faces is whether or not he needs to taste those extra wines to do his job or whether his job is better done by meeting all or most of Morton’s “holier than thou” standards.

    I hope Steve opts for holier than thou but, if he does, he will stand apart from Parker, Tanzer and most other writers who see more value in getting to taste rare wines than danger in the nature of their reviews. And the only way those perceptions will change for Parker, Tanzer, et al is if the consumers rebel. So far, we don’t see a lot of evidence of that.

    And for that reason, we will not be surprised if Steve decides that he can best serve his broad audience by tasting unblinded at the wineries on occasion.

  37. Why is everything so complicated? That’s an existential sigh you hear coming from my soul.

  38. Charlie, one more thing: Morton has an interesting idea, but I also find in tiresome and a bit insulting that he would continue the urban legend that wineries concoct special brews to send only to wine writers and/or wine competitions, wines vastly different than what ends up in the glass in Podunk Arkansas. I’ve been doing this a while and have wandered through many organizations as a consultant or employee, and shared stories over grog many a late night and I have never, ever, found anyone even contemplating such a thing. Sure, wineries try to make sure the samples they provide haven’t been cooking in a warehouse or on the back of a delivery truck, and most decide when to send samples based on when the winemaker thinks the wine is tasting well, but the ol’ switichero just doesn’t happen. We’d like everyone to drop by and feel the love at the winery, but realistically, we sell in complicated markets, some to consumers and a lot to distributors & retailers who seek and speak a shorthand we all understand. Bait & switch just isn’t part of the mix.

  39. Steve,

    If you have the slightest reason, whatsoever, to taste blind, then do so.
    If you feel comfortable with tasting ‘open’ then do so.

    If you make a hard and fast rule and wineries come to expect that Steve does this or that, then there is a ‘heads up’.

    Some wines and some blends might not fit into any preconcieved idea or expectation and some form of history or story or label might be in order.

    Lets say that a winery makes a Cab. One year they blend merlot into it and it is ok. The next year the at 2-3% Zin also and suddenly the wine is brightened with the slight american oaked fruit. THAT should be part of the story too. Since you know some of these wineries and/or people it is up to you to decide.

  40. Jim, I’ve long heard and read about the Parkerized bottles, but, like you, I’ve never seen any proof that it happens. I wouldn’t put it past certain wineries, but in the absence of credible evidence, I can’t get too worked up about it.

  41. Jim–

    One of the advantages that Connoisseurs’ Guide possesses is that we routinely buy wine in the market so the functiion of occasionally putting both a retail sample and sent sample in the same tasting does happen.

    We have not found the kind of variations that would suggest we are being sent ringers. But, what we do worry about is the change that occurs under a given label from the first batch to the last batch. Put more simply, a winery making large quantiteis of something, whether it is Mondavi Fume or KJ Chard or Ste. Michelle Riesling, does not bottle the whole lot of its wine at once. You would know better than I, but Tim Mondavi told me that his Fume was bottled four times in the year, and I knew, albeit some years ago, the KJ Chard was bottled half a dozen times and the last batch was a different varietal mix.

    So, I worry more about changing in wines across a given vintage. I would expect wineries to seek a more or less consistent quality level, but I would also expect a winery to bottle its first batch with wine that was ready early and to hang onto wine that for whatever reason needed more seasoning.

    I even had one winemaker tell me that he held back the less interesting batches and put them in wood longer to boost their character.

    This has little to do with whether such wines should be tasted blind or not. But it does suggest to me that wineries would put their most interesting young wines out first and hold their less interesting wines for later. Frankly, they would be fools to do it otherwise. But, please note. In Europe, wineries are required to note on the label when a batch changes because there is an identifeir for each batch. That is how totally different wines get caught there. I wonder why we don’t do that here?

  42. Jim,

    The ‘bait and switch’ has happened. I know of a winery that sampled its wares to a distrubutor and the distributor bought them. When we opened one or two in the warehouse the wine was very different. If it has happened in the act of trade with a winery and a distrubutor the probablility that it has happened between a winery and a wine for review/judging has to be plausible.

  43. Hardy, I’m almost ashamed to be in this business after watching Suckling’s little video. Oi.

  44. I’m sure it matters not at this point, but in my brief reference to tasting wines off the shelf, in my comment way above Morton’s, I said what he said but in far fewer words, mainly because I know that lengthy paragraphs would only waste my time.

    Steve, you say that you usually add ringers in your blind tastings, to test yourself. If you know that the ringers are there, the test is not much, in my view–because you are looking for the ringers that you already know are there. Ringers should be placed, randomly, by someone else.

    I know it’s extremely difficult for many critics to believe that they are mere mortals like the rest of us (except for us Taliban who don’t agree with you, Steve). Mortals are not foolproof–neither are critics. Because of that revelation, everything that a critic can possibly do to remove both bias and influence should be done.

    Charlie, I applaud how you do it at WC.

  45. Tom, I do not taste in the WC, and I would not have a publication with those initials.

    Just call my rag, CGCW and my symbols stars, not puffs, and I am a happy camper.

  46. Charlie,

    You (and I) are lucky that few Americans probably know what the other WC initials mean.

    Sorry for the shorthand attempt; as a writer, I should know not to abuse a title or a logo. mea culpa.

  47. Steve, when you taste at wineries, whether blind or not, with the winemaker or not, simply request that they send the wines home with you – or back to your hotel room if you are staying overnight. Revisit them blind a few hours later. The wines will have had a chance to open up, you will be able to compare your “blind” notes with your “on site” notes, and balance them out. I do this all the time, and it works just fine. I don’t know what planet Morton is living on, but it has nothing to do with the realities of making a living as a freelance wine writer.

  48. Paul, I have done that. But don’t you think that tends to favor those particular wines, because we can’t let all the wines we review breathe for a couple hours, can we? So therefore, we’re treating different sets of wines in different ways.

  49. Steve, well yes and no. As I have often written, when I first taste thru a group of wines, and find some that seem to me to be quite closed up but also give the impression of depth, of nuance, of more to come… then I let them sit out for another day or two and revisit them. To me, that is giving young wines the best opportunity to show their stuff. Since we frequently are tasting young wines, often wines that have been recently bottled and recently shipped, I think it is only fair to give at least some of them that opportunity.

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