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Taking my time with wine: a rare treat

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Everybody thinks our job is so cushy. “Wow, you get paid to drink wine?”

Yes, but it is work. I’m not complaining. But I have realized in the last few days one of the biggest prices I’ve paid for having my job.

I’m talking about enjoying a glass of wine over a period of hours. Really getting into it. Lingering over it. Taking your time. Seeing how it changes. Playing with it, letting it play with you. Letting the wine into your head. Getting down with it.

Why I’m thinking about this is because shipments of incoming wine sent to me for review have ground to a halt lately, due to the holidays. The result is that for the last week, I haven’t tasted a single new wine–a fairly unprecedented experience. It’s been a little disturbing–tasting wine is, after all, a large part of my income. But then, in a sort of unexpected way, it has turned out to be a distinct advantage. It’s allowed me to open bottles and spend time with them I couldn’t when I’m tasting 12-15 wines a day.

Last night, I chose a Ken Brown 2008 Cargasacchi Vineyard Pinot Noir, a wine I formally reviewed 2 weeks ago. (I barely know Mr. Brown, who’s been around for a long time. There is no advertising advantage to this for Wine Enthusiast. Peter Cargasacchi is a Facebook friend, but that’s not why I chose the Ken Brown Pinot.)

I gave the wine a high score when I reviewed it on Dec. 27. Then, it struck me as young and fresh. I loved the fruit and spice and the way the acidity balanced it, so youthful and vigorous. But as soon as I was finished evaluating it–which lasted about 2 minutes–I was through thinking about it. That is an unfortunate aspect of my job. I cannot “spend the night” with any one wine, so to speak, and really get to know it.

So, with nothing else to taste last night, it was a pleasure to open a second bottle of the Ken Brown and experience it over time. My first impression was that I’d been spot on in my initial review.

I asked myself if there was anything particularly Santa Rita Hills-ish about it. My answer was, no. There may be more accomplished palates than mine that can detect that distinction; I wish I were one of them; I’m not. The wine was clearly cool climate. The acidity testifies to that (and it feels natural, not poured out of a bag), and so does the ripeness, which is exceptional, yet bone dry. You don’t get acidity, ripeness and dryness from anywhere in California except the coast. But if it had been Anderson Valley or Sonoma Coast or even Arroyo Grande instead of Santa Rita Hills, I wouldn’t have been surprised.

Thirty minutes later, I was enjoying the wine so much, I would have scored it even higher than I initially did. Should I have gone back into Wine Enthusiast’s database and raised my score? No. If I can’t give equal consideration to every wine I review–and I can’t–then I shouldn’t give it to any wine I review.

At 1-1/2 hours (I’d decanted it) you could easily sense the impact of oxygen, or “breathing” to use the fancy word. The wine was beginning to soften and, yes, “age.” It was more mellow, although the acidity was still firm. The tannins were more clearly defined. The wine had already moved beyond primary fruit deliciousness into something complex and earthy.

At two hours it wasn’t so much that anything physical had changed about the wine, it was that it seemed to appeal on a personal basis. That is a very weird thing to say but it’s difficult to put into words. It was like falling in love with someone and then going on a date with them and finding that the initial attraction is even stronger than you thought it was.

As the night wore on the wine revealed more of its attractions, or maybe I was just more open to receiving them. Anyway it was a reminder of why I got into wine in the first place. I don’t mean to give special shoutout to the Ken Brown Pinot. It could have been any great wine I enjoyed last night. It’s sad, in a way, that my reviews and scores have to be limited to a few minutes per wine, but I console myself that if I’m doing my job properly, even if I took three hours per wine my scores wouldn’t be that much different. True, the Ken Brown might have scored 1 or 2 points higher, but any other randomly selected wine might have scored lower, so it all evens out.

But I do want to underscore how wonderful and beautiful it is to spend hours with a single wine. It’s rare in my line of work. I wish it could happen more often. But, on the other hand, I hope that today (as you read this) the wine gates open and I start getting wines to review!

  1. Not to rail against the 100-pt system, but this post is good evidence of why scores, on their own, are insufficient for describing wine. All too often, wine reviews are based on a reviewer spending 120 seconds with a wine while the nuances and changes in the wine are missed. We need more reviews of wine experiences, like this one, not just winesv(I know, I know, too much wine and too little time). Well done, Steve.

  2. With the exception of tasting events and the occasional winery visit, the bulk of my wine tasting occurs exactly as you describe. I love the way a good wine unfolds and changes throughout the evening. I hope you have more opportunities to enjoy wine this way in the coming year.

  3. I have this vision of every PR person in the business searching their databases to see what you have or haven’t been sent and your next post being titled Watch What you Wish for….

  4. Steve – As CWP points out your post here so openly reveals and admits the fallacies of professional critic wine tasting/rating. Most “normal” people with a true interest in fine wine will and do spend time with a bottle, say one opened for an evening meal. They might have a glass taster before dinner, a couple glasses with dinner, and then a glass after dinner to appreciate how the wine evolves over time AND through a meal. And for clarification, I am not calling you, Steve Heimoff abnormal; I am saying critical review wine tasting is not how the rest of us appreciate wine.

  5. Didn’t I once read on these virtual pages that wines should not be judged quickly? C’mon, man, you’re makin’ mah head spin here! :)

    By the way, I’ve seen the sample stream (which I am sure is quite a bit more narrow than your average sample stream!) slow to a dead stop as well, however I’m so backlogged on samples that I am relishing the time to play catch up.

    Anyway, I wanted to chime in on another pitfall of the reviewing of samples, and one that I plan on covering soon in my ‘Going Pro’ series: tasting wines young. What I mean is, rare is the opportunity when I get to enjoy a fine wine at what I’d consider its optimal age; the **vast majority** of the time I am sampling it way, way, WAY young and trying to ascertain when it might reach its optimal drinking age.

    And in some ways, it kind of sucks, because I find myself longing for those opportunities; granted, I get more opportunity to taste older wines now probably than the average Joe wine lover (press dinners, etc.), but rare is the time when I pop open a wine at its peak and settle in with it for a few hours.

    I’m guessing you have the same problem, only worse in terms of volume!

    Maybe we’ll get a chance at the WWS at Meadowood to try some wine that isn’t before its time…

    Cheers!

  6. Dude, I don’t know if I wrote that wines should not be judged quickly, but if I did, I agree! The problem as usual is a logistical one. We all make compromises and speedy judging is one of them. Mr. Parker undoubtedly is the world’s fastest speed taster (or maybe it’s Wilfred Wong). I’m nowhere near as speedy as they are, but on the other hand, I can’t exactly spend 3 hours with each wine, can I. Anyhow, I too have vowed to drink more properly aged wine in 2011, and since we divided the state, with Virginie tasting inland, that really does free me up. Next week I’m going to Williams Selyem for a vertical. Too bad you can’t come.

  7. Scott, you are absolutely right. Nor is critical movie reviewing the way most people go to the movies. I mean, I don’t watch a film while taking notes. Nor do most of us drive cars the way reviewers for Car & Driver drive cars. The critic’s role is (as you suggest) “abnormal,” yet it is one that consumers seem to like, as evidenced by the fact that we critics have paying jobs!

  8. Joe – oh the pitfalls of samples. Guess that I am lucky to not have that curse (yet, I hope). I think the normal drinking experience is often best described in blog posts like yours and Steve’s (hence why I read). I think many people like to hear more about the experience of drinking TN in Oporto and experiencing a nice PN when samples are at a halt rather than just reading 3-4 sentences and a number. I opened up a bottle two nights and took notes on it before I drank it over the next 3 hours and then finished it off last night. Totally changed my opinion on it as the wine evolved and this “experience” will be reflected in the post when I get it up! While first impressions to count, relationships (who says you can’t have a relationship with wine??) change with time.

    Oh, and Scott – I really dig your website. Very crisp and engaging!

  9. Steve,
    I think the beauty in this post lies in the fact that after all is said and done, one can still find the magic in the bottle. Like you wrote, you have to just be open to it. This is not unlike leaving the winery at midnight, all sticky with juice tired beyond belief and suddenly being aware of the full moon and the smell of wild fennel wafting from the vineyard and saying to yourself you have the best job in the world!

  10. Steve – I understand and appreciate the limitations and requirements of the job you do for WE. The disconnect between how wine is tasted/rated and how the consumer experiences wine makes me cringe. Yet the consumer uses that rating to decide on how to buy wine.

    CWP – Thank you for the kind words.

  11. Scott, yes, but as usual I have to defend my job. The consumer also depends on movie critics, restaurant critics, Consumer Reports magazine, high tech gadget critics, etc. etc. etc. So what is the difference? Do those critics make you cringe? I don’t understand.

  12. Steve – I don’t know how movie/restaurant critics review. My guess is they don’t just watch a mere fraction of the movie or scarf down their meal in 10 minutes. As far as Consumer Reports, gadgets, cars, TVs and such, these are reviews of performance and not composition as Matt Kramer (http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/44057) recently pointed out.

  13. Steve–

    I was afraid when I read your opening sentence that you were going to bring out the anti-review crowd and that is just what happened.

    We all know that wine is drunk over a period of time–usually witin 20 to 40 minutes of pulling the cork–for most of the people in the world be they TBC or DRC drinkers. A long meal is rarely accompanied by one wine, and how many of us here actually have long, two to four hour meals on a regular basis anyhow. Even in restaurants where good meals last that long, there is no wine in my experience that hangs around that long. In our salad days, Mrs. Olken and I would go to a place like the old Narsais or Chez Panisse and consume two bottles and a glass of port over dinner. No longer, of course, for all kinds of reasons.

    We still do two wines and sometimes three with dinner, but now we do wine by the glass for at least one of those. However, none of those wines last for hours. That bit of argument, is, to me, a narrow and somewhat tortured view of the reality for most wine drinkers.

    And there is something else here that begs saying. The fact that wine reviews are done in less than two hours per wine or 40 minutes per wine does not make them inaccurate portrayals of those wines. I have a somewhat more elongated relationship with the wines I review, but it is the rare wine that changes in the glass so dramatically that complete rethinking of the review is called for.

    The 100-point system has nothing, zero. nada to do with it. These ia a false issue and ought to be disputed, not benignly allowed to stand. We can all agree that wine drinking is different from wine evaluation in multiple-wine flights. I have always assumed that the point of wine evaluation was to identify wines that one would want to drink with dinner. I have a thousands of them in my cellar accumulated over the years as the result of my blind tastings. I cannot recall many that did not show as well as expected with dinner except for the time I tried to pair a Kenwood Petite Sirah with spaghetti in a red sauce. Man, was that a disaster, but one of my making and a mistake I have never repeated.

    The notion, put forth by Scott, that there is an enormous disconnect between how folks like you and I taste wine and how consumers experience is simply not demonstrable in ways that invalidate wine evaluation.

    Oh, I see you added a comment while I was typing. You are too kind, but then, you always were a nice guy.

  14. Charlie, I think that you are mistaking praise of a different type of review as anti-review. I am not against review wines. I understand that most of the time when evaluating wines, critics only get to spend a few minutes with a particular wine. I take most of these types of reviews the same way I do movie trailers. You can get a general sense of the product with a few descriptive lines and a number that attempts to approximate its quality relative to other wines. I think that most people that have commented are simply praising Steve for giving us tickets to a sneak peek instead only allowing us to watch the trailer. It is so much more enjoyable to read about a wine and a writer’s experience with said wine in more detail than the garden-variety tasting note.

  15. Point taken–except that your first comment begins with the words “Not to rail against the 100-point system but”.

    I absolutely agree that there is great validity in 1000-word essays that speak to a complete wine experience. I recently directed my readers to Brooklyn Wine Guy under the topic, Best of The Blogs, even though he refuses to even recognize CA wines.

    I recogize the wines he praises and I enjoy his paeans to them. But, these are not comparative analysis. Your notion that both can live side by side gets full affirmation from me. Thanks.

    Charlie

  16. Perhaps we can agree to a distinction in terminology — wine tasting is a snapshot of a wine that will give a potential buyer a quick insight as to whether they might like it well enough to invest the price of the bottle. Wine drinking is what occurs once the admission price has been paid, the bottle taken home and the dinner prepared.

    Yes, a snapshot is different from a full-length feature presentation — not better, not worse, but different. Can we agree that both have their place and their own unique advantages/disadvantages?

    As long as we’re talking about snapshot evaluations, let’s also look at the other professional venue for wine tastings — where the sales rep makes a presentation of multiple wines to a buyer who then makes an evaluation for presentation to their customers (either on-premises for a restaurant, or off-premise for a retail establishment). Not only do we normally have time constraints, but we’re also presenting multiple wines for their consideration (3-6 wines at a time).

    And yet it seems to work for the industry and, by extension, for the customers who are the ultimate recipient of all the tasting efforts. So I’ll put in a word that the “snapshot” version of professional wine tasters does have relevance in the *real world*; critical wine reviewers, such as our esteemed host, play a similar role to those in the business (ITB) who make decisions on whether to buy loads of wine based on snapshot impressions of wines.

    It may not be a perfect system, but that’s how it works in the real world of wine sales and wine buying on the wholesale level.

    Also, how many large consumer events have you attended (ZAP, Taste of WA) where the great number of consumers are hell-bent on “getting their money’s worth” by tasting as many wines as possible within the time constraints of the event? And most don’t use the dump buckets — hardly does justice to the refined notion of sitting with a fine bottle during the course of an evening, giving the wine its due, eh?

  17. Sherman, you are entirely correct that “snapshot” tasting occurs at all levels of the wine industry, which could not function without it. Compared to such instant takes, my 3 minutes per wine is a luxury!

  18. Andrew Wiese says:

    I would rather read this than a hatful of scored reviews, thank-you, Steve. Regarding some of the comments above, I would argue that film critics do watch the entire film, and restaurant reviewers eat a full meal over a couple of hours, and often return several times before casting judgement.

    A concrete score based on a couple of minutes with a wine is utterly uninteresting to me and something I avoid reading. I also pay for a subscription to a site which has thousands of professional tasting notes and lively discussion, but no scores, and wouldn’t pay for one that did.

  19. Andrew–

    What is the difference between a site that has thousands of professional reviews without scores and a site that has thousands of professional reviews with scores?

    Unless every one of those “professional reviews” is done blind in peer to peer comparisons, they are not issued in any context. But, let’s assume that there is satisfactory rigor to those reviews, then the sole difference is the existence of a score–a symbolic notation that serves ONLY as a shorthand for the accompanying words and has no meaning without those words.

    I don’t care where you get you advice; that is your business. But I do care when the existence of a symbolic notation in my reviews or Steve’s is used to denigrate the quality of those professional reviews.

  20. Ok, dumb question. At the local liquor store there are the 100-pt rating system cards, detailing the wines. Are those ratings state-specific, or are they accredited to a larger scale rating standard?

  21. Sean, I think every store has their own system, so you’d have to ask the wine manager.

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