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A critic explains how he tastes wine

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It’s been a while since I explained exactly how I taste wines formally for review. This is always an important topic, since how you experience a wine has a powerful impact on your impressions of it.

When I first started tasting wine–just for myself, years before anyone paid me to do it–I would just taste it openly, i.e., with the bottle in front of me as I made my notes in my Tasting Diary. I can’t remember if I’d heard of blind tasting (much more on that later). If I had, it didn’t impress me enough to actually put the wine in a bag, not that that would have mattered anyway, because back then, I was tasting only one wine at a time. Putting it in a bag wouldn’t have prevented me from knowing it was an Almaden 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon from Monterey County!

But I didn’t think there was any problem knowing what I was tasting. In fact, it didn’t seem to make sense not to. So I tasted openly for years, before I was hired by Wine Enthusiast and expected to adhere to the magazine’s tasting protocol: all wine is tasted blind.

So that’s how I do it nowadays. However, I don’t taste double blind, but only single blind. Double is where you have no idea what the wine is, except its color. Single is where you have some knowledge of what you’re drinking–for instance, “These are all Cabernet Sauvignons.” The idea behind this is that any knowledge you have of the wine, even to the smallest degree, will influence your perception of it.

Surely there is truth to this reasoning. If I know I’m tasting First Growth Bordeaux, then I know (expect, anticipate, believe) that I am tasting great wine, and that expectation/belief will have a huge influence on my experience. Right? The same psychological bias would apply when I know that I’m tasting wines in a box. Some part of my brain would “know” that the wine could not possibly be great–that the most I could expect would be to have a satisfactory, perhaps even a pleasant wine. And so it would be.

I taste single blind out of necessity. I set up my own tastings at home. Therefore, I know what the 12-15 wines a day are. I attempt to taste like with like. One day it might be newly released Pinot Noirs. Another day might be devoted to new Napa Cabernets. It’s not always possible, for logistical reasons, for me to have pure flights of the same variety or type, however, so I’ll sometimes have a “mixed flight”: an assortment of reds such as Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and field blends. I reason to myself that this kind of flight is acceptable, because the wines are broadly similar: brawny, spicy, full-bodied, rustic. I would never, though, include a Cabernet or a Pinot Noir is such a “mixed” flight. These noble varieties deserve to be tasted alongside their peers.

The bottles are always in brown paper bags. At the time I pour, I honestly do not know which is which. There is a single exception: if one bottle is particularly distinctive from all the others, then I know what the wine is. For example, Shafer puts their Hillside Select in a bottle that weighs about 10 pounds! Not really, but it’s heavy and thick, and most of the time it will be immediately noticeable in its bag. Under that circumstance, which doesn’t happen too often, all I can do is be as objective as I can be.

But the truth is, knowing what the wine is can be a double edged sword. Think about it. If I know it’s Shafer Hillside Select (a wine I’ve given huge scores to over the years), then, yes, on some level my anticipation is piqued. But what if the wine isn’t quite as fabulous as I expect it to be? Then there can be a reverse reaction: instead of giving it a high score because I know it’s Shafer Hillside Select, I might demote it as a disappointment. So while I respect the logic behind blind tasting, I’m also aware of its limits.

After I’ve formed my impression of the wine and settled on a numerical score in my mind, I carry the glass and bottle to my desk, where I enter everything into the computer. It’s necessary to bring the bottle, because the data that goes into the computer must correspond precisely with what the label says, since that’s what the consumer sees. You’d be amazed at how much the paperwork accompanying a submission can vary from what’s on the label. Single vineyard designations on paperwork frequently do not appear anywhere on the label. A “Napa Valley” appellation on the paperwork is magically transformed into a “California” appellation on the label. And so on. So double-checking the label at the last moment is critical in order to be accurate.

Finally, there’s the text. As I said, I’ve already decided on the number. But it’s when I’m sitting at the computer, doing the text of the review, that writerly issues come into play. There are no guidelines for text, except that there should be a rational correlation between the number and the words. A text that reads “Fabulous, first growth quality, complex and ageworthy” obviously should be accompanied by a high score. Given that I’m limited to about 50 words per review, at the most, writing these things turns into the practice of haiku. You have to say a lot with just a few words. Fortunately, this isn’t hard for me, since I’ve been doing it for a long time and have gotten the hang of it.

When I’m finished tasting I generally pour the remains of the bottle down the drain before washing the bottle twice, in order to prevent fruit flies from my recycling space. When people hear that I pour expensive wines down the drain, they’re appalled, and often ask if they can take it off my hands. I’d like to accommodate, but I don’t really want these kinds of dependency relationships from developing. I do often box up what we call “recorks” for Chuck, my intern, who’s studying for the WSET. That gives him something even I don’t have: the benefit of seeing how an opened bottle evolves over a day or two.

I like tasting wine. I’ve probably tasted close to 100,000 over the years. You might think it would be boring, but it never is. There’s always a sense of venturing into the unknown. I wish I had the time to taste a greater range of the world’s wines than the [mostly] California wines I review, but I don’t. If there’s one country I wish I could study, it’s Italy. But I’ll leave that to Wine Enthusiast’s talented Rome editor, Monica Larner.

  1. Nice post Steve.

    Out of curiosity, what do you require of your intern? I wasn’t aware that wine critics had interns, but I’m sure that it must be an interesting job.

  2. Cody, Chuck handles the incoming wine and enters raw data into the database.

  3. You continue to misuse “double blind: and “single blind”.
    These terms come scientific research such as in drug trials.
    “Single blind” means those carrying out the trial know what drug the subject is getting but the subject doesn’t. In “double blind” neither the subject nor those carrying out the trial know what the subject is receiving.
    In no stretch of the definition of those terms is what you describe single or double blinded – in construct or intent.

  4. The only way to evaluate wines it to line ups by cepage and AVA. Only then can you hold the wines up to a meaningful metric: cepage and AVA (since enjoyment and preference vary from person to person).
    So a good wine evaluator should know what they are tasting and what wines from that grape/AVA/year taste like.

  5. You “form a number in your mind” – how? based on *which criteria*?
    This is what you need to spell out in a post like this.
    As to your comment about pouring wines down the sink….
    You and I both know that is not necessarily always the case…

  6. SUAMW, I’ve never been a wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast, nor am I familiar with their protocol. My only knowledge of it specifically are from reading posts like this one.

    I do believe there are better practices that could be implemented, that might enhance and provide a fuller review. Drinking 12-15 wines a day is a truck load.

    It could be argued, that various adjustments could be implemented for less wines reviewed. We all know at the end of the day, Steve, and those like him, are employed by a business, for profit.

    I might suggest that some of the points you make, would be better directed with his employer. For now, this is the system in place, and I’m just thankful it’s no more than 15 wines a day.

    Cheers!

  7. Steve: “After I’ve formed my impression of the wine and settled on a numerical score in my mind…” Does this mean that the final score is plucked out of air? Call me naive, but I always thought that the nuts-and-bolts of the 100-point system was a scribbled formula of base points plus categories points, etc. (not that that’s inherently more meangingful) Or is that just R.P.?

    - Not a criticism at all, just curious. Happy holiday.

  8. James, I guess you could say “pulled out of the air.” But then, so would be “category points.” I mean, if I assign 4 points for “aroma” and give 3.5 points, that’s pulled out of the air. My number is based on appearance, aroma [or bouquet], flavor, mouthfeel, lack [or presence] of objectionable qualities, etc. I think about all of that before coming up with a number. But it isn’t mathematics. It’s subjective and objective at the same time, but it’s still my impression.

  9. Sounds like a job many of us would envy!

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