On getting asked to reconsider a wine’s score
I get a fair number of requests from wineries for me to retaste their wines. The way the process works at Wine Enthusiast is that, at some point after I submit my scores and reviews, the magazine contacts the winery. That’s when they learn their score, and I’d estimate that the percentage who are disappointed enough to ask me to retaste is about the same as the percentage of wines I taste that are corked. About 1-2%.
I don’t have to retaste wines. It’s not required of me. The tasting department trusts me, and leaves it to my discretion, as well they should. However, in every case where the winery asks for a retaste, I accommodate. It’s the right thing to do. If the number of wineries asking for retastes starts to climb, I’ll have to reconsider my position, but so far, it’s manageable.
Most of the time when a winery requests a retaste, they offer some excuse for why I might not have found much to like about the wine. It was “off” in some way. They were aware they had some “iffy” bottles. It may have suffered from heat damage. There’s always something.
So what’s my experience with retasting? Actually, pretty consistent. I’d say about half the time I find exactly the same thing. (Remember, I’m tasting blind.) The rest of the time, the wine is better than I’d originally found, although not by much. A point or two, which is not outside the range of petty error. I can only recall a handful of instances where the second taste was worse than the first.
What does it mean when a winery asks for a retaste and says they think I had a bad or off bottle? This is a complex topic. First of all, it’s not a completely insane suggestion. All bottles are not created equal. Bottle variation happens frequently and for a vast array of reasons, more than wineries want you to know (and TCA accounts for only a small percentage of bottle variation). Big wineries, like Bronco or Gallo, are far less likely to have bottle variation than small wineries. Equalizing blends in tanks and bottling is a precision science that big wineries excel at.
There’s little or nothing a winery, small or big, can do about the vagaries of shipping, except to look to the long-range weather forecast to make sure they’re not sending their stuff out as a heat wave approaches. (Actually, lately I’ve been getting more boxes with little icy packets in them that work quite well to keep the contents cool for days.) Wineries are a lot better about checking the forecast than they used to be. It’s been my practice for years, when they ask me how to submit wines, to tell them during the summer months to please check the weather. It can get up to 140 degrees in the back of those metal boxes they call UPS and FedEx trucks.
But I wonder why a winery would send out a wine they later claim they knew was “iffy.” Did they know the wine was compromised and somehow hope that nobody would notice? Did economics trump common sense? Probably so. When your income is on the line, you’re apt to take chances. If I owned a winery, I like to think I’d never send a batch of wine I knew was off in some way–especially to a critic! But I might look at my payroll, my bills, the family’s needs, and figure, Hey, let’s roll the dice. Not all critics are created equal, either. My hunch is that wineries get away with releasing compromised wine because, from their point of view, there’s really no other choice. Of course, there’s always the possibility–I’ve heard it rumored for years–that some wineries, especially culty ones, send people like me wines that aren’t the real wine produced under that label, but special cuvées. I once even heard of a Napa winery that actually was sending certain critics a famous Bordeaux, or so it was said. I’d hate to think anyone in California would do that, but who knows?
At any rate, the main reason wines don’t score high isn’t because they’re compromised, or suffered during a heat wave, or any other unfortunate accident. It’s because they weren’t very good to begin with.
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