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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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  1. Steve,

    I think another reason why you may get asked to retry a wine is due to timing. As we all know, some wines just ‘take longer’ to strut their stuff, and many wineries send out samples to fit specific time schedules from reviewers, regardless of whether or not the wine is truly ‘ready’ to show. This is a challenge all around.

    In many cases, wineries know that their wines will be tasted within a specific time period, but in other cases, the wine may sit for a month or two (or longer) before being evaluated. This extra time may be quite beneficial for the wine.

    In a previous conversation, you mentioned that your ‘ideal review’ would be to look at a wine over a 24 hour period, trying it with and without food, and after it had been decanted. Have you ever considered ‘re-reviewing’ wines after 24 hours, especially reds, to note any difference in the wines? Just curious . . .


  2. Larry, I always tell wineries to wait and not send the wine until the WINEMAKER says it’s ready to be tasted. i.e., don’t go according to some arbitrary schedule.

  3. Steve,

    Agreed . . . but as I said, sometimes we don’t know when the wines will be tasted – immediately or after sitting for awhile in the massive pile of wine shippers we all know you have (-:

    Have you ever retasted a wine the next day? Curious to hear your thoughts. I know of at least one reviewer who does, and it seems like the information if quite pertinent.


  4. Larry: I do retaste the next day. Not often, though. Most of what I taste (what’s left over) goes down the drain. However I’ll keep interesting bottles to see how they do a day or 2 later. Sometimes I put those notes up on Twitter. As for the timing of tasting: I can only speak for myself, but I taste all wines within 5-7 days of getting them. Nothing sits around for a long time.

  5. Steve,

    Thanks for the prompt reply – and good to know about the timing of your tastings. Guess I need to get on twitter more often in my spare time (-:


  6. Kurt Burris says:

    Steve: As we all know, wines can change, sometimes dramatically, in the first few weeks after bottling. This is not to excuse a winery sending out a wine for review before it has settled down. But, as you say, sometimes economics trumps winemaking. Another possibility in bottle variation is how the wine was shipped. I work with an importer who tries to let wines that been airfreighted settle down for a week or so before tasting. they seem to taste more like what shows up on the container that way. Maybe a really bumpy truck ride, or a pallet getting dropped, can affect the wine. It’s not going to be enough to change a score radically I would think, but it’s fun to speculate

  7. Steve:

    I’d have to agree with Larry in tasting on day two. There can be such a variance on the second day, however I would imagine that might be challenging with the demands of so many wines to review.

    Curious, the wines you do taste on the second day, how does that interpolate into the final review or does it?

  8. I’m reminded of one of Gerald Asher’s quotes:

    “Drawing a cork is like attendance at a concert or at a play that one knows well, when there is all the uncertainty of no two performances ever being quite the same. That is why the French say, There are no good wines, only good bottles.”

  9. Thanks for your sensible approach to this sensitive subject, Steve. Scores are obviously a big deal, and even the most talented tasters will miss a couple when evaluating 15,000+ wines a year.

    In over 10 years in the biz I’ve only asked for a retaste once – from another well known publication. The retaste was granted, and the score was raised 6 points.

  10. Steve…Henceforth, in the future please deduct five points from ANY score you’ve given to my wines. I’ve given this a great deal of thought; you will not be able to persuade me to change my mind. It’s only fair. Thanks.

  11. Wandering Wino: Tasting the second day doesn’t change the score or most of the review. I might add “Still tastes great a day later.”

  12. doug wilder says:

    Tasting the second day doesn’t change the score or most of the review. I might add “Still tastes great a day later.”.

    I agree with this, Steve. I want to comment on first impressions. Over the last couple days I opened a lot of wine (close to 40 bottles) and noticed on first pass of a few of them were not great, however, coming back to them in an hour or so usually resulted in the wine showing better, being appending the note and factoring that into the score. I feel it is my responsibility to see how the wine develops and sometimes I am surprised what a couple hours in the glass may do. Here it is usually an 83 that turns into an 87. If I do have a sample that shows well at the first tasting, I may set it aside and if I have time taste it a day or two later and maybe even relax with a glass while going through emails or phone messages. There is absolutely no foul if the wine fails to hold up, but if it does improve, I find it note-worthy but it won’t change the score.

  13. doug wilder says:

    One more thing, Steve. Do you taste your dry whites at room temperature, or do you chill everything beforehand? I find by tasting at room temp initially, it gives me a baseline. If I do chill them later, it is primarily to see individually what extent lowering temperature has on my ability to detect flaws that were there before.

  14. The dry whites I taste at fridge or slightly below fridge temperature. That’s when “normal” people drink them.

  15. doug wilder says:

    I agree it isn’t normal but if there is a shortcoming in a white wine that may be masked by chilling I feel a responsibility to test for that. It is an old habit from days in retail where whites came out of sales reps bags at a wide range of temperatures. I couldn’t fairly compare a wine at 62 against one at 47. If a wine was too chilled, I would let it warm in the glass.

  16. Doug, this is a fundamental difference between the way wholesalers/retailers taste wine vs. today’s modern critics. The former tasted to see how the wines would taste down the road, since that is how the consumer would experience them. I taste to see how they taste now, or a few months from now, since that’s how the vast majority of consumers will experience them.

  17. doug wilder says:

    Steve, Even though I don’t know your definition of modern critic, I guess if somebody introduced me that way, I couldn’t really argue. What I do evolved out of practices developed over many years in retail. My evaluation methods continue to work (for me) to identify what may be information important to readers. Arguably, a consumer is a consumer no matter who is describing the wine. If I can offer my readers that extra insight, I will. If a chilled Sauvignon Blanc’s bright gooseberry, turns leafy as it warms up, I want to know that ahead of time.

  18. Steve, Let me first say, I cannot begin to understand the challenges you have associated with wine tasting volumes nor the deadlines. However, I agree with Doug in the changing aspects of the wine over time with oxidation and believe it is important.

    I also agree that wines too cold hide aspects of the wine. I am not sure in my estimation that “normal” people read wine magazines or scores (outside of Costco shelf talkers). Those I know that do read about wine, often have a temperature controlled cellar and understand ideal wine temperatures.

    Or are you suggesting that “normal” people read wine reviews/magazines and consume off temperature wines?

    Curious to know Steve if you’ve adjusted temperatures on wines you have been asked to re-taste?


  19. Dear W.W., I do not tinker with temperatures on the wines I taste. I treat them all the same.

  20. Steve, Hi: Are you interested to retaste a wine after it’s bottle aged a few years? In your original review you might have pointed out you expect it to peak in another few years. Are you interested to taste it again later and compare to your earlier comments? I’m curious what you find when you do that, whether the wines generally meet your earlier expectations, do the scores change, etc. It’s interesting to experience that evolution…
    I enjoy your blog. Thank you!

  21. Mary L., I love it when the opportunity arises for me to retaste a wine years later. I wish it happened more than it does. An original score would never change, though. Thanks for reading my blog!

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