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From the annals of tasting

8 comments

There are lots of tasting lineups that make sense in reviewing wine, i.e. there’s not just one way of doing it. If Bob Cabral sends me 15 Pinot Noirs from all over Northern California, I could taste them against one another—or I could save the Russian Rivers, for example, to taste against other Russian Rivers (which is how he once told me he prefers) and leave the Sonoma Coasts, etc. for another day.

This above situation (and my mind is far from made up on it) assumes that one should only taste Pinot Noirs with other Pinot Noirs (or perhaps the rare Meunier), Cabernets with other Cabs, Chards with other Chards, and so on. But where is this written in stone? If you taste blind, it can be fantastically instructive to mix up the varieties in a flight. You can see how “Cabernet-ish” that Syrah actually is, which might be instructive information to communicate to readers, which is, after all, the whole point of what I do.

The question is, what is to be gained with tasting like with like, and what is to be lost? Or, to put it the other way, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of reviewing a mixed flight? Right off the bat, I can hear the terroirists beating their breasts in protestation that the purpose of tasting is to discover minute distinctions between wines of the same variety that must be due to terroir (especially if they’re from the same winery and were made with more or less identical production methods).

This may be true, but it’s not clear that it’s of help to consumers, who after all are unconcerned with the nuances of terroir, but just want a clear, concise description of a wine they might buy. I can’t tell you how consciousness of my duty to the consumer informs my every decision regarding tasting. There are two audiences a professional taster is playing to: the consumer, or the somm/winemaker/collector crowd who love to wade into the tall grass of terroir distinctions, often with a sense of Gotcha! or moral superiority. At the magazine I previously worked for (a long time ago), I saw enough of that pretentiousness to last me a lifetime.

I do think that tasters are best off tasting the same varieties against each other, although this obviously depends on what their samples are. If you’re a blogger getting the odd sherry, Italian Pinot Grigio, Languedoc and Napa Cabernet, I believe your reviews will be of limited value. You can tell readers what your hedonistic impressions are, but offer them little of the knowledge of the winery or vineyard, or of how that year’s vintage compares to previous years. In this, I’m fortunate. I get a lot of wine every year, which allows me to shape my tastings pretty much how I like to.

The important thing in tasting is experience. The knowledge one acquires over many years makes one a better taster: more informed, better able to put things into perspective and break down the barriers. The longer I do this, the easier it gets: I feel like I can capture the wine’s essence in a few words. That’s what readers are looking for, isn’t it?  Haiku, not a ballad, that tells the story at its essential elegance.

  1. The context of tasting is important. You offer some interesting points. Yes, putting thought into the idea of tasting within peer groups or a diverse setting is important. Blind vs. non-blind. Fake blind vs. real blind. Tasting the odd bottle by itself as real consumers do or in a three cup shuffle flight. All important/interesting things to discuss. There is no correct answer. The outcome of the review of Bob’s Hirsch Vineyard is going to be different if it is tastes alongside Napa Cabs, other WS or pinots from Eola-Amity Hills. Maybe a description of the flight should accompany your review. Might be interesting information for consumers to have.

    But what makes you think that just because some blogger without “West Coast Editor, Wine Enthusiast” after their name is any less able to communicate “the knowledge of the winery or vineyard, or of how that year’s vintage compares to previous years”? In your big Pritchard Hill piece in Wine Enthusiast YOU got winery and vineyard names wrong. You failed to fully and correctly explain the terroir of the area. Your experience tasting a lot of wine doesn’t necessarily give you a better palate or a better nose for real writing or research. Oh, there are advantages to having the tasting experience you do and you generally are a good writer, but you cannot say all (or almost all) regular people/bloggers offer “limited value” in their ability to communicate information about a wine/winery/region.

    PS. I hope you are feeling better.

  2. Well, Kyle got a few things right above, but I hope he has never missed a name or identifier in his writing career.

    I happen to agree with you that experience is the greatest teacher. And is probably because I am older than you and thus more experienced. :-}

    I too had the WS discussion with Bob Cabral. When he sents a truckload of wines, he wants to know how they compare with his competitors. After all, he already “knows” how they compare with each other.

    But consumers are left with the question: which of these very expensive, limited production, highly regarded wines do I buy, and it is the critic’s job to help with that decision making. To me, that entails first tasting the wines side by side. I do separate them by geography in my first tasting of them in order to generate as specific an understanding as I am capable of producing.

    Then, the wines are tasted blind a second time against their high-rated peers. With that process, I think I get to Bob Cabral’s hopes for a statement of standing within the peer universe. But more importantly, I think I find out whether I like WS more or less than other wines.

    For our purposes (yours and mine as comprehensive reviewers), I would find it unhelpful to try to judge a flight of widely mixed wines. There are reasons to try that for the learning experience of it, but not to produce serious, reliable reviews in context of the other wines of the same variety.

    I would add only one thing to your comments. We are damn lucky that we get to taste wines for a living. I have been at it for almost four decades now and I plan to continue for another four decades. Wish me luck.

  3. Charlie, I probably have. The difference is that I am not claiming that other people’s work is of “limited value.” I am not claiming to be the Grand Poobah of wine. If I may a mistake, I’ll own it.

  4. Steve and Charlie,

    The two of you have much experience that goes beyond the wine you are tasting. I envy that, as I’m sure others do.

    You likely personally know the winemaker, his/her family, their viti and vini-cultural history and philosophy, and their committment to making a wine that transcends the very average pour. Your connection often goes beyond rating the wine . . . or at least it should. You likely break bread with them.

    For lack of a better term, you are somewhat “connected” to many of them, and as such, it may have some effect on the way you review and critique their efforts. Positive reviews are no issue, but would imagine that anything other than that could be troubling for you.

    Can you comment on those relationships?

    Tom

  5. I know nothing. Nothing I tell you. I hate all winemakers. They are capitalist pigs. Break bread with them? I would rather break their bungs.

    And then I woke up.

    It is true enough that one cannot work deeply into the wine business, especially when one lives essentially in wine country as I do–and Steve does, with getting to know and even to become friends with many of the people whose wines we review.

    One of the ways that writers have of avoiding the negative is to avoid publishing negative reviews. That is a somewhat harder task for comprehensive reviewers, but some publications, and I think WE is one of them, limit the damage by not publishing notes under 80 points. Steve will confirm or amend that understanding.

    My publication, which started as tasting notes by a couple of consumer/collectors and does not take advertising, has a policy of publishing reviews on every wine we taste–no punches pulled. We at least partly cover our backsides by tasting a second bottle of every wine getting a bad review. And of course, we also retaste, as I mentioned in my comments above about Williams Selyem, those wines that will be recommended highly. All of those wines are tasted blind.

    But even that policy as regards negative reviews does not save us from the wrath of the wineries. I could name a couple of dozen wineries that refuse to talk to Connoisseurs’ Guide anymore because our reviews did not live up to their expectations/desires. Sometimes, a chat will help them see that we have no axe to grind, but others treat us as pariahs for telling the truth as we have seen it twice.

    I respect the rights of any winery to send or not send wine, to be open and helpful or to be recalcitrant and obnoxious as they see fit. They do not owe us a living, anymore than we owe them anything.

    It does get a bit silly at times, though. There is a Napa Valley winery whose expensive PN and Chard got consistently top review for years running until one wine, from the 2006 vintage, was given the dastardly rating 86 points. The winery owner sent me an unpleasant letter saying they would never deal with us again. I called her up and wondered how it was that she could be so out of sorts over one review in ten years over two varieties. “It is clear”, sayeth the raging lady, “that you no longer understand our wines”.

    There are two bottom lines here: We have always purchased wines for our tastings and we continued to review the wines from her winery with bottles that we got at K & L or Wine Club or Jacksons or wherever. The reviews were done blind. The ratings were generally good, and then a funny thing happened. Her wines, not quite as well received broadly as before because they were fat, ripe, high in oak and violated the sacred rules laid down by the upstart sommeliers and Jon Bonne, began to lose traction in the marketplace. And lo and behold, all of a sudden those wines were showing up again on the UPS truck.

    We don’t penalize her winery because she is an obnoxious rich socialite who inherited a winery at a young age, and we do not upgrade the scores of wineries whose owners are good people.

    One final story. One of those winemakers with whom one can sometimes get to be friends became a family friend. He lived around the corner, we played soccer together, out to nice dinners around SF, and I was asked to be the godfather to his son. I had no hesitation because it was personal at the family level. Not soon thereafter, he released his one and only Chardonnay and it was oxidized and volatile and got 75 points and loud raspberry by way of a review.

    The point is that we live by the accuracy of what we write. Some wineries stop talking to us and some do not. That is their right.

    Does this deny that friendship can be an influence? I often ask myself that question, and my best answer is that I dare not recommend wines that people will not like lest they stop subscribing to my magazine and I therefore stop enjoying the lifestyle to which I have become accustomed.

  6. Tom, I know a lot of winemakers but I wouldn’t say I’m friends with them. I don’t live in wine country. There are some winemakers I like, a lot, but they know that my personal feelings have absolutely nothing to do with my reviews.

  7. doug wilder says:

    Steve,

    In this post you seem to embrace a pair of opposite viewpoints but maybe I am just misreading. Even though I don’t actively blog any longer, I contend that if solely judging the utility of ‘reviews’ it is very different than writing a article-length introduction for a region. A Wine Enthusiast review doesn’t contain any more fundamental information than one written by any other publication. I do appreciate your comment that if you are tasting comprehensively through a particular region/vintage then an overview can help provide context. For a blogger to do that on a thin selection of wines would require an inordinate amount of time to research and develop the story for each wine. You can do it for one wine (see Vinography) but several dozen wines, each with a 400 – 600 word intro would be pretty tedious to get through, especially in a blog format. I don’t think you intended to say that a blogger would be providing less than complete or useful information to their readers. Where I see the contradiction is later you conclude your post being able to capture the wine’s essence in a few words (seemingly the antithesis of an overview) and attributing that ability to experience only, rather than any acknowledgement that you are a very good writer.

    From my own experience as a reviewer, I find that the point where I expand my discussion is at the winery level where I can sometimes devote an entire page to images, a paragraph or two on the brand and winemaker along with reviews but that only happens when there are at least four or five wines from one producer. If there are fewer than that usually only a stand alone review will appear. I once wrote 600 words on a single premiere release wine that nobody had heard about yet and had my head handed to me by my CEO. Taught me a valuable lesson :)

  8. Steve, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the contradiction Doug discusses. I am also interested in your thoughts on the points I brought up in the initial comment. I think when you say “limited value” you probably mean limited influence. Yes, most (if not all) bloggers have a fraction of the influence you hold. However, the value their opinions is perhaps much greater for their readers than yours. Maybe the ability to “capture the wine’s essence in a few words” and a number isn’t as valuable as you think to as many people as you think. I could be wrong, though…

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