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Being kind to mediocre wine

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What should a critic do when he’s confronted with a wine he himself would never consider drinking, yet isn’t so awful as to be undrinkable?

I come across this problem all the time. I’ll pour myself a tasting sip from the bottle, which is in a brown paper bag. The color seems all right. I smell: an immediate reaction of negativity. It can be boiled vegetables, like mushy asparagus, or it can be the nostril-pinching mold of botrytis (rather more common these days, as the 2011s come out). It can be exceptional amounts of oak, or some oak-like smell, heavily toasted and caramelized. It can be many things, but my first reaction to the “nose” is Uggh.

Then I taste, and the wine is no better in the mouth. It’s thin and simple. Yesterday I reviewed a round of Chardonnays that were so watery, your palate had to frisk them up and down to find any trace of fruit. Or certain red wines can transfer the vegetativeness or mold of the aroma into the mouth. Such wines, too, elicit an “Ugh!” factor in me: I conceivably might drink them, but only were I stranded on a desert island and they were the only wines available.

So how do I deal with them, in terms of a score and a text review?

Well, for starters, there’s a big difference between an undrinkable wine and one I personally loathe. Granted, the line between them can be blurry: it’s not the same as the difference between two adjacent squares on the checkerboard, with a strict delineation between red and black. It’s more like the edge of a shadow: fuzzy, inchoate. It’s hard to tell exactly where the line of the shadow is, because, due to the scattering of atoms, there is no line, just an interference pattern that is “Heisenbergian” in indeterminacy.

That makes the choice between a score of 22 (absolutely undrinkable, under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) and 80 or 81 (barely drinkable) a difficult one. On Tuesday the wine may be 22; on Wednesday, 80. So we have to admit there’s a certain arbitrariness here. But the important thing to keep in mind is that my own personal preference or reaction to a wine ought to be irrelevant to my review of it.

This really can’t be emphasized enough. In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; yet such wines are drinkable, often eminently so, and, if priced right, can be bargains that receive the highly coveted “Best Buy” special designation the magazine lists in the wine’s formal review in the Buying Guide. (Producers love it when their wines get “Best Buys” as they can use this in their marketing.)

I will often think, when writing a review of an 82-point wine that costs, say, $9, that millions of consumers will like it and consider themselves lucky to have gotten something so good at so affordable a price. This leads to the question of the critic putting himself in the shoes of the people he imagines himself to be writing for. In my case, this is an “average” consumer, one looking for value, as well as one who wants to enjoy his wine and have fun with it, preferably with companionable food. Since I have friends and family members to whom this description applies, I’ll often visualize them in my mind as I review, in a sort of version of “What Would Johnny Think?”

However, as a wine critic, I’m aware that people of a higher order of wine appreciation, more akin to my own, also read Wine Enthusiast and will be curious about my reviews of rare and expensive wines. And so I wish to do a good job of reviewing those wines as well. And I think I do. This illustrates the balancing act that Wine Enthusiast tries to accomplish: to be the magazine (and website) of the “masses” as well as the source of high-class information about the world’s greatest wines.

Most magazines and wine review newsletters do not do this. Some cater exclusively to the upper end. Others, who do not have access to the upper end, exclusively review what I call “supermarket wines” (and I’m sure you know what I mean). Few straddle the entire spectrum, at least in terms of the sheer numbers Wine Enthusiast does.

I’m very proud of the fact that, despite my preference for reviewing the greatest wines in California, I also have the opportunity of reviewing the commoners. Is it my favorite thing to do, to taste through 15 California-appellated Chardonnays that all cost less than $15? I’d be lying if I said it was. But I take that tasting to be as great a challenge as going through 15 high-level coastal Pinot Noirs or Napa Cabernet Sauvignons. Yes, I’d probably take two or three or even four times as long to taste through the latter as the former (because they’re vastly more complex wines that require more time to understand). But if I can give a Best Buy to an inexpensive wine–even one I’d never drink myself–it makes it a happy camper.

  1. Why do you have to be all things to all people? If cheaper Chardonnays taste mediocre to you, just say so. You’re not a winery’s marketing agent. If people who enjoy these wines read your column they may want to learn why you don’t like them or they can decide to read someone else. Somebody must publish a blog called “Great $10 wines”.

    It also seems patronizing to say “this wine sucks, but you might like it.”

    There was a recent discussion on Facebook that said wine writers should only write positive reviews. If a wine was really disliked, nothing at all should be said. That’s silly. If you know about wines, say what you think.

    Or maybe, as they say, “If you can’t say something nice, say it in Yiddish.”

  2. Steve,

    Great piece! Thank you for telling it like it is, and honestly revealing that 80-81 really means “barely drinkable” to the wine proficient masses with a discerning palate.

    To most wine consumers the 100 point scale is viewed like a grading scale in high school, where 82 would be a B grade.

    I feel that is not really the case. I feel the C- to be more a kin to 82 point wine to those with a discerning palate.

    I will stop myself there before others bark at me for putting letter grades on wine!

    Good stuff Steve!

  3. Steve: I love the topic, but think you’re talking about the wrong specific wines. The wines you describe at the beginning of this piece aren’t mediocre, they’re bad.

    It’s more interesting how you deal with having to rate supermarket wines that are bland are uninteresting, but competent. How do you deal with those?

  4. This is a situation where the 100-point scale drives me bonkers. Although I’ve come to accept and appreciate it over time, I really wish the 100-point scale could be adjusted based on the wines. If you find a wine that tastes “decent” and costs $8, that should not receive the same score as a wine that tastes “decent” and costs $50. An English paper written by a middle-school student is not graded the same way as an English paper written by a graduate student. Context matters.

  5. gabe, actually in this case I disagree. The critic doesn’t have to point out the discrepency between an $8 84-point wine and a $50 84-point wine. The reader is smart enough to come to her own price-quality assessment.

  6. Larry, a don’t think a score of 80-82 points is a compliment. It’s pretty embarrassing to a winery and when I give those scores, I’m aware that the producer will not be happy. As for truly undrinkable wines, they get buried with a “22″ that will never see the light of day. We can argue about whether or not thats a good thing, but it is the magazine’s policy.

  7. Given advances in winemaking over the last 20 years I encounter very few wines (< 0.5%)that I would consider to be 'undrinkable' When it does happen, they are simpy reported as <80. Between 80 -84 is serviceable for a lot of settings, and 85 – 88 is something I would happily open for myself and to share. Beyond that, I make a deliberate distinction to include 89 in the next band (up to 93) primarily to de-stigmatize it. After all it is only a number. I address the "Best Buy" concept by considering the comparitive quality of a wine based on price (Ex: a 90 point wine selling for $16 that tastes as good as most $25). I think I even gave the nod to a $175 bottle that was as good as one for $225.

    I came across some $50 Paso BDX blends this week that I didn't get too excited about but my notes include a comment that they may be popular anyway. I can actually imagine liking them 30 years ago… But what you are describing in the opening paragraph are wines that are fundamentally flawed. I hope you are not suggesting mushy asparagus is acceptable in any circumstance.

  8. Winemaking is so good these days as to eliminate many flawed wines.
    More and more interesting wines from around the world are available to consumers every day.
    Therefore what was merely mediocre in the past is actually awful today. No one should have to drink mediocre wines anymore.

  9. Bob Henry says:

    STEVE,

    EXCERPTS FROM YOUR PIECE:

    “. . . [a wine rated] and 80 or 81 [which in American schools would earn a student's homework assignment or test score a laudable "B" letter grade, is] (barely drinkable [sic]) [under Wine Enthusiast's rules].

    “… In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; yet such wines are drinkable, often eminently so, and, if priced right, can be bargains that receive the highly coveted “Best Buy” special designation the magazine lists in the wine’s formal review in the Buying Guide. …

    Is it my favorite thing to do, to taste through [“best buy” priced wines]…? I’d be lying if I said it was. …

    … my preference [is] for reviewing the greatest wines in California …”

    CONSIDER THIS CONTRASTING VIEW FROM ROBERT PARKER (CIRCA 1989 INTERVIEW):

    “Wine Times: … The highest percentage of your grades are in the 80s and then some are in the 90s. Are there lots of wines you taste that you don’t evaluate?

    “Parker: Yes. I try to focus on the best wines in The Wine Advocate, or especially when I do the Buyer’s Guide, my publisher doesn’t want to take up space with 50s, 60s, or even 70s. When I’m looking for a best buy, I might go through hundreds of wines, or when I go through the wines of Hungary or Yugoslavia, I’ll never put most of them in The Wine Advocate. I could never justify taking two or three pages to publish those results. …

    “Wine Times: The answer is partly to give you credibility. Right now the argument is that your average score in The Wine Advocate is in the 80s, and it doesn’t matter if its 81 or 84. If it’s in the newsletter, buy it.

    “Parker: No. I buy wines, and I buy wines that are 85 or 86, not below that. But to me 90 is a special score and should be considered “outstanding” for its type.”

    WHEN THE GENERAL PUBLIC TRIES TO MATCH UP RATINGS BETWEEN PUBLISHED REVIEWERS LOOKING FOR A “CONSENSUS,” THERE IS NONE – BECAUSE THE REVIEWER ORIENTATIONS ARE DIFFERENT.

    A “BEST BUY” WINE RATED (SAY) 85 POINTS BY PARKER – WHICH HE MIGHT WILLINGLY PURCHASE FOR HIS PERSONAL CONSUMPTION – MIGHT (IF RATED 80-84 POINTS BY YOU) BE REJECTED AS “NOT ONE I WOULD WISH TO DRINK.”

    THAT’S WHY PARKER GOT IT RIGHT WHEN HE UNDERSCORED THE IMPORTANCE OF READING THE WRITTEN REVIEW:

    “Parker: … The newsletter was always meant to be a guide, one person’s opinion. The scoring system was always meant to be an accessory to the written reviews, tasting notes. That’s why I use sentences and try and make it interesting. Reading is a lost skill in America. There’s a certain segment of my readers who only look at numbers, but I think it is a much smaller segment than most wine writers would like to believe. The tasting notes are one thing, but in order to communicate effectively and quickly where a wine placed vis-à-vis its peer group, a numerical scale was necessary. If I didn’t do that, it would have been a sort of cop-out.”

    READING THE REVIEW AND NOTING THE “STYLE” OF THE WINE IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE NUMERICAL SCORE. AND NOTING THE “STYLISH PREFERENCES” OF THE WINE REVIEWER IS EQUALLY IMPORTANT.

    AS PARKER HAS SAID ABOUT A SINGLE POINT DIFFERENCE BETWEEN RATED WINES:

    “ . . . Readers often wonder what a 100-point score means, and the best answer is that it is pure emotion that makes me give a wine 100 instead of 96, 97, 98 or 99.”

    [Source: Robert Parker, The Wine Advocate (unknown issue from 2002)]

    ~~ BOB

  10. Steve, O hear what you are saying. You’ve obviously spent more time thinking about this than I have, so maybe everything does even out. But I wasn’t just talking about price vs. quality, but context in general. It seems like certain varietals, regions, or styles (depending on the critic) seem to always earn higher or lower scores. Hence a 90-point rose is considered outstanding, but a 90-point napa cab is considered average.
    I think my qualm is less with the price v. quality issues, and more about the fact that wines are all rated on one giant scale. The word Russ Raney always uses is “typicity”, which is to say that a wine should taste the way it is supposed to taste. By that scale, you could have a 100-point $8 wine, if it tastes the way an $8 should

  11. Are you aware of the price before tasting?

  12. * I hear what you are saying, not O hear what you are saying

  13. “Magazine (and website) of the “masses”” then gives 14 William Selyem wines top scores when on 14 people outside of the Bay area can get their hands on them. Nice one.

  14. Bob Henry says:

    Gabe,

    To your comment:

    “I think my qualm is less with the price v. quality issues, and more about the fact that wines are all rated on one giant scale.”

    Parker rates on TWO scales (but rarely publicizes this fact):

    50 to 90 points for wines that don’t improve with bottle age;
    50 to 100 points for wines that “could” (or “should”?) improve with bottle age.

    The pertinent quotes from that same 1989 Wine Times interview cited above:

    “Wine Times: How is your scoring system different from The Wine Spectator’s?

    “Parker: Theirs is really a different animal than mine, though if someone just looks at both of them, they are, quote, two 100-point systems. Theirs, in fact, is advertised as a 100-point system; mine from the very beginning is a 50-point system. If you start at 50 and go to 100, it is clear it’s a 50-point system, and it has always been clear. Mine is basically two 20-point systems with a 10-point cushion on top for wines that have the ability to age.

    . . .

    “Wine Times: But how do you split the hairs between an 81 and an 83?

    “Parker: It’s a fairly methodical system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [balance of] 10 points are … simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble. …

    “Parker: … My system applies best to young wines because older wines, once they’ve passed their prime, end up getting lower scores.

    . . .

    “Wine Times: Do you have a bias toward red wines? Why aren’t white wines getting as many scores in the upper 90s? Is it you or is it the wine?

    “Parker: Because of that 10-point cushion. Points are assigned to the overall quality but also to the potential period of time that wine can provide pleasure. …

    . . .

    “Wine Times: So it’s the aging potential that is the key factor that gets a wine into the 90s.

    “Parker: Yes. And it goes back to how I evaluate vintages in general. To me the greatness of a vintage is assessed two ways: 1) its ability to provide great pleasure — wine provides, above all, pleasure; 2) the time period over which it can provide that pleasure.”

    ~~ Bob

  15. Scott: Like I said, I try to speak to everyone.

  16. Dear John K: I am not. How could I be, if the wine is in a paper bag among 15 others?

  17. doug wilder says:

    I don’t look at prices either until I am finished writing the note, Steve. Though I don’t taste blind.

  18. Gabe sez: ” The word Russ Raney always uses is “typicity”, which is to say that a wine should taste the way it is supposed to taste. By that scale, you could have a 100-point $8 wine, if it tastes the way an $8 should”.

    Therein lies the problem. So many people judge a wine because that’s how it’s “supposed to taste”. Tiny minds for tiny people.
    Back in the ’70′s, when PinotNoir in Calif was starting to get some traction, the holy grail was to make a SantaCruzMtn Pinot that tasted like RedBurg”. And David & Ken actually did a pretty good job of doing that….except they didn’t have the classic merde of great RedBurg. But, eventually Calif Pinot makers gave up on trying to replicate great RedBurg and started making the best Pinot that Calif could produce…..truly great Calif Pinot. And the rest is history.
    Same story w/ the poor Nebbiolo folks in Calif & WashState. People will try a truly great perfumey/aromatic/light/delicate PasoRobles Nebbiolo and reject it out of hand because it doesn’t taste like it’s “supposed to”, that is, great Barolo/Barbaresco. But it does taste like great Nebbiolo…just with a different voice. You just gotta listen and you realize..”Yup, that’s Nebbiolo”.
    Tom

  19. TomHill, I don’t look for “the way the wine is supposed to taste.” I look for inherent quality. I’ve encountered, e.g., Pinot Noirs that were too full-bodied and rich to be “classic” Pinot Noir but that were still very good, and I gave them high scores. I might warn readers that the wine is not typical of its variety, but I don’t hold that against it.

  20. When Russ is talking about typicity, he usually is referring to regions of France that I have never heard of. I was simply trying to say that if a rose tastes fruity and dry and refreshing on a cold day, than that’s a 100-point rose in my book. I’m not a wine critic, and respect how difficult it must be to assign a numerical value to a wine tasted blind. I just wish we could grade wines on a curve, instead of punishing a $10 california merlot because it doesn’t taste like petrus.

  21. gabe, well as usual you raise good points. In a perfect world, all would be as you wish.

  22. thanks Steve. You’re a 100-point wine writer 8-)

  23. Bob Henry says:

    Gabe,

    Continue to enjoy your warm weather rosés without having a second thought about how they might score on the “mediocre scale” in the wine press.

    (They were my “gateway” wine as a college student — and the best I ever tasted domestically came from Simi when they crafted one from the revered 1974 Cabernet Sauvignon vintage).

    Just don’t expect to see a “100 point” score attached to a rosé by Robert Parker.

    “Perfection” in such non-Champagne rosés (citing his 1989 Wine Times interview) is “90 points.”

    No award of “bonus points” above 90 for the ability to “improve with time in the bottle.”

    And yet . . . how many wine enthusiasts ignorantly turn up their noses when presented with the opportunity to buy and drink WA 90 – scoring rosés?

    ~~ Bob

    As for what to drink on a hot day, Robert Mondavi (“himself”) purportedly put ice cubes in his beloved Napa Valley Cabernet to turn it into a Summertime “quaffer.”

    (I would alternately suggest chilling a glass of wine with ice cubes made from that same varietal wine: they lower the temperature without diluting the beverage. They also work well deglazing a pan.)

  24. GrapesRGreat says:

    The question I would ask would be which of an 80 point score or a 22 point score would ultimately work to sell more wine? Is it better to get the publicity of being in the magazine or to “never see the light of day” with such a low score?

    I suppose that may well also depend heavily on the price of the wine in question.

  25. GrapesRGreat, I don’t know how to answer that!

  26. Michael Donohue says:

    This is all so much hooey – if you’ve been in this game any time at all you’ll realize that today’s 81 might be tomorrow’s 90 if served at the right temp. at the right hour, with the right companion and the right meal and vice versa…I suffer from second bottle syndrome, wherein the second bottle of Ch. X (days, weeks or minutes later) is rarely, if ever, as good as the first…what is up with that? I harken back to the old days: if a wine scores under 90, you can’t sell it and if scores over 90 you can’t find it!

  27. Steve, “exclusively review what I call “supermarket wines” (and I’m sure you know what I mean).” Well, it has been a while since I was in the supermarkets of California, but in New Hampshire, the markets that mostly concern me are all up scaling with bin selections that often have wine tasters notes and score higher than 90 points, and many of those notes are yours:)
    Sorry to be so late to this nuanced if not uncommon discussion, and I agree with the challenge of your first sentence’s question; whether a bad bottle or a “bad” wine, what does the purchaser of these wines do? Who wants to drive back to the supermarket to return a $9 bottle of wine (time, haggling, and gas considerations)? I just pour them out or deglaze:(

  28. Bob Henry says:

    Dear “GrapesRGreat” and Michael Donohue,

    Regarding:

    “Is it better to get the publicity of being in the magazine or to “never see the light of day” with such a low score?”

    Out here in La-La-Land (Hollywood), there is a timeless saying:

    “All publicity is good publicity.”

    Getting your wine covered by a magazine — better still, with your label reproduced (as a memory jog for the reader later shopping the wine aisle) — is a “net positive.”

    Regarding:

    “. . . if you’ve been in this game any time at all you’ll realize that today’s 81 might be tomorrow’s 90 if served at the right temp. at the right hour, with the right companion and the right meal . . .”

    That’s the zeitgeist of wine. And why one reviewer’s “take” on the same wine differs from another reviewer’s — hence no “consensus.”

    Regarding:

    “I suffer from second bottle syndrome, wherein the second bottle of Ch. X (days, weeks or minutes later) is rarely, if ever, as good as the first . . .”

    There is bottle-to-bottle viability within a single case of wine because:

    1) the wines were bottled from different barrels;
    2) the wines are subject to the relative failure of the corks;
    3) myriad other causes.

    Your palate also changes over time.

    The late Canadian wine writer Andrew Sharp wrote a wonderful guide on this subject titled “Winetaster’s Secrets.”

    [Link: http://www.amazon.com/Winetasters-Secrets-Step-Step-Winetasting/dp/1894622472

    Robert Parker, Jr. review:

    “An extremely well written book with the most informative and perceptive chapters on wine tasting I have read. This is the finest book for both beginners and serious wine collectors about the actual tasting process — lively, definitive and candid.”

    Backgrounder:

    http://v1.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/LAC.20000411.OBSHAR/BDAStory/BDA/deaths

    ~~ Bob

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