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Thoughts on retasting a wine after a producer complains

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READERS: I’m reposting this from yesterday because my site was down for most of the day. Sorry for any hassles you experienced (and thanks to some of you for letting me know through Facebook and email). New post on corked wines tomorrow!

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It happened again yesterday. A producer, whose wine I reviewed a few months ago, got a score he didn’t like, and so has requested that I retaste the wine. So I thought this would be a good time to let the industry know my policy and thoughts on retasting.

My policy is, sure. Go ahead and resend the wine if you wish. As long as this doesn’t happen too often (and fortunately it doesn’t), I’m happy to retaste. If it started happening a lot, well, that’s a different story. I don’t want the 4,500 wines a year I taste to suddenly explode to 7,000!

That’s my official policy. Here are my thoughts. In 99 percent of requests for me to retaste, the producer suggests that it must have been a “bad bottle” that caused the middling score. (And by the way, producers complain about 87s! which by Wine Enthusiast definition is a Very Good wine. But that’s another story.) This phrase, “bad bottle,” has entered the lexicon and has come to be the default explanation for why a wine that should (based on certain assumed criteria) be quite exceptional turns out to be merely ordinary.

But what does “bad bottle” really mean? The first thing that comes to mind is that the bottle suffered during shipment, usually due to excessive heat in the delivery truck. That always is a possibility, and is why I always remind producers to CHECK THE 7-DAY WEATHER OUTLOOK BEFORE YOU SEND ME WINES! If there’s a heat wave coming up, wait until it’s over. And you don’t need a heat wave for the temperature to get very hot in the back of a steel delivery truck. This study shows how, when the outside temperature is only 82 degrees, the inside of a car with all the windows shut will quickly soar to 109 degrees.

What else can make for a “bad bottle”? I suppose there could be spoilage or bacterial issues, but these are actually very rare in California winemaking, and when I do encounter something that’s obviously spoiled (and if a second bottle concurs), I simply assign it 22 points, which means it’s buried, like nuclear waste, deep inside the bowels of Wine Enthusiast’s secure database.

Aside from that, when a producer suggests that a wine I gave an insufficient score to may have been a “bad bottle,” my feeling is that he’s clutching at straws (an old metaphor, whose first use may have been in this 1583 line from an English clergyman: “We do not as men redie to be drowned, catch at euery straw.”). The producer hopes that a resent bottle will miraculously soar in score, unlikely as this is to happen.

Incidentally, it’s of no interest to me that another critic gave the wine 94 points or whatever.

My experience with retasting is that the re-sent wine usually scores just about the same as the first time around. Sometimes, it scores lower (which surely defeats the producer’s purpose). But the take-home lesson is simply this: Producers love their own wines more than most of the rest of us do.

  1. Steve,

    Valid points, but I think you would have a different pov if every issue of WE needed a score in order for the majority of it to sell and for the financing to be in place for the subsequent issue…

    It doesn’t matter how producers feel about scores; buyers care about them.

    Positionality often dictates response, no? :)

  2. Steve,

    Regarding your comment . . .

    “But what does “bad bottle” really mean? . . . I suppose there could be spoilage or bacterial issues, but these are actually very rare in California winemaking . . .”

    . . . the reported incidence of TCA “cork taint” and brettanomyces spoilage yeast in bottled wines is a mid-to-high single digit percentage. You cannot rule out “bad bottles” reaching you as review samples.

    Citing Wine Spectator:

    “In 2005 . . . senior editor James Laube found that 7 percent of 2,800 bottles sampled during tastings that year were tainted. Laube recently reported similar findings this past year [2008].”

    [Link: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/40516

    News on those subjects . . .

    “Corked Wine Can ‘Shut Down’ the Nose”

    Scientists believe corked wine can taste awful because contaminants dampen the nose’s ability to smell.

    [Link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-24108094?print=true

    “Your Bottle of Fine Corked Wine Has a Bouquet of Wet Dog? Here’s Why”

    Now, researchers have found corked wine may smell so bad because the chemical culprit, rather than producing a yucky odor, actually suppresses the drinker’s sense of smell.

    [Link: http://www.nbcnews.com/science/your-bottle-fine-corked-wine-have-bouquet-wet-dog-heres-4B11174530

    “New Thinking in the Brett Debate”
    UC Davis researchers create brettanomyces aroma wheel.

    [Link: http://www.winesandvines.com/template.cfm?section=news&content=114296&htitle=New%20Thinking%20in%20the%20Brett%20Debate&

    ~~ Bob

  3. doug wilder says:

    Glad to see you back up, Steve. This is actually a timely article for me. For years I only requested a single bottle yet recently changed to asking for two. I wish I had started doing that earlier. Here is why – typically we want the second bottle available only when a wine is corked, that is easy to spot. But what about the instances where a wine gets reviewed poorly (and is not corked). Do you chalk it up to a bad bottle, or a general failure in the process? Over the last couple weeks I encountered several wines like this that in instances where I had a backup, it showed better. In one case the difference was just a little more wetness on the side of a cork that helped me make the connection. Rhetorically, should we be retasting every wine we score 83?

  4. Doug,

    Regarding your statement: “Rhetorically, should we be retasting every wine we score 83 [points]?”

    On your Purely Domestic Wine Report 100 point scoring scale, what words do you use to describe the comparative “quality” level of a wine assigned an 83 point score?

    Converting that numerical score to an academic letter grade, where would it fall on the “F” through “A” continuum?

    Would you ever buy for personal consumption a wine scoring 83 points?

    Steve commented in “Being kind to mediocre wine” [http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2013/08/02/being-kind-to-mediocre-wine/]:

    “… a score … (… under Wine Enthusiast’s rules) … [of] … 80 or 81 ([is] barely drinkable) … In general you can say that any wine I review that scores between 80-84 points is not one I would wish to drink; …”

    Over at Wine Spectator, a score of 83 points falls into the range of 80 to 89 points, which it describes as “Good to very good, a wine with special qualities.”

    Over at The Wine Advocate, a score of 83 points falls into the range of 80 and 89 points, “equivalent to a [letter grade] B in school . . .” And Parker has said: “I buy wines [for personal consumption], and I buy wines that are 85 or 86 [points], not below that.”

    Seems to me that an 83 point score connotes a “good” or “above average” wine . . . which most consumers would “assume” is a sign of praise.

    If you are both indifferent to wines scoring 83 points, then perhaps you should consider redrafting whatever words you use to assign a comparative quality level to them?

    Maybe the “new normal” is 80 points [not historically 70 to 75 points] connotes “average”?

    There appears to be a “Lake Wobegon effect” at work here: wines assigned otherwise praiseworthy comparative quality level words that are no more than “left-handed compliments.”

    ~~ Bob

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