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How I choose wines for my tastings

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As you may know if you read me regularly, I’ve been having some wonderful wine tastings with my friends at Jackson Family Wines. Over the last 1-1/2 years we’ve done multiple sessions of mainly California wines: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rhone blends and so on. Our next theme is sparkling wine. It’s been, like, forever since I went to a bubbly tasting, so I’m particularly excited.

When I set up these tastings, I first develop the theme. But then it’s time to choose the wines. There are so many choices that you have to have some kind of system, and I do. I realize it may not be perfect, but what system is?

My initial criterion is to pick wines I, myself, have given high scores to. It’s been a while since I was an everyday critic, but not that long. Of course, you can learn a lot from tasting average, or even mediocre, wines, and I’ve included some of those in my tastings. But for the most part, I want to try wines that are high-end, and the best way to do that, IMHO, is to look at critical scores.

Here are the critics I routinely check out: Robert Parker/Wine Advocate; Wine Spectator; Antonio Galloni’s Vinous; and my former employer, Wine Enthusiast. I have subscriptions to three of them; Enthusiast doesn’t charge (I think they should, but that’s not my call). I also try and look at Food & Wine and a few other publications, but those four are my must-sees.

If all of the major critics give a specific wine a high score, it’s a go for my tastings. Usually, the critics are pretty close. Someone may give something 96 points, someone else may give it 92 points, but that’s okay, it’s ballpark. Every once in a while, I come across a wine somebody gave mid-90s and somebody else scored mid- or even low 80s. The lesson is that sometimes the critics can’t agree amongst themselves. In that case, it’s fun to see how my score, under blind conditions, matches up to the other critics’. My impression, which is simply that—an impression, not the result of a database crunch—is that Galloni and Parker tend to give higher scores to California wines than Wine Spectator. Wine Enthusiast is less predictable. But then, they’ve had some turnover in their California coverage.

I wonder how people who don’t like the critics or the 100-point system go about choosing wines for tasting. In Europe you can always do hierarchical tastings since they have formal tiers, but here in California, we don’t. You can’t do a First Growths of Napa Valley the way you can in Bordeaux. Some writers try to get around this absence of rankings by producing their own: I Googled “first growths of napa valley” and got 4,180 results. These can be interesting to read, but they have problems: They’re only the writer’s opinion, the writers may not have had access to everything (who does?), and even worse, the rankings change over time. One year Chateau Montelena is in; the next, it’s not, and Futo is, or Kenzo, or Yao Ming, or some other newcomer. So if I was doing a Napa Cabernet tasting (and I haven’t yet, but I will), I’d make things simple for myself by looking up what the major critics say. Of course, that doesn’t mean I’ll be able to get the wines I want! I have some pretty good connections, but even for me, some of these wines are totally impossible to buy.

At any rate, comparative tasting, done blind, is one of the most thrilling and instructive things a wine writer can do. In fact, it’s a prerequisite for the job. I’m very fortunate that Jackson Family Wines gives me the budget for it. I sure couldn’t afford to do it on my own!

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Do we readers of your blog assume that the Napa tasting will be conducted by AVA? Same vintage? (“Apples to apples” comparison.)

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Given that your next theme tasting is (domestic?) sparkling wine, it would be instructive for you and your judging panel to break out winemaker* Harold Osborne’s Kristone sparkling wines from JFW’s library and see if they made “old bones.”

    Likewise bottles of Chateau St. Jean’s (seven years on the lees) sparklers from the 1980s.

    Kristone mentioned here:

    http://specsfinewine.com/california-2/california/california-sparkling-wines/

    (*Quoting Frank Prial’s New York Times “Wine Talk” column dated December 6, 1995:

    “Harold Osborne, the wine maker who helped make Schramsberg’s reputation in the 70’s, is the wine maker for Kristone.”)

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