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17. Tasting


Gertrude’s death, however impactful, could be only a pause for me. My work and life went on.

The first decade of the new century ushered in the high point of my wine writing career. Wine Enthusiast was gaining traction in the competition with Wine Spectator. In the 1990s, the magazine had been viewed—if it was viewed at all–rather dismissively by the industry. For several years, in a colossal mistake, the Enthusiast had even hired an outside firm to review wines, instead of relying on its own writers. That was a real blow to its credibility; moreover, some people, including me, saw that outside firm as hopelessly conflicted. For example, they charged wineries money to review their wines—a huge no-no for a legitimate publication. The other writers and I eventually were successful in convincing management to let us do the critical reviews.

When they did, the wine arrived in Niagaresque quantities. At some point, I couldn’t handle all the work by myself—receiving boxes, opening them, inventorying wines into the magazine’s database, recycling cardboard and Styrofoam (an infernal substance that should be illegal), and so on, not to mention the hours of actual reviewing. So I hired an intern, Chuck, for the basic stuff. He remained with me, at very modest pay, for many years, until I retired. I am indebted to Chuck, if he happens to read this—but he already knows that.

Every wine reviewer develops his or her tasting rules, and I had mine. The late, great French enologist, Emile Peynaud, has written about this with greater insight than anyone else (his “The Taste of Wine” [1987] is indispensable to any serious taster’s library). Peynaud makes several points that are worth repeating. Here are a few, in italics, followed by my brief comments:

“Winetasting is to taste a wine with care in order to appreciate its quality…to submit it to examination by our senses. Too technical a vocabulary and circumlocutions are often primary obstacles to communication.”

Over the course of my reviewing career, I followed Thoreau’s advice: Simplify, simplify, simplify! My written reviews eventually reached haiku-like compression. Part of my objection to the new spate of wine blogs was the very circumlocution of which Peynaud wrote, the bloatedly purple prose that was so easy to ridicule.

“Winetasting is the rationalization of an epicurean activity. To be appreciated, wine demands attention and contemplation; and the appeal of tasting is enhanced if one can analyze it.”

This is why tasting is necessarily done in quiet surroundings, alone if possible; if not, then at least with like-minded individuals, in a contemplative environment. The worst place to taste formally is those gigantic consumer tastings; they can be fun and useful, but not for contemplative analysis.

“Tasting is said to be at once an art and a science; it can be learned, it can be taught.” And: ”To taste effectively one must love wine…Practically anyone can learn to taste well if he or she is prepared to make the effort.”

This is why I always maintained that you don’t have to be born with some kind of super-palate in order to be a professional wine taster. I certainly wasn’t! You just have to be dedicated.

“Suggestion is the insinuated thought, the idea planted in someone’s mind. When a winetaster has a tasting problem…he is wide open to suggestion [and] easily influenced and easily led astray.”

This is why Wine Enthusiast, and indeed all reputable publications, tastes “blind,” that is, with the bottles bagged, so that the taster cannot be influenced by knowledge of what the wine is. It’s also why tasting at the winery, with the winemaker, is a bad idea. Winemakers will tell you how the wine tastes while you’re tasting it, in an effort to influence you.

Peynaud insists on regularity of routine. “A taster’s working environment will have the greatest influence on his tasting efficiency. He gets used to a particular tasting room and his best results are obtained in his everyday surroundings.”

Ninety-five percent of my reviews over the years were conducted in my home. I typed them into my computer, using the same desk and chair I use today. You want to be comfortable and relaxed, and to eliminate, as much as possible, unexpected interruptions.

Peynaud is not dogmatic concerning the time of day tasting should be done. The conventional wisdom in the industry is that morning is best—that’s when many winemakers prefer to taste–because the palate allegedly is “rested.” I found that I preferred mid- or late-afternoon. I am particularly sensitive to the physical effects of alcohol, and if I tasted fifteen wines at, say, 9 a.m., I felt the impact for the rest of the day. That would have led to negative consequences for my daily physical workout at the gym—and Peynaud strongly urges professional tasters to stay in top physical shape.

Probably nothing in all of wine criticism has been more controversial, more hotly debated than the 100-point system, which is the one Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate all employ. Since I worked for Wine Enthusiast, I was required to use it; had I been in a different situation, I might have used something else. But I defended the 100-point system against its many detractors this way: People inherently understand the 100-point system of rating things, since most of us were graded throughout school on that basis. Besides, Wine Enthusiast published an interpretive guide explaining, in plain English, what the scores meant (for example, 98-100 points meant “classic,” whereas 80-82 meant “acceptable).

The most common critique of the 100-point system was expressed this way: “How can you assign a number to the wine? What’s the difference between, say, 87 points and 88 points?” To this, I could reply only that the taster who is conversant with the 100-point system “feels” the score in his bones. (It’s also possible to break the system down into categories; for instance, aroma might be worth so many points, finish or aftertaste so many points, and so on.) In the end, I always acknowledged a certain built-in irrationality to the 100-point system, but I felt that any system had its irrational ingredients. Ultimately, vox populi; consumers could take or leave the 100-point system, and the fact that so many didn’t seem to mind it—indeed, liked it—was a powerful factor in its favor. (And by the way, more than one blogger who at first hated the 100-point system eventually adopted it.)

What saints are to the Catholic Church, what the Hall of Fame is to baseball players, so too is a perfect score of 100 points the pinnacle of perfection for wine. I gave only a handful of perfect scores during my years of reviewing, for a simple reason. If you think about it, it’s impossible to evaluate a wine all by itself; evaluation is a comparative exercise. It means that in any “flight,” or series of wines, one is better than the rest, one is the least of the litter, and so on, with all the others falling somewhere in between. Most of my perfect and highest scores occurred in large tastings (more than 50 wines), in which a single wine clearly stood out from its neighbors consistently over the hours-long duration of the tasting.

But I found myself loathe to be promiscuous about awarding 100 points. Perfection in anything is, or ought to be, rare; if it’s common, it defiles the notion of perfection. So it is with wine. At the same time, I was equally reluctant to trash a wine. Very few wines, at least in California, are undrinkable (and remember, I didn’t taste the state’s cheapest wines, the Central Valley jugs and boxes on the bottom shelf of the supermarket; they simply weren’t in my portfolio). I could always find something positive to say about most wines. It’s just like your parents taught you: if you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all. Wine Enthusiast—properly, in my opinion–didn’t publish scores below 80 points. To do so would have been kicking a guy when he was already down on the ground and groaning. (And that meant, basically, that we were scoring on a twenty-point range, not 100 points. And twenty points is a lot easier to justify.)

I have this final remark to say about tasting: the minute I retired—which is to say, when I stopped being paid to review wines—I stopped reviewing the wines I drank. (I occasionally publish reviews on this blog, but only in the increasingly infrequent instances when wineries send me wines and ask me to write about them.) As Peynaud points out, there’s a world of difference between “tasting” wine and “drinking” it. I’m not a professional wine taster anymore, I’m a wine drinker; so there’s little point in getting all fussy and judgmental at the table. I’m happy just to drink a good red, white, rosé or bubbly. I lift my glass to the old maxim, “A day without wine is a day without sunshine,” although, to be honest, I’d add beer to the equation.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    Let me add this Peynaud quote:

    Excerpt from Slate
    (posted June 15, 2007):

    “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
    Why wine writers talk that way.”


    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    “In his book ‘The Taste of Wine,’ legendary French oenologist Emile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. ‘We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language,” he wrote. “It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image.’ . . .”

    Wine Enthusiast, Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate all employ the 100-point system — just not the same scale.

    Discussed here:

    “How many 100-point wine-quality scales are there?”


  2. Bob Henry says:

    The Wine Gourd wine blog link cited in my comment seems to be “broken.”

    Let try again:

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