I was pleased to read yesterday that Wine Enthusiast is considered to be one of the two most influential wine magazines in America.
That’s the result of a survey taken by respected veteran market analyst, John Gillespie, who runs Wine Opinions, which describes itself as “the only Internet research organization devoted exclusively to wine.” (John also is President of the Wine Market Council. You may not have heard of it, but it’s a hugely important wine industry trade group whose Board of Directors includes Michael Mondavi, my friend Xavier Barlier of Maisons Marques & Domaines, Mel Dick of Southern Wine & Spirits, and the publisher of Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Adam Strum.)
There are several nuggets of interest buried in the Wine Opinions survey. Besides the obvious good news about Wine Enthusiast (which I don’t think is particularly surprising, as it’s been generally known in the industry for years), the other point John makes is that even more influential than any wine magazine or newsletter is “a wine knowledgeable friend” [or] sommelier.”
As an anecdotal example of this, John is quoted in the article as saying, “If you work at Binny’s [Beverage Depot] in Chicago and you have worked years to get [wine] certifications, and two people walk into your store and one leans into the other’s ear and says, ‘Buy that one,’ you’re finished. You can’t do your job. That must be frustrating.”
Indeed it must be. That’s the power of peer review, or word of mouth, whatever you want to call it. We all know that a friend’s recco is the strongest thing there is, particularly if the recommendee believes that the recommender knows what he’s talking about.
I do have a question, though. What percentage of wine do people buy based on a personal recommendation (from a friend or somm), as opposed to a score or review originally published in a magazine? I bet you it’s an extremely low percentage. I mean, Sure, if you walk into Binny’s with the guy in your office who’s known for his wine connoisseurship, and he tells you to buy bottle “x,” of course you’ll buy it, even if you see a bunch of shelf talkers touting 96 point wines, because he’s your friend, he means well, and his knowledge is far greater than yours.
But is every wine shopper accompanied by a trusted friend? I don’t think so. That’s not really how people shop. The way people really shop is to walk up and down the infamous Wall of Wine alone, trying to figure out what the heck to buy for dinner that night. There is no “wine knowledgeable friend” around. There’s not even a wine knowledgeable staff person around. The shopper is on her own, adrift in a sea of labels. As for buying on the advice of a sommelier, I do that whenever I eat at a nice restaurant. But I don’t eat out very often, and I suspect most other people don’t, either. Probably 90% of the wines people drink are at home, wines they themselves bought in a store.
This is precisely when the professional review has impact. The shopper may be aware of it through a shelf talker or bottle-necker, or perhaps an ad in the local newspaper. Scores and reviews are remarkably fungible things. Once they are born in a magazine or newsletter, they are apt to make their way around the world, through a variety of media and means, especially in our digital age.
So my feeling (not based on scientific research, obviously, but it makes sense) is that, while people might rate “the recommendation of a trusted friend” or a sommelier higher on a survey than “a score or review in a wine magazine or newsletter,” the majority of their wine purchases actually are influenced by scores and reviews. Which is just another way of saying that wine periodicals, including Wine Enthusiast, play a vital role in influencing wine buying patterns in the U.S.
The number of corked wines is definitely lower than it used to be. I’d estimate about 1 in every 30 bottles is notably tainted by TCA. It used to be about 1 in every 12 (humans vary widely in their sensory threshold to TCA; I’m about average), so let’s give credit to the cork industry for improved performance.
Wnen I say “1 in every 30 bottles” I mean that 30th wine reeks of mold to the point where I detect it immediately on pulling the cork, in an “Ugh!” reaction that is always unpleasant. However, a new study on the effects of 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) leads me to worry more about the impact of sub-threshold TCA, which is far more common than overtly corked bottles.
The study acknowledges that TCA has long “been thought [to introduce] off-flavor substances [and] unpleasant smells” in affected wines. That would be the Ugh! factor. But the scientists also found–and this is the key sentence–“that …TCA…inhibits ciliary transduction channels…even at extremely low…concentrations.”
Lots of verbiage here, so let’s break it down.”Ciliary” is the adjectival form of the noun “cilia,” which are short, hairlike outgrowths from cells. “Transduction” is the transfer of energy from one system to another–in this case, the transfer of olfactory sensations (smells) from the wine to our nose and brain. This energy transference occurs through the cilia in our olfactory neurons; they are the receptors that are stimulated by external odors, which then are passed along to the brain via olfactory nerve channels.
The worrisome aspect of this statement lies in its implications: Even if a wine does not smell overtly moldy or corky, there may still be enough TCA in it (“extremely low concentrations”) for its vinous aromatics to be inhibited or tamped down. This means that the wine will lack a vibrant aroma. If you’re a wine taster, you know that the aroma is possibly more important in judging a wine than anything else. It is certainly the first important signal (other than the color) that the taster receives about the wine (discounting foolishness like the weight of the bottle and length of the cork), and thus is likely to shape the taster’s subsequent [oral/flavor/palate] impressions. A wine whose aroma does not attract the taster’s attention is unlikely to be one he will signal out for praise.
I wonder how many dull, inert wines I review are actually infected with extremely small quantities of TCA, sub-threshold but with a consequent inhibiting effect on the aroma. It’s impossible to know, of course, without sending everything to a laboratory for testing. So my advice to the cork industry is to intensify their efforts to make every cork in the world 100% TCA-free.
P.S. I apologize if you’ve been experiencing access issues the last two days with my blog. My web host has been having huge server problems. Next week, I’m going over to a Linux server which, they say, will make everything faster and more dependable.
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.
One of the most pleasurable bottles of wine I ever drank was a 1978 Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon, with a Monterey County appellation. I’d just moved to San Francisco and was poor, renting an unheated apartment, in the dead of winter, in the Ingleside District, just below Top of the Hill Daly City (and if you know that neighborhood, you know that it’s a cold, foggy, working class, decidedly unglamorous place, then as well as now).
That wine was the first Cabernet Sauvignon I’d ever consciously purchased, as a varietal wine to try and understand the meaning of “Cabernet Sauvignon”. It probably cost all of $3. I remember sitting at my desk, on that chilly December night, shivering in my bones, but delighting in the velvet caress of the wine. I took notes, recording every facet of the tasting experience: the texture, the flavors, the body, the finish. (At that time, I did not know that Monterey Cabernet was under fierce attack by critics.) With that act, I had opened the door to becoming a true wine lover: more than opened it, I had marched proudly right through it, never to go back again.
These memories came rushing back to me when I read these words in Pete Townshend’s superb memoir, Who I Am (HarperCollins, 2012): Referring to a family vacation he’d taken in the early 1970s through the South of France, Pete writes: “When we shopped, Karen [his wife] and I bought huge flagon-baskets of cheap local wine–tasting better than claret…”.
Who knows what the Townshends drank? Probably at the time not even they knew. Perhaps it was a modest little Vin de Pays d’Oc. (A “flagon,” by the way, is a sort of pitcher or rustic bottle; the word, of Latin origin, is related to the Italian fiasco, the traditional straw-matted Chianti bottle.) Yet the memory of that wine, and the pleasure it gave him, remained in Pete Townshend’s mind for 40 years. (And how many of his memories of Lafite, Cristal or Dom perished in that time span?)
Is there any more proof that wine need not be famous and expensive in order to have such lasting impact? Here’s Hemingway, from A Moveable Feast: “As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
We know as little of what wine the narrator drank with those oysters as we know of the Townshends’ South of France wine. It could have been a minerally Muscadet-Sevre et Maine, or maybe even a simple Petit Chablis. Whatever it was, it likely was not costly. Yet it formed a sense impression on Hemingway that not only persisted, but was so brightly etched in his mind that he labored to express it in words.
The point, I guess, is that any wine, from anywhere, can make you happy. That is wine’s glory and distinction. It’s why I’ve always had an anti-elitist attitude. The point of view that only famous, acclaimed wines are worth anyone’s attention is repugnant to me. Of course, I have my own opinions, which I express freely in my job as a wine critic, but I never lose sight of the fact that they’re just opinions. Someone, somewhere, is going to fall in love with a wine I give 84 points to, and that’s just how it should be. Salud!
By the way: Was there a wine that stands out in your memory?
My Tasting Director at Wine Enthusiast, Lauren Buzzeo, who has a hard job but carries it off with aplomb, sent us reviewers a link to this article yesterday. It’s a defense of tasting notes by a Washington State guy who runs the wine department in a grocery store.
He begins by postulating that “Most of the stuff I have read lately suggests that tasting notes are a complete waste of time, and most people do not even pay attention to them.” He then proceeds, logically and patiently, to demolish this theory. Then, based on his own experiences with his customers, he concludes that “Tasting notes have an important place in the wine world. They give the consumer some insight into what they are to expect out of a wine.”
I’ve written endlessly about this topic on steveheimoff.com. As the Washington State writer noted, the issue of whether or not tasting notes are irrelevant “seems to be the hottest debate on most of the wine blogs or wine related blogs and websites these days.” As I’ve repeatedly pointed out, the fact is, quite obviously, that consumers do like to read tasting notes. As the writer stated, his customers love them–and by extension, that means that customers around the country feel a need and desire for expert tasting notes, for why would Washington State wine consumers be any different from those elsewhere?
But that’s not the point I want to make…again. Instead, I want to answer this question the Washington State guy posed: “Why are so many wine writers taking a negative stance towards tasting notes?” He himself posited a few possible reasons: (1) these critics don’t actually sell wine, so they don’t get the kind of positive feedback about tasting notes that he does; (2) the critics simply aren’t very good at writing tasting notes, so they prefer to just sit back and make fun of them instead of trying to do it themselves.
Both of these are completely true, but I’d like to offer a third reason for the continual bashing of reviews by certain writers: Jealousy. They can’t stand the idea that some wine writers actually make a living at writing wine reviews. If you look at who the review-bashers are, they’re mostly bloggers, and you know what that means: They’d love for somebody to pay them to be professional wine writers, but no one will, so their only outlet is their blog. I sometimes think the fierce attack we published critics come under is also motivated by the hope by these bloggers that somehow their criticisms will tarnish us so much that we’ll eventually fall, and guess who would take our places? The bloggers!
So I’d like to propose an end to this silly non-debate about whether or not tasting notes are useless or irrelevant. It is the biggest non-issue in the wine industry today. The only reason it gets any play at all is because the Internet is free and immediate, so anyone can make any idiotic claim they want, and launch it around the world with the push of a button. I will end simply by quoting the Washington State guy: “I write [tasting notes] for the consumer. I could care less what another columnist thinks about my notes and I certainly don’t agree with their criticism of the notes themselves.”
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.