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Which gives a fairer score, a single taster or a panel?


I taste alone, but I’ve been on enough panels to last a lifetime. I was reminded of all this today when I went to the New York Times’ Wines of the Times, where their tasting panel went through a bunch of California Sauvignon Blancs. I tend to focus on Eric Asimov’s blog, The Pour, and I tend to forget they also have their panel in New York.

Here in sunny California, the best known panels are the big wine competitions, like the Orange County Fair’s and the San Francisco Chronicle’s. These are where hundreds of wines pass through the palates of many judges over the course of several days. Gradually, the losers are eliminated and the winners get their golds, double golds and so forth.

I don’t trust competitions like these, and I think it’s silly when wineries brag about having won a medal in them. How can a big group of people judge a wine? Committees lack a unifying vision; opposite views cancel each other out, politics intrude, there’s no consistency. Personality comes into play. The average usually wins out over the unique. Wine competitions represent the triumph of the banal.

Another problem with big wine competitions — and it’s one they’re reluctant to share with the public — is that the better wineries refuse to submit bottles for them. Why should they? They have little to gain, and a lot to lose. If you sift through all the entries in the big competitions, you tend to find supermarket wines, or wines from modest wineries looking for anything they can find to promote themselves. When you’re some struggling little operation out in the boonies, I guess it’s better to have a bronze medal from the Topeka State Fair than nothing at all.

I realize consumers are swayed by these things. Lots of tasting rooms are literally plastered with medals and ribbons they’ve won over the years, and it must be impressive for unawares tourists to see them. But I think insiders understand that the sum total of all those ribbons means little.

The most consistent wine reviews must come from single tasters. Nothing has to be debated. You don’t have to add 2 and 8 for a total of 10, then divide it in half and come up with a five. It’s either 2, or it’s 8. Consumers who feel the need for guidance can learn which reviewers they like and trust and which to be wary of. And along these lines, I stumbled across a funny post on a blog called DenoPhile. Here it is:

Why Heimoff Pisses me OFF!

Okay…I have had it with his constant slamming of Zins with high alchohol content. Every single review he writes goes something like this:

87 pts: While this wine exhibits blah, blah, blah…it is far too high in alchohol…blah, blah, blah and is too hot on the palate…blah, blah, stinkin BLAH!

I suggest that they assign him to the North Pole after global warming and he can write about ice wine and lower alchohol whites;-)

[This is Steve again] Please check out our Editors Blogs at Wine Enthusiast’s UnReserved.

  1. Single tasters. If a 3-person panel scores wines 95, 80, 80 – so giving it an 85, you lose.

    I questioned Eric Asimov about his panel scores about 20 months ago and he told me that his tasting panels scores are more him than the random others for that week. (Whew!) He’ll also mention that someone else really loved a wine compared to him when that’s the case (or so I’ve noticed).

    High Alcohol zins – Until they’re labeled as Dessert Wines, they shouldn’t get a break. 🙂

  2. Morton Leslie says:

    Everyone has different tastes and wines with strong characteristics generate strong opinions in wine judging. I have found it’s human nature when scoring wines to really dump on a wine when you don’t like it, but to be a bit more conservative when you do. You see this in panel tastings where either by average score or forced ranking the highest score goes to a good, middle of the road, likable wine rather than to the “outstanding” wines. By outstanding I mean standing out. Rarely will the winning wine be any individual tasters favorite.

    So panel tastings will pick wines that are the least objectionable to the average consumer. Their choice is plain, white, soft, Wonder Bread and Two Buck Chuck. Guaranteed that you will be able to swallow it, rarely something you will love or hate.

    Also, it’s my experience that while all the big competitions spend a lot of effort making the tasting blind, they allow and make no attempt to discourage table talk about the wines amongst the judges while they are judging them. Some panels just sit, taste and talk continuously. On others you have some idiot next to you groaning about some perceived bad wine and then, when they see you are ignoring them, get louder and more emphatic, eventually blurting out which wine it is they have the problem. One judge, no longer with us, was famous for his loud spitting, choking, coughing, sputtering sounds during tasting and a wet dribbled stain down his front. Not exactly conducive to concentration and the source of many a behind the scenes negotiation to get off his panel.

  3. Morton, we are in agreement! I think I know who that coughing critic was. Thanks for pointing out another flaw in group tastings — that people give off body language and utterances that can influence their neighbors.

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