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How do you evaluate wine blind, by typicity or by quality?



We (Jackson Family Wines) are having a winetasting in two weeks down in Monterey that will be hosted by myself and by one of JFW’s Master Sommeliers, Sur Lucero, who is not only an M.S. but a helluva nice guy. So he and I were talking about it over the phone, to discuss logistics, and I realized that the two of us are going to be tasting these wines—blind—in far different ways.

As Sur expressed it, he’ll be looking for typicity. Based on things like fruit, earthiness, tannins, acidity, wood, structure and so forth, he’ll be appraising the six wines to determine what they might be. I, on the other hand, will be assessing them the way I’m used to: qualitatively, according to the standards I employed at Wine Enthusiast. There, we rated wines on the 100-point system, which is sub-divided into a scale based on how good (or bad) the wines are on a quality basis.

(By the way, some people told me, when I quit Wine Enthusiast, that I ought to change my tasting procedure. I saw no reason to do that, and I still don’t.)

Typicity and quality: these are really two entirely different ways to evaluate wine. One, Sur’s approach, depends on a vast knowledge of the world’s major wine regions, accumulated over many years to such an extent that the taster is able to pass the extremely rigorous M.S. examination. The other approach, mine, couldn’t be more different. For one thing, professional wine critics are mostly regional. We develop an expertise at tasting the wines of a particular region, or perhaps of several regions, but very few critics claim to focus on all the wine regions of the world. Moreover, we’re looking for inherent quality, not typicity, which is the fundamental basis of assigning a point score.

All those years I was at Wine Enthusiast, I told myself—and I still do—that it’s not that important for a wine critic to have the worldwide palate of a Master Sommelier, because we have different jobs. The critic’s job is to hopefully develop expertise in his region, then to report faithfully on the wines, and finally offer consumers enough judgment and information so they can make an intelligent choice concerning whether or not to buy the wine. A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.

A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters. The critic by contrast tastes and reviews the wines that are presented to him. He’s not picking or choosing anything. He doesn’t care who buys the wine, or if anyone buys it. He doesn’t have to make a chef happy, or worry about a bottom line, the way a sommelier (who also is a restaurant wine buyer) has to. Thus, I told myself, my job entailed greater freedom than that of a somm.

I always was a bit concerned that, in focusing so heavily on California, I was missing out on the rest of the world’s wines. But it was unavoidable. I was tasting thousands of wines a year. There simply wasn’t time to explore France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, the New World and so on. I wished there had been, but…well, there just wasn’t.

Since our Monterey tasting will be blind—actually, double-blind, since neither of us will have any idea what the wines are, aside from their color (although they all will be JFW wines, which come from four continents)—I’m going to be a bit out of my element. As I explained to Sur, no critic who uses the 100-point system tastes double-blind, to my knowledge. At the big wine magazines and newsletters, they taste single-blind, meaning they know something about the flight: it might be 2012 Napa Cabernets, or Barolos over $30, or something similarly broad. That’s if they taste blind at all: open tasting seems to be the new normal for critics.

Now, single-blind is the way I’m used to tasting, and it’s actually my preference. When you know something about the wine, your mind works in a different way from when you know nothing. It makes assumptions. It has expectations. It rules certain things out, and certain things in. For example, if I know I’m tasting white Burgundy from a great vintage, I’m inclined to give the wines fairly high scores. Of course, the more I know, the less “blind” the tasting is. If I know that those white Burgundies are all premier crus—no village wines, no Grand Crus—that probably suggests I’m not going to be handing out 100s or 99s or maybe even 98s. But it also suggests I won’t be giving any low 80s either.

Some people complain, with justification, that having too much information invalidates the results of the tasting, even if the bottles are in paper bags, because the taster cannot be completely objective. That’s true, but it gets back to the different jobs of the critic and sommelier. As a critic, I don’t have to be completely objective. I have to be fair, and uninfluenced by monetary concerns or friendship, but ultimately my job is to deliver a clear, informed judgment on the wine. I always felt that I could do that even non-blind (and I think most professional critics agree), only there is a lot of pressure out there on critics to taste blind, so to some extent they do taste blind to satisfy that pressure.

However, as I said, lots of critics who used to taste blind (or said they did) have now abandoned the practice in favor of open tasting. And I have not heard a peep from anyone complaining about it. A few bloggers here and there might gripe, but they’re outliers. I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.

So I’ll be a little uncomfortable at our Monterey tasting, not with the quality part, but with the identification part. But I’m excited, too. No doubt I will learn something, not just about the wines but about how I think when I taste. This old dog can still learn new tricks.

  1. This business of identifying wines totally blind is great fun but has very little to do with real wine appreciation. The problem is that “typicity” does not exist except in the broadest of strokes.

    Most people define typicity by what they learned first. If you ask Dan Berger, he will tell you that CA Syrah have no typicity, by which he means that they do not remind him of the northern Rhone Syrahs. Now, I get the latter point but not the former. And it is the same with most varieties.

    Just to pick on Rutherford for a moment, I rather object to the Rutherford AVA because it covers wines that are very different from the eastern, sun-drenched hillsides to the deep soils of the valley floor to the alluvial fans on the westside known collectively to folks in the valley as the West Rutherford Bench. So how does one judge even Rutherford Cabs when they have varying structures and flavor profiles?

    That makes the judging of CA Cabs even more difficult. What is the model? Are, for example, Mr. Lucero’s models broadly inclusive or narrow? Can very ripe Syrah by “typical”? Do we toss out the biggest and best of the Barrossa? Do we judge Ballard Canyon Syrahs by the cold-climate Syrahs of the Russian River Valley’s western lands?

    There is a place for typicity if typicity is not narrow and exclusionary but does at least have a reference to some common traits across varying geographies and also allows for vineyard and winemaker preferences. That does not mean “all comers are equal if the label says Syrah”, but it does move the needle of judgment closer to your own personal preference of quality as a guide in evaluation.

  2. Typicity sounds like a dull criterion. Do the most typical wines rate the highest? Also, rating by typicity would also seem to cause you to downgrade an innovative treatment or a rare grape or a new region.

  3. Or by typicity do you also mean, classic?

  4. Russ Raney is the best winemaker I know, and he values typicity quite a bit. It seems foolish to give a Loire Cab Franc a low score because it doesn’t have the intensity of a Napa Cab.

  5. scrappymutt:
    “It seems foolish to give a Loire Cab Franc a low score because it doesn’t have the intensity of a Napa Cab.”

    I assume that means that you’re taking the “typicity” side of the argument? And if so, suppose there was a Napa Cab that actually tasted like a Loire Cab Franc. Isn’t it equally true to say “it seems foolish to give the same wine a lower score because it is a Napa Cab instead of a Loire Cab Franc”?

  6. Jim B,

    I do indeed fall on the side of typicity. And while I understand your argument, I simply disagree. If you order a hamburger and the waiter brings you a tuna sandwich, you would be upset, even if it was a very high quality tuna sandwich. So it is with typicity. If I buy a Loire Cab Franc, I don’t want something that tastes like a Napa Cab, and vice versa. To judge all these wines on the same spectrum is to ignore the very thing that makes them unique.

  7. But isn’t that what tasting notes in a review are for? Why not simply give the wine a score based on its quality, and note in the review, “not what I expected from a Napa cab — it’s more like a Loire Cab Franc — but an excellent wine nonetheless.”

    Who exactly are we worried about here? A hypothetical consumer who relies on numerical scores from critics, but can’t be bothered to read the review, yet knows enough about wine to know what a Napa cab is “supposed” to taste like and will be upset if those expectations are thwarted?

    I’m hard-pressed to think of any other area of criticism where it’s considered to be a critic’s job to enforce conformity to the pre-established norm.

    Imagine a film or book review that read:
    “In many ways this film is a delightful romantic comedy, but where was the sassy best friend? It’s not a traditional romantic comedy without the sassy best friend! I can only give this film two and a half stars.”
    “This novel is well-written and engaging, but I downgraded its score because I expect my midwestern white American male novelists to write like Jonathan Franzen, and this isn’t like him at all.”

  8. Jim B: Many, many are the times I wrote exactly what you said (or words to that effect): “Not typical,” “not what you’d expect, but very good nonetheless.” In other words, a lack of typicity doesn’t bother me. Besides, as I wrote, typicity almost doesn’t exist anymore.

  9. “Typicity almost does not exist any more”.

    And therein lies the problem with typicity. What is it?

    If a Loire Cab Franc ever actually tasted like a Napa Cab Sauv, then who is to say that it is not typical? Why because it does not taste like all the other Loire Valley Cab Francs, which do not all taste the same anyhow.

    The hamburger/tuna sandwich is a cute analogy but if it were a repeatable characteristic of meat grown in a certain place using a particular technique, then even the tuna sandwich takes on typicity of its own.

    But the real problem I have with typicity is the analysis of those who would argue that Russian River Pinot Noir is an outlier because it does not taste like Burgundy, and never mind that the range of Burgundian Pinot Noirs is not exactly narrow.

    How does Chablis have typicity? Only as Chablis. But then, if someone makes a Chard in New Zealand, is it supposed to taste like Chablis or hyphenated Montrachet or Carneros Chard? And what about the Musque clone of Chard or dirty Wente vs. cleanup Wente clone Chardonnay?

    Where does typicity begin and end?

    Drank a 75 Joe Swan Pinot at dinner tonight, at the closing ceremonies of the Bay Wolf in Oakland. It had a distinct berryish leaning, and a winemaker at the adjoining table, with whom I shared the bottle, said it reminded him of Joe Swan Zinfandel in its orientation. What is not typical, or does the treatment of the Pinot allow it to be typical but different?

    And where we not to enjoy the wine because it did not taste like Burgundy? Another winemaker who also tasted it said that the underlying acidity was reminiscent of Oregon? Does that now make the wine more typical?

    That is the problem with typicity. There are recognized norms in this wine evaluation and appreciation business, but they are not absolutes. They are simply means, as in averages, and they are averages based often on one place.

    Is Syrah to be judged by Hermitage, by Cote Rotie, by Cornas, by the Barossa, by Ballard Canyon, by the Sonoma Coast? Any one or two or all?

    When someone says they judge by “typicity”, the very first question to ask is “what are your definitions, your standards of measurement”?

  10. Bob Henry says:

    “I don’t believe the public at large gives a hoot how critics taste, as long as they believe the critic’s ethics are unimpeachable: can’t be bought, has no ax to grind, and so forth.”

    Left unsaid from previous blogs and their accompanying comments is a detailed step-by-step explanation of the wine reviewing process.

    The public at large can’t give a hoot about something they have been left in the dark about for too long.

    “Transparency” on how wines are sampled and critiqued and scored is needed.

    Steve and Charlie, use this occasion to shine some light into this black box practice . . .

  11. Bob Henry says:

    Typicity doesn’t have to be a global “standard” for a specific grape variety.

    Typicity can be assessed based on a specific country of origin or region — all the way down to AVAs and “nested” AVAs.

    We don’t ask an apple to taste like an orange. And we don’t ask a Granny Smith apple to taste like a Fuji apple. We have breed these fruit purposely to have demonstrable differences.

    We shouldn’t ask a California Pinot Noir to taste like a red Burgundy. Or an Oregon Pinot Noir. Or a New Zealand Pinot Noir. That would ignore the contributions of terroir and “cru” (human intervention).

    Rather, judge a California Pinot Noir against other California Pinot Noirs.

  12. Charlie,

    I would think you could add a temporal element to your list of questions, too. Is there one eternal typicity for, say, Bourdeaux, or has it changed over the decades, or does each individual vintage have its own typicity?

  13. Bob Henry, I have written extensively for many years on my tasting process.

  14. Bob Henry says:


    Over the arc of two decades reading wine reviews, I’ve never seen answers to some or all of these methodology questions by you, Laube, Steiman, Tanzer, Olken, Berger, Mead, Balzer and others:

    1) Do you taste all wines single blind? (If “yes,” who “anonymizes” the bottles — perhaps by brown bagging them — and “randomizes” the pour order?)

    2) Do you taste wines in single grape variety flights, keeping the vintage identical — and possibly the AVA/appellation identical?

    3) How many wines do you sample at one seating? How many wines do you sample in a day before palate fatigue sets in?

    (A 1999 Los Angeles Times profile of Robert Parker observed that “Perhaps 40 or 50 times a year, he will taste more than 120 different wines a day.” Link:

    4) How much time do you lavish on each wine while taking its measure?

    (That same Los Angeles Times profile observed that during a Fall 1998 tour of California North Coast wineries, “Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. … Then he spits it out. Each wine is in his mouth for maybe four or five seconds.”)

    5) Do you sample the wines alone, or with some food?

    6) What brand and model of glasses do you use when sampling wines?

    These are not picayune details. Consumers seeking to replicate your and others’ tasting methodologies would welcome such an explication.

    ~~ Bob

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Parker uses the Impitoyable “Taster” glass, supplemented by Riedel Bordeaux and Burgundy glasses.

    Laude likewise uses the Impitoyable “Taster” glass. In earlier years, “At home, I use Riedel and Spiegelau glasses (which you can easily order online), and to simplify matters I’ve narrowed it down to two — the Vinum Bordeaux and Vinum Chardonnay/Pinot Noir glasses.” More recently he has changed his at-home glass to “the Tritan Burgundy Glass by Schott Zwiesel ‘Forte’ (model 8465/140), which sells for about $9 a stem, which I think is great for all wines.”

    Parker favors Badoit (French) bottled mineral water while sampling wines.

    (Citing that Times 1999 profile: “Between wines, Parker sips sparkling water — ‘the bubbles seem to get between your taste buds and cleanse the palate better than plain water.'”)

    Laube hasn’t professed to favoring any particular brand of bottled water.

  16. Bob Henry says:


    A last second editing change before hitting the “submit” button — while trying to delete the phrase wine glasses — ended up leaving this word remnant:


    That was neither a Freudian slip or editorializing on my part.

    No offense to Parker or Laube intended.

    Mea culpa!

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B:

    “Is there one eternal typicity for, say, Bourdeaux, or has it changed over the decades, or does each individual vintage have its own typicity?”

    Clive Coates, M.W. reviews/scores wines within the context of a specific vintage.

    He does not compare wines across vintages.

    So his “20” point maximum score in a “off” vintage does not equal a “20” point score in a “great” vintage.

    One therefore infers that with Coates each individual vintage of Burgundy has its own typicity.

    ~~ Bob

  18. I think I understand what your guys are saying. Steve is saying that quality is quality, regardless of typicity, which barely exists anymore anyway. Charlie is saying that the definition of typicity is so fluid that it is borderline irrelevant. And I believe Jim is saying that each wine is an individual product that should be judged on its own merits. I respect and appreciate all of your opinions.

    I will only add that my relationship with wine is a little different. I don’t drink nice wines nearly as often as I would like, and when I do they are usually from local wineries. If I am going to splurge on a nice bottle from another continent, then I expect that wine to give me something I can’t get in Oregon. Something that is unique to the place it came from. I won’t say it’s the most important thing, but it’s an important thing, and it matters. That is my definition of typicity.

  19. Bob Henry says:

    Wine Spectator issued this online video:

    “How We Taste: Inside Wine Spectator’s Tasting Department”


  20. Bob Henry says:

    Jim B,

    I was first introduced to Steve’s blog in 2013, so his 2011 and 2012 explications of his wine reviewing process predate my reading knowledge.



  21. I don’t get the arguments against typicity.

    It does exist, in a broad sense; it changes over time, but to say it doesn’t exist – for FINE wine – is to ignore many, many decades of evidence.

    It also is not the same as quality.

    And neither are the same as individuality/uniqueness.

    Is it easy to discern if a lack of typicity was intentional or not? No; it requires follow-up, diligence, and experience in tasting both broadly and deeply. If it was easy, then there would be less need for experienced critical voices.

    But honestly, this concept is not that difficult to grasp, especially for the intelligent voices commenting on here. It is part of the challenging job of a critical voice to be able to navigate those three different axes. If I HAD to pick one, I’d say broad spectrum quality is the most important, but typicity as well as the wine itself and by itself as a “statement” shouldn’t be ignored.

  22. “A sommelier, on the other hand, has to assemble a wine list that will pair well with his or her chef’s food. In that sense, a wine that a critic might score at 86 points—not bad, but not great—might be the ideal wine to drink with chef’s food.”

    In addition to winemaking, I also cook. I’ve cooked a few wild game meats over the years and have enjoyed many an exotic farm raised at restaurants and I’ve purposely served wines containing brettanomyces (brett) for dinner. Probably not high scoring wines to be sure, but the strong, wild flavors of game meat and the right kind of brett in the wine, for my palate, seem to work pretty well.

    Do I want brett in the wines I make? Absolutely not! Am I happy I have choices? For sure!

    I suppose a critic could evaluate a bretty wine and give it a high score, but it’s more likely the somm will evaluate and choose a bretty wine based upon typicity for the customer base of a restaurant. I remember a few Somms loving wines from the soils around volcanos in Italy…I thought they tasted over sulphured, but there’s that typicity argument again. I somehow doubt a critic would give a wine that smells like heavily sulphured apricots a high score.

    “A sommelier’s job also entails something far, far different from a wine critic’s: It’s the somm’s responsibility to pick and choose the wines she puts on her list, according to her preferences and the restaurant’s parameters.”

    I would add Restaurant Customer Preferences as the key “Parameter” you suggest, to the list of responsibilities of the Somm, which forces the Somm to adapt to a Critic’s scoring system. Whether or not the Somm likes it, the restaurant needs to sell wine first and foremost customers will drink. I may like a bretty wine with my roasted quail stuffed with wild mushrooms, but I’m probably the exception. The Somm may like wines from South Africa and Finger Lakes, but is forced to have lots of CA Cab and Chard because the Somm works at House of Prime Rib and thus has a more Critic influenced wine list.

    And this is where the Somm earns their stripes (pins) by being adaptable to the customer and the restaurant’s bottom line, knowing the customer base to choose wines based upon Typicity and Critical Market Evaluation (scores).

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