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I reply to a somm friend



Ian Burrows is a great sommelier whom I first met at a Jackson Family Wines event I was speaking at. He was then working at one of San Francisco’s hottest restaurants, Atelier Crenn, in the Marina District. I was never fortunate enough to dine there, because the Marina is really a schlep from Oakland. I liked Ian a lot when we met, and he turned out to be a good correspondent, on both Facebook and my blog. So when he wrote me a fairly long comment, I took it seriously, and want to respond in kind.

Ian had read my post from a few days ago, in which I described how, in choosing wines for my tastings, I rely on—among other factors—the reviews of certain top critics. Ian wrote:

I read your article on choosing sparkling for a comparative tasting, and I have to ask, why on earth would you ever base your choices on other critics scores?

I have never understood the fascination of taking such an incredibly narrow focus on deciding which wines (or automobiles or eye-liner for that matter) are the best value, most accessible, most delicious or whatever from a handful of very influential reviewers.

Why not just send out a bunch of random e-mails to your wine buddies? Ask “what wines in XYZ category should I represent in this tasting?”…. Surely, if you spread it across continents and demographics you’d get a more accurate picture.

I have the utmost respect for what you did at WE (although I still do not completely understand it) and I have even greater respect for what you do at JFE but you gotta let go of what is, quite frankly, a waste of time….. “Wine reviews”.

Reviews – I am pretty sure they will be gone in five years.

You have a better deal being the PR front man at JFE than a reviewer because at least you can focus squarely on industry trends/changes, comment and review issues that directly and indirectly affect the quality and style of wine, not simply assign points and hope that readers respond by supporting your tastes and/or reviews.

It’s perhaps a face to face conversation for another time, but one that I know will be vibrant and respectful

I replied personally to Ian, but I want to expand on that here (and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have the utmost respect for him). My main points were, (1) I am emphatically not “the PR front man” at Jackson Family Wines! I don’t know how that rumor got started. In fact, my job has nothing to do with PR (although I suppose you could say that everything ultimately touches on public relations).

More to the point, I defend my use of other critics’ scores this way: When you’re assembling a lineup of wines for a comparative tasting, you have to use some kind of parameter. Since you can’t taste everything that theoretically falls within the scope of your tasting, you necessarily must limit the number of entries. Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?

Let’s say, for instance, that I want to do a tasting of the Cabernet Sauvignons of Rutherford. There are at least 39 wineries in Rutherford, according to the web page of the Rutherford Dust Society. Many of them, maybe the majority, produce more than one SKU of Cabernet Sauvignon or a Bordeaux blend. Let’s say there are 100 different SKUs. That’s too many to include in a tasting, so you have to whittle down the number.

You could do this in any number of ways: Wines from west of Highway 29 on the Rutherford Bench, wines from the Mayacamas Mountains, wines from east of Highway 29 but west of the Silverado Trail, wines from east of the Silverado Trail, wines from way up in the Vacas, wines from south Rutherford, from north Rutherford, 100% Cabs, blends, wines above $75, wines below $30, and so on and so forth. Any of those would make sense, I suppose. But so does the kind of crowd-sourcing I do when I choose wines based on my own experiences, compounded by their critical scores. When Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, Vinous, Wine Enthusiast, Wines & Vines, Wine & Food, and so on are all giving a wine high scores, that’s a pretty good indication it’s a very good wine. And those are the kinds of wines I want to include in my tastings, especially when we’re including Jackson Family Wines in the lineup. I want to see how JFW wines stand up to the most critically acclaimed wines. (And I hope I won’t be accused of wearing a PR hat when I tell you, they do very well.)

Surely Ian isn’t entirely serious when he suggests sending random emails to my “wine buddies” soliciting their views. I have about 4,000 Facebook friends and 6,500 Twitter followers. Not all of them claim to be wine experts, and frankly, I don’t know most of them, so their opinion is not of the greatest help to me. If I was doing something on popular drinking habits or trends or wine and food pairing, I might, and frequently do, ask my friends and followers, but not for assembling a blind tasting of ultrapremium wines.

Now, Ian (and a generation of young somms) may not care about the major critics—I understand that–but I do. Maybe it’s a generational thing. I respect what James Laube, Robert Parker and the others do. I know how hard the work is…what the pressures are…I know also that when you’ve tasted wine seriously for a good many years you really do develop a master palate. I don’t think there’s anything crooked or unseemly about what they do (and what I used to do). These are men and women of the highest integrity and their opinions should matter.

Nor do I think wine reviewing is “a waste of time” that will be gone in five years. I’ve frequently said on my blog that wine reviewing will always be with us, because as long as there are a zillion wines on the market, consumers are going to seek guidance. I’ve said that this guidance can come from many different sources, including a local and trusted merchant, but merchants—let’s face it—may have a motive to recommend a wine they carry, which makes them less than completely objective. A wine critic of the caliber of a Parker, Laube, Galloni, etc. has no ulterior motive. He or she doesn’t care about the advertising his publication may or may not solicit from wineries—that’s the famous “firewall” between editorial and advertising, and it’s real. Nor does the critic care whether or not someone buys something. So, unless you’re prepared to charge the critics with something untoward—and prove it—you really have no leg to stand on when it comes to criticizing them or questioning their sincerity or ability.

I will concede that every critic has his subjective preferences. Wine Spectator, in my opinion, gives too much attention to Marcassin. The San Francisco Chronicle seems to have a thing for Morgan Twain-Peterson and Bedrock. When I was at Wine Enthusiast I certainly gave a lot of love to Bob Cabral and Williams Selyem. But there’s nothing nefarious about any of this: critics are only human, and we do form attachments, to winemakers, wines and particular styles of wine.

So, my friend Ian, this is my respectful reply. I’d love to get together, anytime you’re free, to chat about this; and maybe I can explain what I did at Wine Enthusiast.

Have a great weekend!

  1. Bob Henry says:

    “When you’re assembling a lineup of wines for a comparative tasting, you have to use some kind of parameter. Since you can’t taste everything that theoretically falls within the scope of your tasting, you necessarily must limit the number of entries. Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?”

    In organizing my comparative tasting wine luncheons, I sought out leading wine critic reviews as a “first filter.”

    One can’t possibly taste every wine in the retail marketplace. And some wines — from first time wineries — bypass the retail marketplace for DTC mailing list placements.

    At my 1992 California Cabernet/Cabernet blends tasting (in the Spring of 1995), I rounded up “the usual suspects.” One wine didn’t make the list: Screaming Eagle.

    (“Ho-hum, one more newbie Cabernet,” was my thinking.)

    The participants hectored me to find a way to include the bottle to make the tasting line-up as comprehensive as possible.

    I reached out to Heidi Peterson Barrett for assistance. She informed me that, even as the winemaker, she only garnered six bottles from the inaugural 1992 vintage.

    Heidi put me in touch with winery owner Jean Phillips.

    Jean informed me that she was aware of my Los Angeles tastings. Had personally tasted almost every 1992 wine in the line-up (and found them meritorious). But regretted to inform me that “officially” the inaugural release was sold out.

    At which point Jean magnanimously volunteered to offer a bottle from her private collection — to shipped overnight to my office.

    Sure enough the bottle arrived overnight as promised. And the bill inside requested an extraordinarily modest payment of $40. (Really!)

    At the single blind tasting (where no one knew the pour order of the wines), the Screaming Eagle blew away the competition as the overwhelming group favorite wine.

    [ Click on “California Cabernets – 1992 Tasting.xls” at this website: ]

    Glad my fellow attendees prodded me into reaching out to Heidi and Jean for a bottle.

    An example of using respected wine critics as a form of “peer review.”

    y offerings may never make it into retail store (owing to the power of mailing lists).

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Sorry — last second editing detritus not removed before hitting the “submit” button:

    “y offerings may never make it into retail store (owing to the power of mailing lists).”

  3. Adam Lee says:


    Your blog hearkens me back to my early days of winemaking. In those days, Dianna and I understood very little about the chemistry of grapes so we largely ignored the numbers when deciding on picking timing. We based our harvests purely on how the grape juice tasted. As time went by, certain wines didn’t respond as well to that method and we were forced to learn more and more about the chemistry of grape ripening. We didn’t get to the point that we “picked by the numbers” but we took them into account as well. Now, I want to know anything and everything I can about a vineyard before making a picking decision. If a dog pees daily in the northwest corner of a vineyard, I want to know that. More knowledge is, in my opinion, now a very good thing for me.

    In the case of choosing wines for a tasting, I think more knowledge is also a good thing. Asking friends, as Ian suggested, is a good way to choose wines in combination with wine reviews, the extensive knowledge that you’ve acquired over time, and perhaps many other factors. Weighing them together is the best way to proceed.

    There’s been quite the kefuffle over at Wine Spectator recently about Matt Kramer’s column where he took the process of wine education and especially wine certification to task. I vigorously disagree with much of Matt’s column. But I think Ian’s comments demonstrate the opposite end of that spectrum; the entire rejection of professional wine reviews. I don’t believe that such an extreme position is any more valuable than Matt’s position. We can all learn more from each other. And that is why I prefer the viewpoint of English Industrialist (and scientist and philanthropist) William George Armstrong who wrote, “However high we climb in the pursuit of knowledge we shall still see heights above us, and the more we extend our view, the more conscious we shall be of the immensity which lies beyond.”

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  4. “Let me ask, Readers, how you would do it?”

    Well….since you asked, Steve: If I were putting together a tasting of Lacrimas or MendocinoRidge Syrahs or Lodi Albarinos…something not particularly in my wheelhouse….the absolute last place I’d go to look for advice on what to choose would be Parker or Spec or any other such critics. I’d go to my community of friends on several of the wine boards (WCWN/WLDG/WB) and ask for suggestions on what wines to include. There are literally hundreds & hundreds of folks on those wine boards who, like me, have no life and there will invariably be someone who has some expertise in those wines. The collective wisdom of those wine boards is, I find, awesome. There are people there who were following Manfred or Morgan yrs before they were discovered back in Monktown, people who are much more au courant than any of the vaunted published wine reviewers. You see those kind of requests for suggestions almost daily on those boards.
    Now…if I were putting together a mainstream tasting of HowellMtn Cabs, say…then maybe I would look at the scores from published critics…but only after asking my wine board friends.

  5. Tom,

    So in Monkton you’d find 12 different Lacrima bottlings, a total of 30 different wines. And yet that would be the last place you would go? Why?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  6. Never been to Monktown, Adam, nor ever shopped there, so have no idea how many Lacrimas they have. And it’d be the last place I’d go to look for advice on Lacrimas.

  7. Tom, I asked “Why?” there at the end.

    I guess I am wondering why the information there at, the reviews of multiple vintages of different producers and different bottlings (primarily by Antonio) would not be of interest to you in addition to the information you obtain from Berserkers. Certainly there is a predominant viewpoint/bias to the wines preferred by many on Berserkers. Is it because you prefer that bias.

    As I said, I usually find that, for me, more information is better.
    I am wondering why that isn’t the case for you.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  8. Adam Lee: Matt Kramer, bless his soul, has to come up with some new angle for his column in every issue. It’s not easy (believe me, I know), and sometimes he enjoys poking people to get a response.

  9. I agree with Adam. Some people have a prejudice against critics, although for the life of me, I don’t understand why.

  10. “Reviews – I am pretty sure they will be gone in five years.”

    Would Ian Burrows care to put some money on that?

  11. If wine reviews were to disappear in five years, that would mean all of the above-mentioned periodicals would need to be out of business in five years as well. I don’t know the current subscription levels for each, but my money is on them being around in five years.

  12. How would I do it? I would use some wine reviews, but lots good winemakers don’t submit their wines to wide-circulation magazine reviews. And some don’t submit to any reviewers. So yes I would use reviews, but combined with advice from trusted winemakers about who else is doing it well.

  13. Patrick, it is true that lots of good winemakers don’t submit their wines for review. However, they do welcome Parker, or Galloni, or Laube, or Tanzer, or somebody else on that level, to come and taste at the winery. I can’t think of a top California winery that doesn’t enjoy getting their wines reviewed by somebody.

  14. Adam,
    The “why” is pretty simple…I don’t subscribe to erp,
    so don’t have access to it. If it was only a few keystrokes away, then I’d probably look at it. But still would rely more on the wine boards.

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Tom wrote:

    “… If I were putting together a tasting of Lacrimas or MendocinoRidge Syrahs or Lodi Albarinos…something not particularly in my wheelhouse…the absolute last place I’d go to look for advice on what to choose would be Parker or Spec or any other such critics. …”

    Regarding those Lodi wines, you could follow the writings of Mike Dunne at The Sacramento Bee, who does an admirable job profiling wineries in that region (when not judging sundry wine competitions in Northern California).


  16. Bob,
    Preachin’ to the choir here. I’m a big fan of Mike’s writings.
    Lodi is doing some pretty impressive stuff these days. I’d love to try the Lodi Native project wines some time.

  17. Bill Jones says:

    I find it rich that Mr Burrows thinks it a waste of time to consult wine critic reviews but expects me to consult him or his staff when dining in his establishment.

  18. It is a weird world in which a somm, who after all is nothing more than a paid wine chooser, would put down other wine choosers. Seems to me that his hat size has swelled way beyond normality.

  19. First off, wine scores, like restaurant “Puffs” aren’t going anywhere.

    Take the Michelin Guide. Michelin has an anonymous brigade of reviewers. We know next to nothing about who they are and what they do. And yet, those three puffs are more valuable than any Trip Advisor review at the top end of the restaurant world. They seem to like Per Se. Why is that? We don’t even know the qualifications of the reviewer at Michelin and yet their strength in the elite restaurant community remains. Wine reviews are here to stay. Point scores are here to stay.

    At least everyone knows who Jim Laube is and can write him a letter. Not so for the Michelin reviewer. And Michelin isn’t going anywhere.

    Perhaps Yelp, Trip Advisor or Open Table are more helpful if you wanna find a local deli or wine bar, but are you really going to base your decision whether or not to go to the Per Se on a 1 star review in Yelp from a bad experience on Valentine’s Day in 2016? You might, because it’s a data point it’s information, but it may only inform 5% of your decision.

    Technically, crowd-sourcing is a review and a score; generally smoothed out, but a score nonetheless. There will be less extremes in the total score, provided there are enough people reviewing the item in question, thus averaging things out. Nothing will ever receive 100 points again; ever. Probably not even 99 or 98. Most everything will fall in a basic zone, a natural average and probably not higher on Vivino than 4.8.

    At Vivino, an average of all Cupcake Wines are rated 3.5 out of 5 stars on over 27,000 reviews. They are perfectly average numerically speaking. How is this helpful to me? All Chronic Cellars wines receive a 3.9 and Ridge Vineyards received a 4.1 rating out of 5.

    Statistically, Vivino is telling me Chronic Cellars and Ridge are only 0.2 points apart across the board on all the wines they make and only 0.6 stars away from Cupcake. Not a huge spread. Based upon the averages, I should generally be happy with any of these wines as they are only average or slightly above. Technically, none of these wineries on a numerical basis reach the 90th percentile. A winery would have to reach 4.5 on the scale of 5 stars to get into 90th percentile range.

    So, back to the critics. Should l take the NYT Critic’s advice on Per Se into account? It’s scathing and different from Michelin. Obviously, the Per Se review made waves in the dining world. The review was certainly critical and controversial and it was delivered by one of the most esteemed and popular critics in the country. And it’s his job to review restaurants full time. If there is an opinion on the level of a NYT Wine critic that can shake the wine world like it has the fine dining world, we would be foolish not to listen to it, right?

    At this point, there is no contrary opinion in the critical wine world on the equivalent of the negative Per Se review.

    So we continue to rely on critics and point scores from the largest print publications. Perhaps, if a Food and Wine or NYT were to install a wine reviewer that suddenly gave 89 point reviews for Harlan Cabernet and 99 point reviews for some obscure orange wine, that might change the conversation. The irony is, the critic would still give a score.

  20. I obviously wouldn’t be putting on a tasting for the same experts many of you would but lets say I was going to do a Rutherford Cabernet tasting. I would go out and select wines I had never had before. It is rather pointless to select all the usual suspects, lets try something new and probably more affordable.

  21. Bob Henry says:


    From a marketing perspective, it is important to include “trophy wines” in the tasting line-up to attract paid participants.

    At my comparative tastings, I mixed “cult” wines with “upstarts” seeking to discover “good value” overachievers.

    (For example, Cabernets that retailed for less than the California state sales tax for a single mailing list bottle of Screaming Eagle.)

    Wine enthusiasts want to taste wines they cannot personally afford to collect.

    Hence the appeal of those bacchanal Wine Spectator magazine organized “Wine Experience” weekends:

    (Who but Alder Yarrow has the stamina and time management discipline to taste 267 wines in the room?)

    ~~ Bob

  22. Peter, it is always interesting to taste new wines. But I wouldn’t say it’s pointless tasting “the usual suspects.” There’s usually a reason why they are the usual suspects–because they’re great wines.

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