Decanting the critic: Tasting with Dr. Jay Miller, the right hand of Robert Parker

jmill We all know that Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate essentially sets the market for wine. But how do the critics there taste the wines that they will make or break with their ratings?

Last week I had the chance to taste with Jay Miller, Ph.D., whose duties include vast swathes of the wine world ranging from Australasia to Iberia to the Pacific Northwest. I met with him to taste wines of Argentina. Dr. Jay and Dr. Vino, mano a mano. Or at least Riedel a Riedel.

I didn’t have to travel to Monkton, Maryland. The setting was actually the Argentine Consulate in midtown Manhattan. I walked into the palatial room, which must have been 40 x 25 w 12 ft ceilings, complete with friezes. On one side, Jay Miller was seated at a table with two settings. On the other side were hundreds of wine bottles, even more hundreds of Riedel glasses, and a small flock of people to pour.

Miller paused in his tasting and rose to greet me. A place had been set for me to his right. I had no idea it would be just the two of us. I arrived at 10:05 for the 10 AM tasting (I figured that was on time–if not early–in Argentina) but he had already almost tasted his way across the northern region of Salta, which specializes in the white grape torrontés.

The helpers traversed the room bringing two samples for him and me at a time. They brought the bottles over and placed them in front of him for his inspection. There was a notebook with information on importers and retail prices on the table. The PR woman who coordinated the tasting then launched into a freewheeling disquisition about the winery. We then would taste the wines, often going from chardonnay to malbec, sometimes via rose and syrah only to start with the pinot noir from the next winery.

After an hour and a half of this ping-ponging of wine styles, I had to inquire why the PR agent had set up the tasting like this instead of by stylistic flights. She said that she wanted “to show each winery’s DNA.” She asked how I would have done it and I said I would have organized it by style, tasting some whites, roses, entry-level malbecs followed by mid-level malbecs and so on. I turned to Jay Miller to ask if this was how he normally tasted. He said this is how he tastes “since it’s easier to write up by producer afterwards.” Case closed. Back to the sauvignon blanc-syrah roller coaster.

At one point the an Economic Affairs official at the consulate–who also did a stint pouring–rushed in holding his Blackberry in his outstretched hand. “Dr. Meeller–do you know Clarin? It’s the most important paper in Argentina. In fact, one of the most important newspapers in the world. I have a journalist here from them and she would like to speak to you about the wines of Argentina.”

Jay Miller took the call. He praised Argentina for having different wines in the face of an obvious grilling about the inevitable comparisons with Chile, pointing out the distinctiveness of malbec, bonarda and torrontes (who knew he liked whites?!).

Anyway, on our tasting went for three hours. At one point I lamented the quantity of wines and he replied “well when you’ve been working for Bob Parker for 25 years, you’re used to it.”

walogo He did not offer in what capacity this was although he only started as a critic last fall. He actually holds PhD in psychology and was a clinical psychologist from 1973 – 1998 (“by the end of it, 2/3 of my work was filling out forms,” he said, implying he left out of boredom). He said he started a side career in the wine biz in the mid 80s working, first for a retailer and then a wholesaler, eventually opening his own shop, Bin 604, which he said he has sold (though the web site still sports some goofy pictures of him). He also mentioned being a former partner in some Baltimore restaurants.

It’s not my intention here to scoop his scores–the newsletter with his scores and write-ups will appear in late August. But I report on this since I had little idea about the specifics of how tastings happen at the influential Wine Advocate. I didn’t know they were organized by producers or their agents. I didn’t know they were not tasted blind and were tasted by winery, not style. And I was surprised at how we basically had no discussion about the wines themselves, essentially having our own separate, parallel tastings. Maybe that’s because he didn’t know me but it could also be that it’s uncomfortable to talk about the wines in presence of the third party PR person, even if she did repeatedly ask for Miller’s instant evaluation.

I’ll have something more to say about the wines in future postings. But I will leave you with one seasonal pick: Alta Vista, rose de malbec, 2006, which has pleasant acidity, notes of rose petals and red berries, and a delicate balance. And for $12 (find this wine), it’s one to stock in your cooler on the deck this summer. Whether or not it gets 95 points from the Wine Advocate, is anybody’s guess–and you won’t find out until the end of rosé season anyway.

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23 Responses to “Decanting the critic: Tasting with Dr. Jay Miller, the right hand of Robert Parker”


  1. Wow. So we’re left to assume that Parker doesn’t taste blind, either. Sounds really objective…

    And wouldn’t the ping-pong between reds and whites just do murder to your palate? Does a winery at the end of a tasting come out short, because the PR flack put them in a disadvantageous place on the tasting list?


  2. Dr. V–Great post! How did you get involved? Given that you usually taste by varietal rather than by winery what effect did this methodology have on your palate and and on your view of tasting protocol? As I understand it, most of Parker’s domestic tastings (at least in the West) used to be done by him moving from winery to winery, but were always non-blind. I suspect now he has and aggregator to cut down on the travel.

    Best, Barrld


  3. that is absolutely fascinating. and scary. and…scary. at least the spectator claims that it does at least the first round of its tastings blind.


  4. Yeesh. And this is what makes or breaks a winery?

    I have to say that I don’t mind tasting by producer, because I find I have less palate fatigue that way. But–and its a huge but–I don’t claim to be objective, or assign points to things. If I were, I would taste by varietal, so as to be able to make sure the syrah I just gave an 95 to was actually in some way/shape/form better than the one I gave a 90 to just a few minutes ago. How do you keep your standards consistent. When I grade student essay exams, I read all the answers to one question and grade them, then the next question and grade them. Makes sense, keeps me honest, comparative, and focused.

    Quite an eye opening post, Dr. V! (And I think I’d rather have your reactions than those of Dr. J.)


  5. Ben – crazy, eh! Yes. Re: “murder” yes but also see Dr Debs’ comment re consistency.

    Barrld – I have no idea how I was invited!

    Dr Debs – excellent analogy about grading essays!


  6. In your piece about the tasting of Argentine wines with R. Parker’s apprentice, you wrote “He said this is how he tastes . . . .”

    I infer that the antecedent of “this” is “by style, tasting some whites, roses, entry-level malbecs followed by mid-level malbecs and so on” as that is the most recent reference to a manner in which a tasting might be conducted.

    However, my high school English teacher would have marked this use of “this” as a “broad reference” and would have required me to re-write the sentence to make absolutely clear the type of tasting to which “this” refers.

    Did I infer correctly? Please clarify what you mean by “this” in the sentence quoted.

    Best regards,
    BNJTokyo


  7. BNJ Tokyo – True enough. “This” meant tasting by producer, not by style.


  8. I thought everybody knew that Parker doesn’t taste blind. I don’t think that’s the worst crime in the world — there are arguments pro and con on both sides of the “blind vs. open” question. But what I do think is a crime is to taste such a vast quantity of wine in a single session. I used to power-taste until I realized it wasn’t fair to the wines or to me. The palate gets fatigued and can only respond to the biggest, most extracted wines. Subtlety is lost. Perhaps that’s why Parker gives his highest scores to the biggest wines. Nowadays I limit myself to about 12 wines a day, and actually have the time to think about each one, the way it deserves to be considered.


  9. Welcome, Steve!

    I had seen photos of Parker tasting not blind in Elin McCoy’s Emperor of Wine. I suppose it’s not the biggest deal esp for him since he doesn’t take ads from producers. It was really the ping-ponging of styles that did me in. And, of course, the sheer quantity.

    Twelve sounds like a good number even if I find that I can do more than that. John and Dottie of the WSJ have a good thing going with their eight wines a day, tasted with food.

    Cheers,


  10. The worst part, of course, is the quantity. How to fairly elaborate (not to mention a point ranking!) on any one wine when you are hit with so much, + some flack hitting hot buttons and asking for initial responses.

    The back and forth – red/white/rosé – route is actually when you are doing so many at once. I think palate fatigue comes most quickly from 50-60 syrahs or chards or cabs at a time.

    bobz


  11. I’m surprised that an academic would generalize from a single encounter. This tasting was just one aspect of my Argentina review which will ultimately involve a trip to Mendoza to taste at wineries.

    Regarding discussion of the wines, Dr Vino failed to ask me any questions. I’m never shy about offering my opinions. I might even have told my score for any given wine.

    Regarding the presentation of the wines, Nora Favelukas (who is not a PR flack – that is totally disrespectful), I allowed her to do it her way if for no other reason than she had made a huge effort to pull together a comprehensive tasting (we tasted for 3 days). Furthermore, I’ve been doing this long enough that tasting as we did is not a problem. There were plenty of palate cleansers on hand.

    The palate fatigue argument, frankly, is total hogwash. The principal difficulty for amateurs is maintaining concentration, mental fatigue, not physical fatigue. Someone mentioned doing no more than 12 wines; that’s 30 minutes work. You taste, you spit, you write a note, taste again, spit, add (or not to your note) and on to the next wine. When you’ve had practice doing this, it’s simply not difficult.

    Anyway, I like this site. I’ll try to get back more often.


  12. Hi again Jay,

    Thanks for the compliment! Please feel welcome to stop by again.

    As you comment that the organizer was a “PR flak,” I hasten to underscore that was your term not mine–I called a her a PR woman and a PR agent two terms that are neither disrespectful nor factually inaccurate.

    The quantity of wines that you are able to taste is, indeed, prodigious. Did you follow the interesting series of articles on Slate.com about the science of taste? The author reports on his discussions with Dr. Charles Wysocki, an expert on olfaction at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

    “He said it’s impossible to taste dozens of wines in rapid succession and not suffer olfactory fatigue and that anyone who claims otherwise is claiming to “defy biology,” as he put it. Although a critic might think that his sense of smell is still acute after sampling 40 Cabernets, his impressions at that point are being formed less by the nose than by past experience, visual cues (such as the color of the wines), and perhaps also tactile sensations.”

    Anyway, it is an interesting subject.

    I hope to taste with you again in the future–and I’ll be sure to chat with you more!

    Cheers,

    Tyler


  13. “Sensation and Perception” and “Psychophysics” were part of my academic studies way back when (I got my my doctorate in 1972 and took that class (or classes) in the late ’60s. While I have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation, I learned enough in academia to take findings in this field with a grain of salt. There can be significant differences between theory and practice. There are still, I’m sure, issues involved in presenting stimuli in a consistent way and in the need to use trained observers (and the biases that go into that). Don’t get me wrong, they’re valid fields of study, but in terms of practical application, forget about it.


  14. Science, like all other fields of human and intellectual endeavor, develops over time. In 1972, people believed Isaac Newton was only interested in math and physics. Now we know he was also interested in biblical chronology and alchemy. As a wine blogger, I am extremely interested in the research of Wysocki and other experts, much as I am interested in the science associated with wine closure and the science related to organic viticulture. It’s unfortunate that anyone tasting wine on Mr. Miller’s level is willing to “have no idea what current research has to say regarding olfaction and gustation.” As an academic, it is wise to take any findings with a grain of salt; it is not wise to ignore current findings. I will be taking Mr. Miller’s conclusions about wine with more than a grain of salt in future, given his comments here.


  15. To Dr. Debs, I can just see myself pouring through the journals after 35 years (in areas that weren’t even my specialty). My time is much better spent tasting wine.Just out of curiosity, though, I’d be interested in how you think I’d be a better wine critic if I kept up on pyschophysics, olfaction, gustation, etc. As it is, I probably know more about those subjects than 99% of those writing about wine. I think you’re just blowing hot air.


  16. To Dr. Miller:

    Pouring through the journals is, as you should well know, not required to keep you up to date on the literature of a field, in or out of your area of specialty. Pouring over the relevant literature IS required if you want to make sweeping generalizations about a field,its worth, and its practical applicability.

    Surely your PhD advisor taught you that? I teach it to my PhD students.

    As an educator, I cannot predict how and at what moment a student’s knowledge on a given subject will enrich their life or their work. Therefore, I cannot say exactly how knowing about current research on olfaction and gustation would improve your critical skills. Nearly two decades in academia has given me ample anecdotal evidence that critical skills are sharpened in surprisingly circuitous ways. Here’s something else I know for sure: I have never regretted a single moment that I spent on education.

    Have a grand time tasting wine–that is clearly what you feel you should be doing–and don’t worry at all about the science of how and why you are tasting what you think you are tasting. I, however, prefer to buy wine on the recommendation of those who don’t dismiss wine science (especially wine science they don’t know). Happily, this includes nearly every wine blogger I have ever encountered, so I have lots of good reviews to keep me busy. They may keep me so busy I’ll forget to renew my Wine Advocate subscription this year!


  17. Where and when in late August will the list come out?

    Thanks


  18. The Wine Advocate. Check erobertparker for details.


  19. Dr. Vino, Dr. Miller and Dr. Parker,

    Can anyone comment on the potential of Tannat wines from Uruguay in the US market?

    Dr. Miller I have 2 bottles ready to ship to you but never got a final confirmation on whether Dr. Parker would have the time to taste them or not. Please advice.

    Cheers,

    AVC


  20. The wines scores were published 6 months after the tasting (December 22nd).
    Miller has never visited Argentina (at least on official wine tasting business) but expects to early next year. In February 2008 the second Park Hyatt-Mendoza MASTER OF FOOD & WINE FAIR, with Am Airlines and Master Card as major sponsors, are inviting 150 journalists and 27 chefs (and incl. Andreas Larsson, winner of the 2007 Sommelier World Championship) from around the globe. Jancis Robinson and Oz Clarke were here last year. Charley Trotter is supposed to cook for sixty at the MFV in the Park Hyatt-Buenos Aires on Feb 13 (Wine Spectator´s Rarities Dinner). Dates are Feb 12-13 in BA Mendoza is 14-17. Some of the attendees include Rudy Maxa-PBS, Anthony Dias Blue-The Tasting Panel, Carol Newman-Gayot, Seth Grahame-Smith-LA Times, Tim Moriarty- Wine Enthusiast, Freelance Ken Sternberg for Wine Spectator and Boston Globe, FL Peter Greenberg for the Today Show, FL Roger Morris for the Robb Report, andrew Dornenburg-The Washington Post. Some of the chefs: Craig James-Quaglino´s, Lon, Toshio Tomita-Nobu, NY, Govind Armstrong-Table 8, LA, Nicolás Le Bec- France. The list of all chefs, dates and agendas, can be found on http://www.MFANDW.com.ar. I mention all of this in the event Jay plans to be down here during that time. Mendoza will be a mob scene during that week


  21. As one who does keep up with taste and smell literature, I must note the literature that demonstrates smell and taste adaptation (‘fatigue’ in one sense) to repeated frequent exposures to similar aromas and flavors also demonstrates that there is a significant mollifying practice effect. That is, the taster who ‘exercises’ his palate on a regular basis has less adaptation to the same olfactants and tastants at one sitting. And, most apropos to Dr Miller’s tasting exercise, mixing up wine styles (that is, not the same olfactants and tastants repeatedly and consecutively) will obviate the palate adaptation that would be seen by serial tasting of the same wine varietal/style.

    Though wine tasting dogma suggests that one needs to taste similar varietals, and do so from ‘lighter style to bigger style’, etc, this concept is just that: dogma. Thus, mixing the styles, as Dr Miller did in his tasting should actually reduce palate fatigue, and more importantly, eliminate the palate adaptation effect of serial tasting of the same varietal. It comes as no surprise to me that Parker figured out empirically long ago what tasting physiology and psychophysics is only now beginning to appreciate.


  22. Tyler, thank you for this.

    Sorry to dig up such an old report, but I have to say, I am horrified at the tone and sloppiness of the ‘rebuttal’ from the subject of this report. I guess I shouldn’t be given what else we saw throughout 2009.

    Keep up the great work on behalf of the consumer.


  23. [...] long-ago story on Tyler Colman’s Dr. Vino blog about tasting Argentinean wines with a critic from The Wine [...]


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