Wine scores cloak wine with a false sense of objectivity and precision. If they are to have any rigor, they should be replicable under various situations. Joel Peterson, the Champagne-sipping founder of Ravenswood Winery, has a telling vignette in this regard:
I have made wines under two labels and I’ve had them scored in the same periodical as much as five points apart. Same wines, different package. Like all judging of wine, it suffers from the wine that came before, the wine that came after, the time of day. All those things can affect a wine by as much as five points.
Many Burgundy reviews have higher scores for each wine at a domaine as the prestige of the appellation increases. To add some rigor, it would be interesting to see if those results were replicable if the wines were tasted blind or intentionally mislabeled. But I guess the folks at Caltech already did something similar to that.
Wine tasting notes, long bastions of affectations and preciousness, have come under scrutiny recently. Apparently Eric Asimov spends a chapter savaging them in his recent book. The other day, over on wineberserkers.com, Bill Klapp performed a merciless forensic analysis on a note. But then there’s this:
Surely the problem with many wine writers is not that they write tasting notes but that they aren’t very good writers.
Ouch. Tasting notes are often badly written, which may be the the shortcomings of the writer. Possibly compounding the situation, or adding a new wrinkle, is the sheer quantity of tasting notes some critics produce–it’s hard to say something original when churning out dozens of tasting notes about similar wines that you’ve had on a few minutes with. Sadly, many wine publications appear to be joyless tasting note (and score) factories.
Throwing the Barolo out with the bathwater?
Even though they may be hard to write, tasting notes still can play in important role: a reader has to know if she’s in for a Barolo or a Bourgeuil or a Barossa shiraz. And even in a horizontal tasting, where the differences can be small, some discernible distinctions can still be be conveyed. Since they are inherently boring, it helps if tasting notes include an opinion or wit. The mass production of tasting notes leads repetition and the reaching for fanciful descriptors. And, really, it’s the rare consumer that skims skims the tasting notes to find a wine to buy–fancy a wine with some “Asian spice”? Or notes of saddle leather? Granted, I would definitely seek out a syrah that has some black olive character or a pinot noir with acidity so they certainly can be useful. But tasting notes are best produced and consumed in moderation–the tasting note as artisanal product, if you will.
A reader writes in:
I have just seen that Robert Parker has tasted the wines for Jorge Ordoñez and given points instead of Neil Martin. What is going on? I thought after the No Pay No Jay scandal they would be doing things by the book. Very disappointed as I was very happy how Neil Martin was doing things. I personal will cancel my web subscription. These points given can not have any creditability.
This is not the first time that Parker has reviewed the import portfolio of Jorge Ordonez separately from the Spanish critic: When Pierre Rovani reviewed Spanish wine, Parker kept the Jorge Ordóñez wines back to review those personally. This time, Parker uses the 25th anniversary of the importing business as a reason for singling them out. He also adds this line:
Jorge Ordoñez can sometimes annoy people, and he seems to have no shortage of competitors who are clearly jealous of his great success.
It’s an odd line, with more bitterness than a wine before microxidation; if he likes the wines, why not just leave it at that? To include this line in a short piece praising Ordonez seems spiteful and almost paranoid since nobody had said anything badly about Ordóñez, as far as I am aware. From my perspective, the Ordóñez wines appear less visible than they were a decade ago and there have been some notable wineries that have left his portfolio. Meanwhile, the rise of boutique importers of Spanish wines has been one of the more exciting stories out of the Iberian peninsula in the past decade. Given that Parker frequently mentions Ordóñez wines, and Miller had been the recipient of hospitality, I understand why the reader is irked.
Frank Prial, who wrote the Wine Talk column for the Times for the better part of three decades, has died. An obituary in the Times has details on his career and important place in the history of wine writing, particularly in the 1970s when specialty wine publications had yet to emerge.
He had previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and brought a business reporter’s sensibilities to the task and often sought the business or political angles in his stories.
He also had a human touch. I recall him once telling a group of us scribes about the best wine he ever had. Even though he had the opportunity to taste many of the world’s finest wines over the course of his career, the best wine he ever had was some rotgut American “Chablis,” the first wine he had back on American soil after serving in the Korean war.
The day after the election, there’s always much to discuss. With Obama’s victory yesterday, who will be the new Treasury Secretary and whether Daniel Shanks will survive in his post as usher in charge of wine at the White House will no doubt be at the top of the agenda.
One of the big winners yesterday was Nate Silver and the empirical analysis he brought to forecasting the election. He ran daily aggregates of polls with pinpoint precision–and accuracy. On November 5, while many pundits were calling the race a “tossup,” Silver said that Obama was 91% likely to win the electoral college with more than 300 votes, which proved accurate on both counts. Further, he called every state correctly, batting 50 out of 50.
Will Silver’s sabermetrics extend to the wine world? Will sommeliers start saying, “Based on our algorithms, there’s a 91% chance you will like this wine.” Could sommeliers with a high OBP (Open Bottle Percentage), DRS (Diner Rating Satisfaction) or PECOTA (Probability Enology Contains Oak TCA Algorithm) start getting traded from one restaurant to another?
In all seriousness, there’s a lot of subjectivity in wine that masquerades as objectivity under the false precision of point scores and distant drinkability windows. Just because you see a number in wine, doesn’t mean that it’s empirical.
If [wine writers] are beholden to wine producers for the wines they taste, they are not likely to fault them…
While it is important to maintain a professional relationship with the trade, I believe the independent stance required of a consumer advocate, often not surprisingly, results in an adversarial relationship with the wine trade. It can be no other way. In order to pursue independence effectively, it is imperative to keep one’s distance from the trade. While this attitude may be interpreted as aloofness, such independence guarantees hard-hitting, candid, and uninfluenced commentary.
That’s from the boiler plate material on ethics that appears at the beginning of each edition of Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide, now in the seventh edition. Robert Parker set an admirable standard long ago. Read more…
It’s time for bluff the reader! To those at Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, bear in mind that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. One of these tasting notes and author combinations below is true, the others are false. Hit the comments with the right answer!
A) “Acrid aroma of seared steak, hot metal and welding fumes.” -Gary Vaynerchuk’s description of a cabernet franc from Gary, Indiana.
B) “Imagine having to choose between your ideal fantasy sexual partner and this wine–-and you choose [the wine]! That’s how good it is.” -Antonio Galloni on the $2,500-a-bottle Krug Clos d’Ambonnay.
C) “Usefully light. Not heavy. Not tired. Go for it! In private, of course.” -Jancis Robinson on Gallo Family Vineyard Moscato.
D) “Tastes like the urine of Satan after a hefty portion of asparagus.” -HoseMaster of Wine in a roundup tasting of California sauvignon blancs.
Answers to follow…
In today’s NYT, Eric Asimov writes about their tasting panel’s assessment of Chenin Blanc from South Africa (“A Wine That Isn’t What It Used to Be”). He says they found little to like, perhaps because of “difficult” vintages of 2010 and 2011, high yields or the unforgiving nature of screw caps. This is a change from five years ago when he found several wines in the category worth recommending.
Even though the story is in today’s print paper, it went online last Thursday. Last Friday, James Molesworth, who reviews South Africa wines (among others, including the Loire) for Wine Spectator, challenged Asimov’s findings on Twitter, saying, “You missed a lot of wines. A 20 wine sample every 5 years to make a sweeping statement on? Weak.” They went back and forth a few times (though Asimov’s July 13 tweets have oddly disappeared from his feed). Molesworth tastes and reviews many more than 20 chenin blancs from South Africa every year as he adopts a more comprehensive approach.
It’s rare to see wine critics disagree publicly. What do you think led to their different views of the category, their methodology or taste preferences? While the Time’s sampling strategy may miss some good wines in any given column, this seems to be a matter of taste. One of the wines that Asimov mentioned in the column, the 2009 FMC from Ken Forrester, wasn’t recommended since he (and the panelists?) found it “so sweet, oaky, unbalanced and fatiguing.” In reviewing the same wine, Molesworth gave it 93 points, calling it “Ripe and lush, with delicious creamed pear, ginger, heather and fig kept honest by fresh acidity that’s well-embedded on the toasty finish…Gorgeous.” So it seems like different strokes for different folks. Which is fine. Because even if scores seem to impart a sense of objectivity to a wine, wine tasting and enjoyment remain exercises in subjectivity. Which, of course, makes for good discussion.