Tasting Notes in the Cellars of Saint-Cosme
Now that the holiday season is upon us, odds are you are going to be buying more wine than usual. In choosing a wine, how much can you really trust ratings in magazines and newspapers?
I have a lot of misgivings about numerical wine ratings. It’s just too easy for everyone – from the producer to retailer to the consumer – to fall back on high ratings as a crutch without ever asking, “Exactly who says this is a great wine?”
A the end of the day, a rating is like a photo on Instagram – it’s one moment, captured by one individual with capabilities that not only may vary from day to day, but also might vary widely from another individual tasting the same wine at the same time. In the case of Instagram, the photo is dependent not only on the skill of the photographer but on the quality of camera used and the light when the photo was snapped. For a wine, the rating can vary with skill and equipment too. Oh yes, there is tasting equipment – the palate is highly influenced not only by the taster’s education and experience, but just as much by what the taster had for lunch, the taster’s mood, the quality of the wine glass and even the weather. Try tasting bright, crisp Sauvignon Blanc on a cloudy, rainy day; then, try it again on a sunny, breezy day and you’ll see what I mean.
I am not arguing in favor of ignoring ratings but of putting them in context and remembering that wine is an individual experience. I once frequented a wine retailer who was very generous with his opinions, and I found them invaluable. I knew from experience after just a few bottles that this retailer’s taste in wine and mine were diametrically opposed. He was consistent so I could calibrate his ratings and mine by being aware of his likes and dislikes.
No good wine writer issues ratings in a vacuum – the best give descriptions that help you recreate their tasting experiences. While I found Robert Parker’s purple prose often over the top (I never figured out just how much fruit there was in “gobs of fruit,” one of his favorite phrases), I did learn to scale my expectations not to his point rating but to his wine description.
I have to admit that each spring as we put together the auction catalog for VeritageMiami and in writing the descriptions for the wine lots offered by our generous donors, it’s very helpful to quote a high rating from Wine Spectator or Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer. I unabashedly use these numbers to give added credibility to the comments on the wine because I know these sources are respected and there are many readers who want those numbers just to confirm a wine’s reputation. But this is for generally rare and collectible wines. For the sort of wine I purchase day-to-day or even for an occasion when I’m splurging, I’m not so swayed by the numbers.
Let’s face it – there is no practical difference between an 88 and an 89 – the assignment of the point number is arbitrary based on the vision a taster wants to convey. When I wrote my hundreds of tasting notes for The Wine News, I was considered a tough judge because I took the rating scale literally: 80-84 was good; 85-89 was very good; 90-94 was excellent and 95 to 99 was outstanding. 100 was perfect and how often do we seriously expect to find perfection? (The answer is not “never,” I admit – there are a few wines I felt really did deserve 100). My point is I would give a wine 86 or 87 if I thought it was very good, in other words, a wine on which I would spend my own hard-earned money. I had a colleague who took the position that regardless of what the scale said officially, he believed consumers actually thought a wine rated less than 85 was inferior, so he bumped everything up. We were both trying to convey the same belief in a wine, but the wine I rated 88 he would rate 91 or 92.
My advice about ratings? Here are a few tips to get the most out of wine reviews:
- Know your rater – read a lot of reviews by the writer before deciding just how applicable their rating scale is to your taste. Yes, most good publications strongly vet their wine writers (and food reviewers), but many do not. With the Internet, anyone can hang out a virtual shingle proclaiming his or her status as a wine writer.
- Don’t take a rating as gospel – if you buy a wine that’s rated 90 and don’t like it, don’t assume your taste buds are failing you. More likely, you and the reviewer don’t like the same things. You are not wrong!
- Find a good retailer and get recommendations, taste the wines and see if you agree. When you find a retailer whose recommendations feel good to you, build a relationship. That is worth more than seeking out bargains and saving a dollar or two on wines you end up not liking.
- Most of all – practice! That means tasting, and try to keep a few notes or snap a photo of labels of wines you like so next time you go to your wine shop you can say “I liked this – do you have any other wines with similar characteristics?” Over time, you’ll build up a strong sense not only of which wines you like, but what wine qualities you like. A given wine can always be out of stock, but you can almost always find a wine with the qualities you like.
- Remember, at the end of any tasting, the best wine on the table is the one you like the most. You are the ultimate wine critic for your palate.
Text and Photos © 2013 Lyn Farmer, All Rights Reserved