Category Archives: Wine critics

The Hits, Misses and Mehs of Wine Reviews

Earlier this week The Seattle Times published an article about the top Costco Kirkland wines as selected by a local wine blogger.

Kirkland brand Champagne

One of the wines featured was the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne that I picked up for $19.99. Throughout the month of December, my wife and I like to open up a bottle of sparkling wine each night. That can get expensive with Champagne so we make sure to stock up on plenty of Proseccos, Cavas and Cremants.

Needless to say, I was pretty excited at the idea of trying a true Champagne for the price of a Crémant de Bourgogne.

Reading Owen Bargreen’s review of the wine intrigued me. The Champagne certainly had pedigree with fruit from the Grand Cru village of Verzenay. Also, unusual for Kirkland branded wines, the back label listed who actually made it as Manuel Janisson of the négociant firm Champagne Janisson.

“The Brut Champagne by Kirkland Signature is a blend of pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier sourced from vineyards located in Verzenay. The wine starts off with lovely diatomaceous earth followed by lemon curd and brioche on the nose. The palate shows really nice citrus fruit with kumquat, lemon oil, sourdough bread and a light musty earth flavor. Dense and layered, this is a simply outstanding effort that is a one-of-a-kind value. Drink 2018-2024.” — Owen Bargreen as quoted by Tan Vinh for The Seattle Times 12/7/2018

Unfortunately my experience didn’t quite live up to that glowing review.
label of kirkland champagne

The back label of the Kirkland Brut Champagne.

I was originally planning to share my thoughts about the Kirkland Champagne as a 60 Second Review. But instead I think I need to talk about the risks of buying blindly on the recommendations of critics and wine writers.

At the end of this post I’ll give my take on the Kirkland Champagne. But I’ll blanket it with the same caveats that I’m going to discuss below.

First, let me say that this is not about bashing another blogger.

While I’m going to be disagreeing with a bit of Bargreen’s assessment of the Kirkland Signature Brut Champagne, I’ve been a big fan of his work on the Washington Wine Blog.

Among some of my favorite posts have been his interviews with wine industry insiders like:

Kit Singh of Lauren Ashton
Benjamin Smith of Cadence
Jason Fox of Lagana Cellars
Master of Wine Billo Naravane of Rasa Vineyards
Brooke Robertson of Delmas
Nina Buty of Buty Winery

And many more.

Bargreen has a terrific sense of what’s happening in the world of wine–particularly in Washington. He seeks out the people who are shaping the scene and produces content that is well worth following.

My intent is not to quibble about differences in tasting notes. Taste is highly subjective and personal. From one taster to the next, you are just as likely to agree with someone as you are to disagree.

And that’s precisely the point.

Photo by James Suckling. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

This is especially true with professional critics. It doesn’t matter how esteemed their careers or opinions are. The tastes of critics like James Suckling (pictured) may be quite different than yours.

When you buy a wine based on a newspaper, magazine or blog review, you’re essentially gambling on how likely your tastes will align with the reviewers. And I’m not talking Somm Game gambling here. Because with written reviews (as opposed to personal recommendations from a sommelier or wine steward), you really are going out on a ledge.

The author of a wine review is writing solely from the perspective of their tastes and their opinions. They’re not standing in front of you, listening to you describe the kind of wines that you like or don’t like. They’re not acting like a sommelier or wine steward, piecing together clues to recommend something that they feel confident that you’re going to enjoy.

The reviewer may have a tremendous palate with lots of experience tasting a vast array of wines. But when it comes to recommendations published in articles, blogs, “Best of…” and “Top Whatever” lists, your tastes and your opinions do not enter the reviewer’s equation whatsoever.

Yet it is your wallet that is buying the wine. Plus, either your mouth or your kitchen drain is going to end up with the contents of that bottle.

When you buy off of reviews, what are the odds that you’re going to absolutely love the wine?

I would say about 25% or a quarter of the time. For another quarter, it’s likely to be a complete whiff.

But for the majority of the recommendations you buy, the results will be in the middle of don’t love, but don’t hate or what I call “Meh wines”.

Photo by Katy Warner from Orlando, FL, USA. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under PD text

And then you got to figure out if it’s worth eating at McDonald’s again to redeem your small fry.

Getting a “Meh wine” is certainly not the end of the world.

It’s kind of like playing McDonald’s Monopoly where you pull off a tab and win a small fry. You didn’t lose per se, but you really didn’t win either. You essentially got a token of a prize and with a “Meh wine” you end up with a token of an experience–something drinkable but not much more.

Now ask yourself. How much money and time do you want to spend on “Meh wines”?

Can You Hedge Your Bets?

You most definitely can. But to do that, you need to think more like a bettor at the horse races.

1.) Do Your Homework. Admittedly, a good chunk of this is trial and error. The only way to increase your odds for successful drinking is to learn how your palate aligns with the reviewers. Paying attention to how many Hits/Misses/Mehs you get with a certain reviewer will key you in on if it’s worth the gamble. Even this is not absolute. There still may be wines that you don’t completely jive with. But, at the very least, you’ll be able to weed out more of the misses and the mehs.

Photo by Ronnie Macdonald from Chelmsford, United Kingdom. Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-2.0

Though there is some truth to the old Will Rogers’ quote: “You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people.”

2.) Pay Attention To The Jockeys–i.e. the wineries who made the wine. Often this is even better than betting on the horse. If you’ve had past experiences enjoying a winery’s wines, your bet just got a whole lot better. Because now you’re not really taking a blind recommendation from a reviewer but rather letting your own palate and experience have a say.

3.) Don’t Bet Big On An Unknown. Buying blindly on a review is never an occasion to buy a case. It doesn’t matter what high score or glowing review it got or how killer of a deal it looks like. It could still wind up being a colossal dud. You’re far better off taking a flyer on a single bottle to try first. Even though I really loved the idea of a $20 Champagne to drink all month, I am so grateful that I only spent $20 on the Kirkland Brut instead of a couple hundred.

4.) Spread Out Your Risk. Don’t bet it all on one wine. While I’m a huge supporter of trying new things, it’s always a good strategy to spread your bets out between long-shots mixed with a few favorites. Go ahead and take a chance on that new bottle, but also pick up something that is more of a sure bet just in case.

A Personal Note

Since I do reviews here on the blog, I hope all my readers take the above to heart and apply these strategies to my recommendations as well.

My favorite wines might only hit a 25% jackpot with you–or even less. Our tastes could be polar opposites and that is perfectly fine. My hope is that with the Geekery tidbits and other posts, you’re still finding resources that’ll help you find bottles you enjoy.

In the end, finding great wines that give you pleasure is the only thing that matters. Life is too short to drink “Meh wines”.

Now About That Kirkland Champagne

Photo by Ananda. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Lots of citrus notes in this Champagne but they’re more on the bitter green side like unripe pomelos.

Medium intensity nose. Definitely citrus driven but more bitter green citrus notes like unripe pomelo and Bergamot orange. Noticeable yeasty notes reminds me of raw Pillsbury buttermilk biscuit dough.

On the palate, those green citrus notes carry through but they fade pretty quickly. It’s definitely the dough notes that dominate but they taste much sweeter than the nose would have suggested. I couldn’t find the exact dosage but it’s certainly on the sweeter side of brut–likely 10-12 g/l.

The sweet dough with citrus flavors makes me think they were trying to go for the Veuve Clicquot style. However, the medium-plus acidity and moderate mousse has a tangy edge (like Bargreen’s sourdough) that doesn’t quite match the creamy mouthfeel that trademarks Veuve. The finish does have a hint of dustiness but is very short.

The Verdict

At $20, this isn’t a horrible wine. It’s definitely drinkable. If it’s aiming to be a budget Veuve Yellow Label for half the price then it’s not that far off. But it certainly tastes like a half-price “Meh” version of Veuve.

Levert Freres

While I might slightly give the nod to the regular Brut, the rose Cremant de Bourgogne from Levert Freres is also quite delicious for less than $20.

However, this is not “a one-of-a-kind value” by any stretch of the imagination.

There are so many stronger bottles of sparkling wines under $20–most notably the many available Cremants from Burgundy, Alsace and the Loire. These include wines like Levert Freres, Louis Bouillot, Albrecht, Gratien & Meyer and Champalou. Often these wines are aged as long as nonvintage Champagne (15 months) and many times much longer.

These Cremants may not have the magical “C-word” on the label like the Kirkland Brut but they are far more Champagne-like.

Then in the US, we have producers like Gruet, Jacqueline Leonne, Trevari and Roederer Estate who make very solid bottles in the $15-20 range. And, of course, Cava has some tremendous bangs for the buck with the Insito, Juve & Camps and Anna de Codorniu being highly reliable sparklers.

Champagne Dreams With a Budget-Friendly Reality

If you want to go Champagne, paying just a little bit more will give you huge quality dividends above the Kirkland Brut.

Bargreen’s article mentions the Feuillatte Blue Label that is often around $27-29 during holidays. Then there is the Moët & Chandon Brut Imperial ($33-36), Petrois Moriset Cuvee ($30-33), Moutard Grand Cuvee ($30-33) Chanoine Frères Grande Reserve ($33-35), Montaudon Brut ($32-35), Pommery Brut Royal ($33-36) and Laurent Perrier La Cuvee ($33-36).

And if you really want a slightly cheaper Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label, the Heidsieck Monopole Blue Top hits those notes better than the Kirkland Brut does in the $33-36 range.

I’m sure you can find even more under $40 Champagne or under $20 sparkling wine options checking out your local wine shop. Plus, you can talk with a wine steward and let them know what you like or don’t like.

That way you’re more likely to go home with a Secretariat, Justify or American Pharoah than you would betting on “Meh”.

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What’s The Point In Writing Wine Reviews?

I have a confession to make. While I’m no longer in the retail game, I spent over 7 years in it working as a grocery store wine steward and an associate at a major wine retailer. In that time working the floor and talking to thousands upon thousands of customers, I never once had a customer ask me for a wine they saw reviewed on a blog.

Photo by Jami (Wiki Ed). Uploaded to Wikimedia commons under CC-BY-SA-4.0

Not once.

Oh I’ve had numerous people come in with Wine Spectator’s Top 100 list or a copy of award winners from local competitions like the Seattle Wine Awards. Local newspaper and magazine articles such as Andy Perdue’s Top Wines Under $30 and Sean Sullivan’s 30 Most Exciting Wines in Washington also brought people in hunting.

But never once did I have a customer show me their phone with a wine review from a blog. Or an Instagram pic. Or a Twitter wine chat recommendation.

Never.

I share this confession because as I settle into full-time writing, I’m wondering “What is the point in doing wine reviews?”

Do Consumers Care?

Jeff Siegel, the Wine Curmudgeon, recently asked if we’ve “reached the end of wine criticism?” . He highlights a 2013 Laithwaites Wines Survey that shows only 9% of wine drinkers actively used wine reviews to make a decision. In fact, rather than being helpful, the majority of the 1000 wine drinkers surveyed found reviews to be of little use.

Becca Yeamans-Irwin (The Academic Wino) created a chart showing the results of the Laithwaites’ survey for Wine Industry Insight.

Wine Industry Insight Chart on how helpful reviews are

Chart made by Becca Yeamans-Irwin for Wine Industry Insight. Published 10/26/2018

When I step back and think about how I approach reviews as a consumer, I realize that I hardly use reviews at all.

Context or Empty Text?

It’s not that I don’t read reviews. I’m reading wine stuff all the time and pay for subscriptions to Decanter, JebDunnuck.com, Vinous Media, Burghound, Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages and others.

But I’m not reading any of those for reviews. If anything, these sites are like porn mags where I am actually just reading them for the articles.

When an article includes tasting notes with descriptors about bouquet, body, fruit, etc, my eyes gloss over them. Instead, I’m looking through the review for something unique or interesting about the wine–something about its story that is worth my attention.

When I was selecting sample reviews for my 2017 Bordeaux Futures posts, the ones I picked had added details about the vintage or chateaux such as if they had frost damage or how this wine compares to the style of years past, etc. While I often found the notes of critics like James Suckling to be virtually useless, other writers like Jane Anson of Decanter gave me the context I craved.

I also regularly read numerous bloggers who do wine reviews such as Jeff Leve’s The Wine Cellar Insider, Dwight Furrow’s Edible Arts, Dave Nershi’s Vino-Sphere, Tom Lee’s Zinfandel Chronicles and Robin Renken’s Crushed Grape Chronicles.

The writers and bloggers that give me context, I follow. The ones that just spew out tasting notes and numbers, I don’t even give a second thought to.

Here’s an example of a wine blogger I follow.

https://foodandwineaesthetics.com/2018/10/16/wine-review-bonny-doon-syrah-bien-nacido-x-block-santa-maria-valley-2009/

While I was familiar with the Bien Nacido vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley, I didn’t know that it was the first cool-climate US vineyard to plant Syrah. This great tidbit adds context to Dwight Furrow’s review of the Bonny Doon Syrah Bien Nacido X-Block.

Even if Furrow didn’t like the Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Syrah, those added details about the wine intrigues me enough to want to try it.

It wasn’t his description of the wine, the “rich, smoked meat with mint highlights” or “luscious, peppery burst of fresh fruit”, that ultimately influenced me. Nor was it his 92 point score. There are many wines that have savory, meaty flavors and pepper notes. Likewise, the cliche “a dime a dozen” doesn’t even come close to expressing how many “92 point wines” there are out in the world.

But the story he shared about the wine–the uniqueness of the Bien Nacido vineyard and the framing of this as a “treasure of the past” that can be used to view Grahm’s new projects–gave me a reason to want to try this wine above all the other savory, meaty and peppery 92 pointers out there.

Why Do I Review Wines?

Being a blogger myself, these sentiments might be a bit of “biting the hand that feeds me”. I mean, shouldn’t I be banging the drum for more people to pay attention to wine reviews? I do, after all, even have a samples policy. Come on! Get with the program LeBeau!

But though I’ve been actively blogging for over a year, it’s hard for me to disengage from the mentality of a consumer and reader of blogs. Nor can I discount my experiences working in the industry. It is those experiences, and dealing with other consumers, that have made me hugely skeptical of the entire concept of “wine influencer”.

Photo by Naotake Murayama. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

Lord knows that there are A LOT of stories that can be told about Randall Grahm and his wines.

However, I do think that wine writers have influence. But, as I mentioned with my example of Furrow’s review, it’s not in their tasting notes or numbers.

I might not walk into a wine shop with Furrow’s review on my phone, but the story of Bonny Doon’s Bien Nacido Syrah will resonate in my mind when I see the label or name on a wine list.

Even though I won’t remember the details of his tasting note at all, I will remember the story and context that Furrow shared about the wine.

THAT is the true influence of a wine writer.

These experiences are what shape my own 60 Second Reviews and how I expect readers to approach them.

To be brutally honest, folks could stop reading them after the Geekery section and make them 30 second reviews.

It’s that first section where I strive to give you something that either intrigues you about the wine or gives you a reason to think about it differently.

The tasting note that follows is mostly for my own edification. It’s there to force me to pay attention to what I’m tasting versus just drinking it. A lot of the language I use in those notes (like medium-plus acidity, firm tannins, etc) is language that I need to use for my blind tasting examinations. It’s not the same language that you are going to use when tasting the wine and my note is likely going to be quite different from yours in other ways as well. Wine is subjective and intensely personal.

Rating With My Wallet

The Verdict section, as I mentioned in my post Why I Don’t Use Scores, is my reconciliation of how I feel about the wine with what I paid for it.

I don’t expect to ever get many samples sent to me–and really, after the “hand biting” of this post, why would a PR firm want to? So the vast majority of wines I review will continue to be things that I bought with my own money from shops, wineries and restaurants.

Some things I’m going to feel really good about buying. Other wines are going to feel like I way overpaid for them. I’ll share that frank assessment because you’re likely not going to be getting samples sent to you either.

With every wine, it’s going to be your wallet and your taste buds that determine if it’s worth it. Not a tasting note, not a wine review and certainly not a numerical score.

That is why I don’t want to waste your time with empty text.

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Yeah, I’d Like To Know If I’m Drinking a Racist’s Wine

Photo by Walterince. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

So I can stop drinking it.

Similarly, I’d want to know if I’m drinking a misogynist’s wine, an anti-semitic’s wine or a homophobe’s wine.

In short, I care about where my wine comes from and, frankly, the values and core being of the people behind it matter more to me than if they’re farming biodynamic or conventional, inoculating with yeast or doing native ferment, using sulfites, fining, filtering or any other minutia of wine that can stir wine folks into a tizzy debating over.

But here’s a thought that haunts me often when I open a bottle — How do I know?

It’s not like the back label is going to have a notice that this Nebbiolo “… pairs well with nativism and racial segregation.”

Outside of personally knowing the producer, a consumer’s only access behind the curtain is via the eyes and ears of wine writers and journalists. However, as Jon Bonné notes in his recent article for PUNCH, Why Is the Wine World So Un-Woke?, many folks in the wine industry are oft too willing to gloss over the gross and loathsome side of the industry as well as the people who populate it.

In particular, Bonné cites the example of Italian winemaker Fulvio Bressan who went on a racist Facebook tirade against Cécile Kyenge, a black female member of the Italian cabinet, calling her and other African-Italians monkeys and gorillas.

In response, critics and writers questioned whether they should continue reviewing Bressan’s wines. Along similar lines, restaurant critics are grappling with the dilemma of how to handle reviews of restaurants owned by men who have been accused of horrendous behavior in the fall out of the #MeToo Movement.

Photo by http://www.provincia.modena.it/. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-SA-3.0

By the way, the amount of news article and blog posts covering the Bressan incident that just talked about his racist attack on a “black cabinet member” was equally disturbing. She has a name–Cécile Kyenge.

I say review them. But give me the dreadful details.

Every review of Bressan’s Schioppettino or Verudzzo should have a link to the screenshot of his attack on Kyenge as well as his response which consumers can use to evaluate how they personally feel about supporting his winery.

Just like knowing that a wine has biting tannins or noticeable brettanomyces, so too should wine lovers know if the wine they’re considering buying has the bitter stank of antipathy.

But “Gotcha Journalism” is of No Benefit Either

The opposite of glossing over and overlooking the ills of the industry is not to start going on a righteous rampage to root out all the folks behaving badly. Nor should we necessarily let one comment (which may have been taken out of context) write the entire chapter. The benefit of the doubt is not just for the benefit of the accused but for everyone’s benefit as well to get the full breadth of the story.

While I appreciate Maya Angelou’s famous quote “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”, I don’t think we should ever disregard humanity’s capacity to change and grow.

But when people associated with a winery reveal this unsavory side to their character, it should be noted and publicized just as much as a systematic problem in the winery with cork taint would be.

Oh Come On! It’s Just Wine!

I get this sentiment. I really do.

Living in a time that seems to get progressively more crazy with each passing day, it can be wonderful to escape into a world that is both simple in its pleasures and stimulating in its possibilities. With the pull of a cork, you can drown out the droning about tariffs and scandals, Brexit and borders.

When you look at a map of the vineyards of Burgundy while sipping a glass of Meursault, no one cares who you voted for. Sometimes at the family table, all you need is a good bottle of Cabernet to muse over and suddenly your relatives who were just at your throat moments prior about politics are now waxing poetically about that one trip they took to Napa many years ago. The way that wine can bring people together and push out the noise is truly beautiful and a much needed refuge in this day and age.

I’m not advocating that we need to shutter that safe haven. But I am saying that when the troublesome history and values of the people behind our favorite bottles comes to light that we recognize them for what they are–the wolf that is at the door to that safe haven.

Sure, we can ignore its howling and blissfully down another bottle. Eventually, though, we are going to have to step outside and that wolf–with its sharp teeth that has caused others so much pain–will still be there. Just because we haven’t been bitten ourselves doesn’t mean that our wound isn’t forthcoming.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)

The Consequences of Not Caring Also Means Shittier Wine

When we stop caring about who makes our wine then we stop caring about a vital component and distinction that makes wine (and particularly great wine) unique–its story. Like from cradle to grave, the story of a bottle of wine starts in the vineyard and is shaped and molded by hundreds of hands with each leaving an indelible print.

The decisions that were made to hand harvest the grapes and which clusters to harvest went into the story of this wine.


As wine geeks, we obsesses over terroir and often only ascribe physical and natural influences to it–the soil, the climate, etc. But those physical hands are just as much a part of the nature of terroir and, in many ways, the part of the story that is most tangible to our own experiences with the wine.

When we have a bottle of wine, it is like a gift of the grower and the winemaker that they’ve nurtured and tended to for years which we willingly accept from them to put on our table, share with our family and take into our bodies.

Who we accept that gift from matters.

When we stop caring about the story, about the who, then we stop carrying about the context behind the wine’s creation which feeds into the corporatization and commodification of wine (another point that Bonné makes in his article). If there is no story and wine is just “booze” then it really doesn’t matter how the wine got on our table–whether by people or machine, mega-purple or manipulation.

This is how we get to the point where around 60% of the US wine market is controlled by 5 large companies.

This is how we get to the point where consumers walk into their local supermarket and find hundreds of wines made by these same handful of large companies–limiting our ability as consumers to have true choices in what we buy.

This is how we get to the point where people talk of the small family winery as if it is a myth while the real family wineries are out there busting their butts in the vineyard and cellar struggling to sustain themselves in an industry that has a lot of cards stacked against them.

What About the Racist/Misogynist/Whatever Small Winery?

Like Fulvio Bressan?

It’s true that these are the folks most likely to get caught up airing dirty laundry on Facebook and Twitter compared to the slick corporate PR wineries. There is no magical ethos surrounding small family wineries that sets them apart in character from large corporate entities.

But what does set them apart is that the veneer of truth is much easier to see with these smaller wineries–even if that truth underneath is ugly. Undoubtedly these bad apples will be exposed but removing them makes the entire bushel more healthy and more appealing to dig through.

When people start caring about who makes their wine and the type of people they are, the entire industry has to step up their game–both in the quality of their wines and in the quality of their character.

To paraphrase the apocryphal Gandhi quote:

We should drink the wine that reflects the world we want to see.

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Déjà Vu at the Wine Spectator Grand Tour

Last month, I attended the Wine Spectator Grand Tour tasting at the Mirage Hotel in Las Vegas.

While I had a blast at the 2017 tasting (which I documented in my 3 part series that you can read here) I won’t be doing a series of articles on this year’s Grand Tour (apart from maybe a Top 10 post) because, frankly, I would be burning out the “cut and paste” keys on my laptop.

Déjà vu all over again

Out of the 244 wineries participating, an astonishing 184 of them (around 75%) were repeats from last year’s tastings.
Sure, wineries like Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, Ch. Haut-Brion, Penfolds, Casanova de Neri, Perrier-Jouët and K Vintners make a lot of great wine that are fun to try. It’s fine to have some “big ticket names” regularly featured to attract attention.

But come on? 75% repeats?

That’s crazy when you consider that Wine Spectator reviews around 17,000 wines a year—several thousand of which get 90+ points. Using their Advance Search option, I found over 1800 American, 1700 French, 300 Italian, 180 Spanish and 180 Australian wines from just the 2014 vintage alone with 90+ ratings.

Is it really that difficult to find more than 100 new wineries each year to feature at their marquee tasting event?

Groundhog Day at the Mirage

While some of the repeat wineries did pour at least a different wine than they did the year before (like Albert Bichot’s Domaine du Clos Frantin pouring the 2013 Clos du Vougeot Grand Cru this year after pouring the 2013 Vosne-Romanee Les Malconsorts Premier Cru last year), 66 of the wineries poured only a different vintage of the same wines they featured in 2017.

Highlighting all the same wineries featured in 2017 and 2018.

Now, yes, I suppose you could argue that there is some interest in seeing vintage variation–but that is only helpful if you are tasting both vintages side by side or happen to have meticulous notes on hand of your previous tasting to compare. Otherwise, it pretty much feels like you are tasting the same damn wine you tasted last year.

The big exception, though, was when wineries took an opportunity to dive into back vintages to give you a unique library tasting experience. This was the case of Domaine de Chevalier and Chateau La Nerthe who brought out their 1998 and 2008 vintages to pour. Rather than feel like you’re tasting “last year’s wine”, this gave you a chance to try something very different and both wines ended up being some of my favorites of the night.

However, probably the most egregious sin of the event was the 25 wineries (around a tenth of all the wines at the event) who poured the exact same wine they poured in 2017. Granted, that number does includes some NV wines that theoretically could be a “new batch” but that still doesn’t discount the unoriginality and boredom of seeing the same wine featured.

Seeing a 3 liter bottle of Tawny Port is impressive in any context, though.

Even Champagne producer Lanson was able to mix things up with pouring their Black Label NV this year after featuring their NV Extra Age Brut last year. Likewise, the Port house Graham’s brought their NV 20 Year Tawny Port this year while last year they had their 2000 vintage Port available.

Same Bat-Wine, Same Bat-Channel
Wineries that poured the exact same wine at each event.

Alvear Pedro Ximenez Montilla-Moriles Solera 1927 NV
Ch. Brown Pessac-Leognan 2014
Chateau Ste. Michelle Artist Series 2013
Croft Vintage Port 2011
Domaine Carneros Cuvee de la Pompadour Brut Rose NV
Ernie Els Signature Stellenbosch 2012
Fattoria di Felsina Toscana Fontalloro 2013
Fuligni Brunello di Montalcino 2012
Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon Martha’s Vineyard 2005
Henriot Brut Blanc de Blancs Champagne NV
Hess Collection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Small Block Reserve 2013
Montecillo Rioja Gran Reserva 2009
Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut NV
Mumm Napa Blanc de Blancs NV
Orin Swift Abstract 2015
Patz & Hall Pinot noir Carneros Hyde Vineyard 2014
Famille Perrin Gigondas Clos des Tourelles 2013
Ramos-Pinto 30 year Tawny Port NV
Recanati Carignan Judean Hills Wild Reserve 2014
Marques de Riscal Rioja Reserva Baron de Chirel 2010
Louis Roederer Brut Champagne Premier NV
Taylor-Fladgate 20 year Tawny Port NV
Teso La Monja Toro Victorino 2013
Torres Priorat Salmos 2013
Trinchero Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Mario’s Vineyard 2013

Sneak Peak at the 2019 Wine Spectator Grand Tour pour list?

Trying a 5+ year aged Gruner was interesting. I much prefer that to tasting just the newer vintage of the same wine I had last year.

Below are the wineries that poured the same wine but a different vintage. The vintage they poured in 2017 is listed first followed by the wine featured at the 2018 event.

Castello di Albola Chianti Classico Riserva (2010/2013)
Alion Ribera del Duero (2012/2010)
Allegrini Amarone (2012/2013)
Almaviva Puente Alto (2013/2014)
Castello Banfi Brunello di Montalcino Poggio Alle Mura (2011/2012)
Barboursville Ocatagon (2012/2014)
Marchesi di Barolo Sarmassa Barolo (2012/2013)
Belle Glos Pinot noir Clark & Telephone (2014/2012)
Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (2013/2014)
Brane-Cantenac Margaux (2010/2011)
Caiarossa Toscana (2011/2012)
Calon Segur St. Estephe (2003/2005)
Caparazo Brunello di Montalcino La Casa (2011/2012)
Carpineto Vino Nobile di Montepulciano Riserva (2011/2012)
Casa Ferreirinha Douro Quinta da Leda (2014/2011)
Casanova di Neri Brunello di Montalcino Tenuta Nuova (2011/2012)
Castellare di Castellina Toscano I Sodi di San Niccolo (2012/2013)
Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon (2009/2014)
Pio Cesare Barolo (2012/2013)
Chalk Hill Chardonnay Chalk Hill (2014/2015)
Cheval des Andes Mendoza (2012/2013)
Domaine de Chevalier Pessac-Leognan (2010/1998)
Ciacci Piccolomini d’Aragona Brunello di Montalcino Pianrosso (2010/2012)
Col Solare (2013/2009)
Colome Malbec Salta (2013/2015)
Craggy Range Pinot noir Martinborough Te Muna Road Vineyard (2013/2015)
Cune Rioja Imperial Gran Reserva (2010/2011)
Damilano Barolo Cannubi (2012/2013)
Domaine Drouhin Pinot noir Dundee Hills Laurene (2013/2014)
Donnafugata Terre Siciliane Mille e Una Notte (2011/2012)
Elk Cove Pinot noir Yamhill-Carlton District Mount Richmond (2014/2015)
Ch. d’ Esclans Cotes de Provence Garrus rosé (2014/2015)
Livio Felluga Rosazzo Terre Alte (2013/2015)
Feudo Maccari Sicilia Saia (2013/2014)
Fonseca Vintage Port Guimaraens (2013/2015)
Fontodi Colli Della Toscana Centrale Flaccianello (2013/2014)
Frescobaldi Brunello di Montalcino Castelgiocondo (2011/2012)
Ktima Gerovassiliou Malagousia Epanomi (2015/2016)
Kaiken Malbec Mendoza Mai (2012/2013)
Laurenz V. Gruner Veltliner Trocken Kamptal Charming Reserve (2014/2012)
Leeuwin Chardonnay Margaret River Art Series (2013/2014)
Luce Della Vite Toscana Luce (2013/2014)
Masciarelli Montepulciano d’Abruzzo Villa Gemma (2007/2011)
Masi Amarone Costasera (2011/2012)
Masut Pinot noir Eagle Peak Vineyard (2014/2015)
Mazzei Maremma Toscana Tenuta Belguardo (2011/2013)
Mollydooker Shiraz Carnival of Love McLaren Vale (2014/2016)
Ch. La Nerthe Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee des Cadettes (2013/2009)
El Nido Jumilla (2013/2014)
Siro Pacenti Brunello di Montalcino Vecchie Vigne (2012/2013)
Pacific Rim Riesling Yakima Valley Solstice Vineyard (2014/2015)
Pichon-Lalande Pauillac (2011/2009)
Protos Ribera del Duero Reserva (2011/2012)
Renato Ratti Barolo Marcenasco (2012/2013)
Rocca delle Macie Chianti Classico Riserva di Fizzano Gran Selezione (2012/2013)
Rust en Verde Stellenbosch (2013/2014)
Rutini Malbec Mendoza Apartado Gran (2010/2013)
Tenuta San Guido Toscana Guidalberto (2014/2015)
Vina Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Casa Real (2012/2013)
Vina Sena Aconcagua Valley (2013/2015)
Tenuta Sette Ponti Toscana Oreno (2014/2015)
Sterling Chardonnay Napa Valley Reserve (2013/2014)
Ch. du Tertre Margaux (2011/2010)
Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino (2007/2010)
Quinta do Vale Meao Douro Meandro (2013/2014)
Walt Pinot noir Sta. Rita Hills Clos Pepe (2014/2015)

Moral of the Story?

Let’s not even get into the clear spit buckets that were featured on several tables.

Setting aside that around three quarters of the wineries were the same, the crux for me was the nearly 40% of the wines being either actual or near repeats with different vintages. Paying $225 to $325 a ticket (and up to $475 at the upcoming New York event in October)–not to mention travel and hotel costs–for that is pretty ridiculous.

While I would still say that the value of the wines being tasted and the breadth of the tasting makes the Wine Spectator Grand Tour worth it for a first time visitor, the experience of having so many repeats of wineries and wines dampers my enthusiasm for making this a yearly priority to attend.

I haven’t made up my mind about attending the 2019 or 2020 event but, at this rate, I feel like I’d rather find another reason to go to Vegas to play the Somm Game.

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Naked and Foolish

Photo By Randy OHC - originally posted to Flickr as After the Tasting, CC BY 2.0It’s been a busy couple weeks for travel so I missed the latest brew-ha on the Wine Twitterati over online UK wine retailer Naked Wines with their ad campaign on the “5 golden rules to choosing a good bottle of wine”.

The original post has since been made private but Oliver Styles at WineSearcher.com and Joe Roberts at 1WineDude have good write-ups with details about the post and the fall-out.

The brunt of the dust-up was over the insinuation that trusting “real customer reviews” (like those of CellarTracker, Vivino and, of course, featured on Naked Wines) is better than relying on medals awarded by wine competition or those of professional wine critics who “…need to seem useful, or they’ll be out of a job! So they invent trends and get paid to push you toward certain wines.”.

I’ve made my feelings about wine competitions known in my post Wine Competitions — Should Wine Drinkers Care?.  I think Styles and Roberts more than ably dispel the notions that wine critics “create trends” to seem useful. Frankly, that idea is ludicrous.

Some of the biggest trends in wine today are the use of virtual/augmented reality labels like those pioneered by Treasury Wine Estates for their 19 Crimes, The Walking Dead and Beringer wines as well as can packaging for wine, bourbon barrel ageing and wine-hybrid infusions like Apothic Brew. None of these are trends that professional wine critics would touch with a 10 foot poll–much less invent and “push”.

However, I do want to talk about the trusting “real customer reviews” part.  Is this is really a great idea?

Maybe? Because “wine people” aren’t normal.

I say that with the upmost affection as a self-proclaimed “wine geek” but it’s true. We’re not normal. Around 95%+ of wine drinkers just want to open up something tasty to drink or have with dinner. Yet, we “wine folks” obsess over the minutiae of minerality, typicity and terroir. We seek stories when regular wine drinkers just seek satisfaction. We desire depth and complexity when the average consumer wants value and consistency.

Photo by Petrovsky. Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-3.0

Some of us even taste with puppets. (Austrian performer Karin Schäfer)

We’re two different beasts. Considering that professional wine critics and writers literally surround themselves with wine for a living, it’s almost like we’re living on two different planets when you listen to “wine people” versus “wine drinkers” talk about wine.

Then you add in the inherent air of snobbery that permeates throughout the wine industry. It’s not hard to see how “regular people” can be incline to ignore the critics in-favor of the opinions of regular Joes and Janes like themselves.

I can sympathize with this view and touched on the value (or lack of value) of expert opinions in wine in my post Jamie Goode is a tool so I’m not really going to get into a debate here about “Real People” vs “Real Experts”.

Instead, I’m just going to lay naked my skepticism and cynicism about “crowd-base reviews” because of how easy it is for wineries and mega-corps to game and manipulate them–and, in general, how useless ratings tend to be.

Have Internet, Will Troll

There are litany of online resources and stories about how businesses can game Yelp’s review system to improve their ratings and rankings.

The most common method is creating “fake reviews” which Yelp, being a multi-billion dollar company, dedicates millions of dollars in labor and technology resources to combat. But it still happens. Oh and never mind the potential ethical quandary with advertisers.

And it’s not just Yelp, but virtually every user-based review platform is susceptible to people playing games like TripAdvisor for restaurants and hotels or any online poll ever created.

Now ask yourself, do you think wine user-based review platforms like CellarTracker or Vivino have even a fraction of Yelp or TripAdvisor’s resources to combat gaming, rating manipulation or fake reviews?

Of course, they’re going to try their best but the Internet will always be better. Any winery or mega-corporation with a little time/marketing budget/interns/desire can draft a plan to create enough accounts and reviews to drive the narrative they want told.

It’s not all bad, but it’s not all good either

Confession time–I regularly use CellarTracker. I don’t post reviews there but I’ll read the reviews of friends I know and sometimes use their feedback to make purchasing decisions. I’ll also use it gauge drinking windows of wines that I already own since the likelihood of a fake winery review saying “Yeah, you better wait 2-3 years before opening this up. It was super tight”–is pretty low.

I downloaded and played with Vivino a few times (and still have the app on my phone) but the amount of eye-rollingly bad 3.5-4.0 rated wines has dismayed me of its usefulness. I do agree with The Wine Daily though that most of the wines with very low ratings (like 2.5 or less) tend to bear out.

But I’ve had tons of truly stellar wines in that “no-man’s land” rating of 2.6 to 3.4. Yet these wines are often overlooked because 3.5 is the “new 90 points”. This is one of the many reasons why I personally eschew the use of numerical ratings and instead evaluate wines on value.

And then there are 29,000+ people with different tastes in wine.
Unfortunately, there isn’t an easy way (that I know of) on apps like Vivino to personalize ratings and filter out people who give high scores to wines you don’t enjoy.

Even when we let the masses of “regular wine drinkers” indulge in their inner Robert Parkers, we still end up with the same pratfalls that we get with professional critics. Good wine still gets overlooked if it doesn’t achieve some magical number.

That’s not democracy, that’s duplicity.

Moral of the Story — Trust yourself

The only fail-safe method of buying wine is to accept that there isn’t a fail-safe. A highly rated wine (regardless of who or what is giving the rating) is not a guarantee of anything. It’s kind of like finding out Santa isn’t real, I know, but instead of despairing, this instead should be freeing. Life is about trying new things and if you’re not beholden to rankings or ratings then you literally have a whole world of wine in front you to explore.

Sure, a review or word of mouth recommendation may have steered you towards that path. That’s fine. There is nothing wrong with that. But ultimately in deciding that this new thing was now a personal favorite you didn’t default back to their judgement. Instead, you made up your mind that this was something wonderful that you wanted to experience again.

The One Universal Truth

Here’s one universal truth to cling to–everything, and I mean everything, that you ever fell in love with started out at one point as something you hadn’t tried yet.

Your favorite experience, food, musician, movie and, yes, wine began at some point as something new to try. The only way you ever discovered these joys and pleasures was by putting a foot forward and taking a chance.

That is why you shouldn’t be afraid to branch out and try something that hasn’t been reviewed or doesn’t have the magical 90+ points/3.5 ratings. Whether the wine is reviewed by 1 critic or a 1000 internet strangers, none of them are going to have the exact same palate as you. And not a single one is going to be giving you their wallet to make the purchase.

Everything always fall back to you and that is why you, and only you, are the best judge of what you should be drinking.

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Why I Don’t Use Scores


My 60 Second Wine Reviews are a regular feature that give me a chance to geek out about various wines. But while I deliver a “Verdict” at the end of each review, I also leave a glaring omission.

I don’t give a numerical score.

It’s not that I’m morally opposed to using the 100 point scale popularized by Robert Parker and Wine Spectator or the 20 point scale favored by Jancis Robinson and UC-Davis. In fact, I regularly look at scores by those publications and use them as tools in researching wines.

But I think they’re useless for me to give out.

A 7 Point Scale

When I first started using CellarTracker, I got into the habit of rating wines numerically but soon discovered a disturbing trend. While in theory I had 100 points to divvy out, in truth, I was really only working on a scale of 87-94.

If the wine was well made but not my style, 90-91 points. If it had some issues then 87-89. For wines I really liked it was 92-93. If it blew me away then a 94.

For some reason I just couldn’t rate anything above 94 because I felt like there was always the potential for something else to come along to raise the bar—even though I’ve enjoyed some amazing wines over the years.

The 1996 Chateau Margaux? 94 points.
The 2010 Angelus? 94 points.
The 2005 Quilceda Creek? 94 points.
The 2012 Chappellet Pritchard Hill? 94 points.
The 1970 Taylor Vintage Port? 94 points.
The 1996 Champagne Salon? 94 points.

This is not a slight on any of those wines and they all deserved the much higher scores they got from professional critics. But for me, even though I richly enjoyed them and felt that I got more than my money’s worth with each, there was still that mental and emotional barrier that didn’t want to go higher than 94 points.

Painting by EGrützner. Sourced from Ketterer Kunst Auktion: 402, 14.05.2013, lot 699. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-PD-Mark

Trust me, I’m a professional drinker.


It’s silly but isn’t trying to quantify numerically all the nuances of wine a fool’s errand anyways?

And truthfully when it comes playing the fool (and doing it well), we can’t all be a Falstaff, Stanczyk, Claus Narr or James Suckling.

I Rate With My Wallet

And I believe that most wine drinkers do the same.

While we might sometimes indulge our inner Robert Parkers with scoring, I would wager that most of the time when we evaluate a wine, we judge it on if we got enough pleasure to merit the cost of what we paid. It’s human nature to expect more from a $100 bottle of wine than a $10 bottle and that is the approach I take with each wine I taste.

I view the cost of each bottle as a potential investment in pleasure and I seek a solid return on my investment.

94 points but well worth splurging on to try at least once in your life.


And it is my investment as my wife and I personally buy more than 90% of the wines (and whiskeys) that I review on this blog whether it be the 2006 Petrus, 20 year Pappy Van Winkle, Taittinger Champagne Comtes de Champagne Rosé or the Groth, Pegau CdP, etc. A few times even at restaurant mark ups!

Now some wines like the 2007 Poisot Romanée-Saint-Vivant and the wines featured in my Walla Walla Musings post, I do get to taste at tastings open to industry/media and I often get my tasting fees waived at wineries for being in the industry–but with each wine I always default back to the question of “Would I pay $$ to purchase this wine?”

If I’m tasting it blind and I don’t know the cost, I ascribe a price point that I feel would be good value if I was buying the wine.

But unlike Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson, James Suckling and the like, I’m not trying to be a professional wine critic or consumer advocate. I’m just a geek who likes to drink.

I rate wines on my personal scale of if I think they’re worth spending money on because ultimately that’s what I’m interested in–do I want to buy this wine (again)? Just as other folks have their own personal tastes, people also have their own personal scale of value.

That’s perfectly fine and, frankly, is the reason why I put the “Verdict” section at the very bottom of each review. My opinion is just my opinion and, besides, it’s really the “Geekery” section where you’ll find the good stuff anyways.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/10/18 — Rising Wine Prices, Reviewing Young Wine and Flashcards

Here is what I’m reading today in the world of wine.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

Wine prices to rise as bad weather brings worst harvest for 50 years by Zoe Wood (@zoewoodguardian) of The Guardian (@guardian). Brought to my dash via John Corcoran (@jncorcoran1).

2017 was pretty much a rough vintage across the globe with yields hitting some of the lowest levels seen in over 50 years. The Drinks Business had a particularly eye-opening chart about just how low crop levels were in Bordeaux.

There is going to be consequences to what has been called “The worst global harvest since 1961” with the most immediate being seen in increased prices for early release wines such as sparkling Prosecco and white wines like Pinot grigio.

Now this article is written from a UK POV and for US consumers, I don’t think the situation is quite as dire. As we noted in the 3/6 edition of Geek Notes, the 2017 vintage in Washington was actually the second largest in state history. While there was some bumpiness in Oregon and California, for the most part the major wine producing areas of the US emerged from 2017 in good shape.

That said, this article is still helpful for US wine drinkers to consider because we will likely see higher prices for European wines–particularly Prosecco and Rioja–simply because there will be less supply. Especially with Prosecco’s continued and sustained popularity, sparkling wines fans are going to have to pay the piper of market demand. Now instinct would think that Cava would be the beneficiary of Prosecco consumers looking elsewhere but, like Rioja, the Cava DOs had their issues in 2017.

Perhaps producers in the budding Oregon sparkling wine industry will capitalize on this moment with introducing value priced bubbles?

Great acidity, great fruit, great structure. This young 2016 Red Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon could be great–but right now it is just a baby.

Young Red Wine, Wise Red Wine by Meg Houston Maker (@megmaker) of Terroir Review. Brought to my dash via Vino101 (@Vino101net).

Every year the market sees a flood of brand spanking new wines emerge for people to enjoy. But the thing is, a lot of these new wines simply aren’t ready to be enjoyed yet.

Still these fresh-faced, juvenile wines are sent to critics to be reviewed and to wine shops to be put on the shelf as soon as the previous vintage is sold.

In many ways, it is unfair to judge these wines critically and Meg Houston Maker goes through the process of what it is like as a critic trying to play prognosticator of a wine’s future.

Meg’s post has particular resonance for me after finishing my 60 Second Review of the Oh-So-Young-But-Potentially-Oh-So-Good 2016 Hedges In Vogue Cabernet Sauvignon. At around $30 for a Red Mountain Cab from a top producer, it certainly looks like it could be an absolute steal of a wine that may be worth stocking up on. But it just so young right now and while my gut instinct feels like its going to develop into something magnificent, at this point it is just what Houston Maker says–an exercise in prognostication.

Something fun to get your Geek-on!

Via Reddit, I discovered this cool Instagram account featuring Wine Study Flashcards. There are over 150 flashcards so far, covering a variety of topics and the account looks to be fairly active with periodically adding new flashcards.

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Jancis Robinson — The Beyoncé of Wine

Photo by Financial Times. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0

The world of wine has a long history of influential women.

It’s quite possible that the first “accidental winemakers” were women who were often responsible for gathering fruit and storing them in jars that would later start fermenting. Ancient cultures are awashed with stories of wine goddesses like Paget, Siduri and Renen-utet.

In more recent history, we have the notable widows of Champagne and the trailblazing women winemakers of California as well as numerous other women figures from across the globe.

But for me, no woman in wine has been more influential than British Master of Wine and writer Jancis Robinson.

Independent Woman

My very well loved and well used 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Robinson studied mathematics and philosophy at St. Anne’s College of Oxford University, graduating with a Masters degree in 1971. Her original goal was to write about fashion but tasting a 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses at Oxford enraptured her with the world of wine. In 1975, she accepted a position as an assistant editor for Wine & Spirit trade publication where she worked till 1980. During this time she began her studies for the Wine & Spirit Education Trust–earning the Rouyer-Guillet cup as the top Diploma student in 1978.

In 1983, she helped launched the The Wine Programme on British television which was the world’s first television series dedicated to the topic of wine.

Initially, the diploma level was the highest level that a person outside the wine trade could achieve. But, in 1984, the Institute of Masters of Wine finally opened up the MW exams to non-trade personnel. Jancis Robinson was one of the first to take the exam. She passed on her first try–becoming the first non-trade professional, male or female, to earn the title. She was the 11th female Master of Wine, following in the footsteps of Sarah Morphew Stephen who was the first in 1970.

In 1990, Robinson became the wine correspondent for the Financial Times. By 1994, she was editing the first edition of the Oxford Companion to Wine. While managing a team of contributors that ballooned up to 167 by the time the 3rd edition came out in 2006, Robinson personally wrote more than a third of the almost 4000 entries. It has been described by The Washington Post as “the greatest wine book ever published.” In 2015, a 4th edition was released.

Irreplaceable

2006 was also the year that I discovered my own passion for wine–at Disney World’s Epcot Center of all places. Touring around the different food pavilions, my 24 year old palate fell in love with the Valcklenberg Madonna Riesling. It wasn’t 1959 Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses but that was enough to get me hooked and wanting to learn more.

I’ve had my geeky proclivities since I was child, reading for fun things like the Encyclopedia Britannica in my free time. I loved getting lost in what I called “red text journeys” where I started reading an entry, following one of the capitalized red text words to a subsequent entry and so forth till I hit a dead-end. Then I would pick another entry and start again.

It was at Barnes and Noble when I first laid eyes on the beauty that was the Oxford Companion to Wine. The new pages smelled divine and my eyes lit up as I saw all the different entries (and RED TEXT WORDS!) Here was my new Brittanica! Of course, I flipped straight to the Riesling entry which covered 3 pages.

Another well loved and well marked up tome.

Bringing it home, I starting following the red text words from Riesling to German History to Wild Vine to Phylloxera to Bordeaux and on along an endless ride that touched nearly every corner of the world of wine. The history entries and wine regions particularly enticed me as I saw a web connecting my fascination with history and geography to this continuing story about wine. It was a story that I wanted to put more in context which led me to Jancis Robinson’s Wine Course.

Crazy In Love

It was about 2007 when I purchased the DVD series and companion book. I watched the 10 episodes with my wife but the book was all mine to mark up and annotate to my heart’s desire. Here I learned some of the nitty gritty details about tasting wine, deciphering wine labels as well as learning how grape varieties and place intertwined. From interviews Robinson had with people like Dominique Lafon, Lalou Bize Leroy, Didier Dagueneau and Randall Grahm, I learned more about the stories of the people behind the wine which made the time and effort they put into the bottle come to life for me.

It was also at this time that I slowly started moving away from the comfort of my sweet Rieslings to drier whites and then finally reds. How could I not? Watching Jancis enjoy and describe these wines made them too irresistible to not want to at least try!

My “crush on wine” was becoming full blown love at this point and I started entertaining ideas of pursuing a career in wine.

In 2008, I left working retail management and dived head first into achieving my first certification with a Certified Specialist in Wine (CSW) from the Society of Wine Educators. That opened the door to working as a wine steward for a major grocery chain. Unfortunately that chain didn’t have much commitment to training and furthering the wine knowledge of its stewards but I didn’t despair. I had Jancis Robinson.

By this point my collection of her books had expanded to include Vines, Grapes & Wines: The Wine Drinker’s Guide to Grape Varieties and the 5th Edition of the World Atlas of Wine which caused me to audibly squeal with joy when I discovered the used copy I bought on Amazon came signed by both Robinson and co-author Hugh Johnson.

All the Single Grapes

I startled my wife when I opened the cover of the World Atlas of Wine and saw this.
She thought there might have been a spider!

I became an active contributor to Wikipedia’s Wine Project as User:Agne27 where I set about to substantially rewrite and expand many of Wikipedia’s wine articles–with my trusty Oxford Companion to Wine at my side. When Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz released their magnum opus of ampelography and geekdom, Wine Grapes, that became another immensely valuable tool. Until the sexism and politics of Wikipedia drove me away, I was pretty darn committed to creating a Wikipedia entry for all 1,368 grapes that Robinson and Co. enlivened my world with.

In 1200+ articles I worked on for Wikipedia, I don’t think there was a single one that didn’t reference one of Robinson’s works. In my opinion, she was the benchmark standard for reliability when it came to wine. While I found other wine authors and references, if there was ever a conflict of sources, I always went back to Robinson as the most authoritative word on the matter.

For the most part, I toiled away in the obscurity of crowd-sourcing–not really expecting any kind of recognition. But I have to admit that my heart did flutter a bit when I read a 2015 post by Jancis Robinson on her Purple Pages about What future for expertise? where she noted that she often finds the Oxford Companion cited at the bottom of Wikipedia articles.

I know that reference wasn’t exactly meant to be a compliment.

But she noticed!

Though I always tried my best to rewrite and regurgitate into my own words what I learned, I do feel that my frequent citations of her work is a testament to the unpayable debt I have to her. I wanted people who visited Wikipedia to see the Oxford Companion to Wine, Wine Grapes and her other works cited.  I learned so much during those years and it all comes back to Jancis Robinson.

And I’m still learning from her.

All you have to do is look at the word cloud at the bottom of this blog’s front page to see how large the font is for the Jancis Robinson tag. She is still my benchmark standard and, frankly, my hero. To me, she’s bigger than Beyoncé.

A growing collection. Each one as marked up, highlighted and wine stained as the next.

The 1500+ words in this post can never do justice in encapsulating all the many ways she has inspired and encouraged me in this journey. I can only dream of ever accomplishing a fraction of what she has done. But everything that I will end up accomplishing, anyone that I will ever inspire to fall in love with wine and thirst to learn more will be because of Jancis Robinson.

I’m working on the WSET diploma level and, someday, I hope to join Jancis in the ranks of 125+ female Masters of Wine. If I ever do get to that point and go to London to get my MW, you better believe that I will be packing my trusty 3rd Edition of the Oxford Companion of Wine.

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Wine Geek Notes 3/3/18 — Rose Cider, Parker Points and Washington Wine History.

Photo by THOR. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons under CC-BY-2.0
This is what I’ve been reading today in the world of wine and beverages.

Interesting Tweets and Weblinks

The Year of Rosé Cider Is Upon Us by Mike Pomranz (@pomranz) for Food & Wine magazine (@foodandwine). This made its way to my dash via #WiningHourChat (@WiningHourChat).

Good to see a legit article from Food & Wine after the BS they published from their “Champagne Master/Wine Prophet”. The picture of the red fleshed Amour Rouge species of apple is gorgeous and makes my mouth water. But where the article really shines is in shedding light on all the many different ways that cider producers can add color to their ciders–hibiscus and rose petals, maceration with red wine grape skins, etc. Very interesting and worth a read to stay a step ahead of what will undoubtedly be one of the top beverage trends of the summer.

Do Parker points matter any more? from @jamiegoode

The blog post (from one of my favorite wine writers/tool) is worth a read but so are the comments in reply to Jamie’s tweet which includes insight from The Wine Cellar Insider (@JeffLeve), Master of Wine Elizabeth Gabay (@LizGabayMW) and several others.

I think my view is summed up well in the reply made by MW student and Waitrose category manager Anne Jones (@AnneEJones). Points matter to the wine drinkers who want them to matter while other drinkers could care less. Different strokes for different folks.

March is Taste Washington Wine Month

All this month I will be focusing on Washington wines with my 60 Second Reviews. While researching for my reviews of the 2014 Scarborough Stand Alone Cabernet Sauvignon and 2015 Browne Family Vineyards Site Series Cabernet Sauvignon, I came across two links that caught my eye.

Associated Vintners — Washington’s Academic Winemakers (April 2016) by Peter Blecha for the Seattle Office of Arts & Culture.

Photo taken by self. Uploaded to Wikimedia Commons as User:Agne27 under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Red Willow Vineyard where David Lake and his team at Columbia helped Mike Sauer and his crew at Red Willow plant the Syrah that would become one of the first commercial bottlings of the variety in Washington.

Tremendous essay on the history of Associated Vintners (AV). So much history was made by this winery (now known as Columbia Winery) including having the first vintage dated varietal wines, first Pinot gris, first commercial Syrah with Red Willow and first Washington Master of Wine with David Lake. I learned several things from this article including the interesting connection between William B. Bridgman (of Harrison Hill fame) and AV.

Regular readers may remember from my Wine Clubs Done Right post that Columbia Winery holds a special place in my heart as one of the first Washington wines to make me go “WOW!” and the first wine club I ever joined. It was also were my mentor, Peter Bos, served as cellarmaster to David Lake and much of what I learned about winemaking was about how things were done “back in the day” at Columbia. Seeing the changes in style of Columbia was one of my first big disappointments in the wine industry. Still, this engaging and well written piece about such an important part of Washington wine history was a joy to read.

Another Seattle winery served legal papers over naming issue (May 2015) by Lindsey Cohen of KOMO News.

This is not as much about the joy of the Washington wine industry as a “WTF are you serious?” piece about the realities of the wine world. I came across this while researching the Scarborough article where I learned that Travis Scarborough got hit with a cease and desist letter from former 49ers exec Carmen Policy’s Casa Piena vineyards because the name of one of his wine club tiers (Full House) was similar to the English translation of Casa Piena.

As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, Cohen interviews another small local Washington producer, Bartholomew Winery, that had similar issues because a wine named after one of the owner’s sons, Jaxon, was apparently too close to Jackson Family Estates (of Kendall-Jackson fame). Good grief! The sad truth of the matter is aptly summed up by Scarborough in the article–“They’ve already won…because when they send that out they know I can’t fight back.”

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Jamie Goode is a tool

by Dezertscorpion on Wikimedia Commons released under PD-Self
So is Robert Parker.

And Jancis Robinson.

And Antonio Galloni, Allen Meadows, Michel Bettane, James Suckling, James Laube, Alice Feiring, Karen MacNeil, Tom Wark.

Tools.

Frankly, so am I. But rather than one of the nice Sears Craftsman or Ryobi tools from Lowes, I’m more of the extra Phillips-head screw driver you picked up at the dollar store on impulse. A tool stashed away at the bottom of a kitchen drawer but a tool none the less.

All wine writers are tools which is why I read Jamie Goode’s defense of wine criticism and expertise on Vine Pair, Wine Critics Matter Because Some Opinions Are Better Than Others, with great amusement. The source of Goode’s ire is the view that the musings of wine critics like him are merely personal opinions and, since everyone has an opinion, there is not enough due credit given to the value and experience of expert opinions like his.

This is not a new complaint with many critics such as Jancis Robinson commenting on how the proliferation of smartphones and websites like Wikipedia and CellarTracker creates an arena where the esteemed opinion of a Master of Wine like hers has to fight for attention. Even outside of wine, many commentators have noted a general apathy towards “expert opinions” with anti-intellectualism being a full-fledged cultural movement in the West.

In this day and age since everyone has an opinion, everyone is an expert. It’s no wonder that this modern arena of ideas is terrifying for folks who have devoted years of time, patience and labor into building a well of experience and expertise in their trade.

But what should be the response of the beleaguered experts who find themselves shouting into the void of crowd-sourced expertise?

Show, don’t tell.

I suppose the opinion from the god of wine, Bacchus, would be better than most. But only on wine. Not sure how much I would trust his opinion on fashion.

Jamie Goode is quite right in that there is immense value in the writings and opinions of wine experts like him. But it is not because he’s a pontiff, whose opinion and superior palate is blessed to be better than that of us regular joes.

It’s because he’s a tool. A tool that been honed and tested over time to produce reliable and dependable results. The value in wine critics like Jamie Goode is not in their opinion, itself, but in the background story and context that they can bring. When the average wine drinker is limited to the extent of their wallet and options at the local liquor store, a critic that can take them into the vineyard and winery offers a lens to the world of wine that can’t be gleamed from Wikipedia or in the pages of a new wine book.

This was a conclusion that Jancis Robinson, herself, came to during her existential pondering on the state of wine writing today.

But could it also have something to do with the fact that, even in this era of the citizen critic, my 40 years of visiting vineyards, listening to winemakers, watching trends emerge, making comparisons and seeing wines evolve from barrel to decades in bottle might just be regarded as worth something? — Jancis Robinson, The Financial Times September 4th, 2015

Jamie Goode is wrong in that his opinion, or final pronouncements on wine, is better. No one really cares if he picks up apricots and quince aromas or finds a wine to be exceptionally well balanced. Opinions are just the holiday wrapping around the package. Some packages are more skillfully wrapped than others. But really anyone with some tape and paper can wrap a package or deliver an opinion about wine.

Give a monkey a typewriter…. and he will be able to wrap Christmas gifts better than me.

The value in Jamie Goode’s expertise comes in what’s inside the package.

There his readers can unpack his years of observations and experience, following winemakers and wine regions as they emerge and evolve, gaining from him a perspective and tools that will ultimately help them get more pleasure out of finding and drinking new wines.

The value in anyone’s opinion peters out when the subjectivity of taste comes in. What might be a fabulous wine to one person could be just “meh” or even downright awful to another. Wine drinkers do not need wine experts to tell them what is good. Instead, show us why you think its good.

Show us the story behind the wine. Show us the care in the vineyard or winery that shaped the wine’s journey from grape to glass. Show us where this fits in the big picture of the world of wine and maybe, just maybe, our opinion of the wine’s greatness will eventually fall in line with the “better” expert opinion.

Show, don’t tell.

Because wine writers are tools, not pontiffs.

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