Tag Archives: Wine Critics

Don’t Be a Jackass and Blindly Listen to Bloggers

A very well loved and well used tome.

Including yours truly.

Because frankly there is a lot of silly stuff everywhere. Case in point: Champagne Masters and their Bull Shit.

However, that doesn’t mean you should hide in a cave, clinging to your old worn out and marked up copy of The Oxford Companion to Wine. As with trying new wines, its always worth exploring different opinions and voices. But remember, just like with wine, you don’t have to swallow everything.

Sometimes it’s good to spit, like with some of the advice that Barri Segal is giving in their Cheat Sheet article titled Things You Should Never Say at a Wine Tasting.

The article starts out with some good advice about using wine tasting events as a chance to try new things and includes worthwhile tidbits about not assuming that only women drink rosés, not chastising people for using spit buckets or trying to pour your own servings. Some of Segal’s advice is certainly worth swallowing. But there is also a lot worth spitting out.

So let’s grab a spit bucket and take a gander at Segal’s most “spittable advice”. I’m going to be using Segal’s numbering which gets a little weird with multiple #7s and #10s.

2. “Which type of barrel was this wine aged in?”

For this entry, Segal is referencing Kris Chislett’s post on Blog Your Wine titled Pretentious Things to Say at a Wine Tasting, Should You Want to which was written as satire under the “Funny” category. But Segal takes the idea that you shouldn’t ask what kind of barrel is used to make a wine because all that matters is if the wine taste good.

Bull shit.

By Gerard Prins - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,on Wikimedia Commons

Now if you start asking which particular forest the barrel wood came from….


The point of wine tasting is to learn what you like. One of the things that is helpful in discovering your tastes is noticing patterns.

You may notice that you like wines with sweet vanilla and coconut flavors. Chances are those are wines were aged in American oak barrels. You may notice that you like more subtle baking spices like cinnamon, clove and nutmeg. Most likely those were wines aged in French oak barrels. You may end up liking something that has only a little bit of those oak flavors. For you, knowing that the winemaker is only aging part of their wines in new oak (which gives the most intense flavors) and part in neutral oak barrels (barrels that have be used 3 or more times) is helpful knowledge.

And that is not even talking about wines aged in whiskey barrels which have very distinctive taste characteristics.

So ask away! Anyone representing a winery at these events should have this information available.

3. “What percentage malo is this wine?”

This entry was segue from the last “faux pas” with the notation that it is “A totally idiotic question”.

Bull shit.

Segal also took this one from Chislett’s piece where Chislett notes:

“If someone at a wine tasting asks me “What percentage malo did this wine go through?”, I’ll normally respond with “Can’t you tell by tasting it?”

What?

Again, I know Chislett’s piece is satire but this is like hearing a song on the radio and asking who sings it only to be told “Can’t you tell by hearing it?”

No, Karen. I can’t. At least not yet.

By U.S. Navy photo by Chief Warrant Officer 4 Seth Rossman. - http://www.news.navy.mil/view_single.asp?id=9384, Public Domain, on Wikimedia Commons

It’s Britney, bitch!
No wait…I mean it’s 2/3 malo aged in new French oak with 1/3 kept apart in stainless steel.
Bitch.


The point of asking is to learn and just as you may eventually catch on and recognize a particular singer’s voice, you can also learn to taste malo in wine. While even Masters of Wine and Master Sommeliers probably can’t nail exact percentages of malolactic fermentation used in various buttery Chardonnays, after enough tasting you can start to get a sense if a wine was made fully malo or just partially.

It all comes back to finding patterns and learning about what you like. To do that, you need to ask questions and it is ridiculous when bloggers shame people into thinking that their questions are idiotic.

5. “I can taste the terroir in this wine”

Alright, I’ll concede that this statement can come across in certain circumstances as pompous. But so is shaming people who may have just learned about the term terroir and are excited to explore how it relates to wine.

One of the most exhilarating moments in many people’s wine journey is that light bulb “Aha!” when you taste the differences between wines made from the same grape, by the same winemaker, in the same vintage but from two different vineyards. On the surface it seems like there is no logical reason why these two wines taste different but they do and that difference is terroir. Having that light bulb go off often ignites a passion in wine lovers that encourages them to keep exploring, keep looking under the surface to figure out why these wines they adore taste the way they do.

It’s why Burgundy exists and why vineyard designated wines are often a winery’s top cuvee.

This “faux pas” also comes from Chrislett who I suspect is not being as satirical when he says:

Personally I believe that terrior plays a major role in the overall flavor of the grapes once they reach the winery, but from that point on it’s all in the hands of the winemaker. For that reason, you could also say: “…mmm, you can really taste the wine-maker in this wine!”

To which I would say, “Yes, Karen. I can. In the oak barrels they use and the amount of malo.”

7. “I’ll buy the bottle with the cool label” (or rather 7c)

Submitted without comment or judgement.

I know this chafes a lot sommeliers and retailers to hear but, for me, as long as it doesn’t include the word “only” then I’m cool.

Let’s face it, standing in front of a literal wall of wine at a store is intimidating. There are so many choices. While you would hope that there is a knowledgeable wine associate nearby that could help guide a consumer to a great bottle, sometimes there isn’t.

I would much rather have someone have a label catch their eye that gives them a reason to try it then to have them fall back to just drinking their same ole, same ole. If they take it home and it sucks (like, admittedly, many gimmicky labeled wines often do), then lesson learned and there is no reason to buy that wine again. They can move on to something new. If the wine shop they’re buying from is really awesome, they may be able to even take that sucky wine back and exchange it for something else that catches their eye.

Bottom line, if you are always trying new things–regardless of the reason why the bottle interests you–then you are on the right path. I’m not going to shame you or make you feel bad for liking a cool label but I will always encourage you to be open to trying things with sucky labels. Sometimes those are the best wines.

8. “What is Robert Parker’s rating for this wine?”

This is another thing that, admittedly, does make wine professionals inwardly (and sometimes outwardly) roll their eyes. That is because the number one mantra in the wine industry is that taste is personal and just because a wine critic loves or loathes something doesn’t mean it’s going to match your opinion. And, really, in the end all that matters is your opinion because you are the one who is putting it in your mouth.

Photo by Vinnie4568 . Released on Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The Wine-Twitteracy in still life.


But what these eye-rolling wine pros often forget is that Robert Parker, like Jamie Goode, is a tool. Especially for newbie wine drinkers who are still learning what their personal taste is, it’s helpful to hear an expert’s opinion on a wine. But the key is to make sure the newbie drinker knows that it is perfectly fine to disagree with the experts.

In fact, the most ideal approach for those newbies is to notice how their own tastes calibrate with the experts with certain wines. They may find that they really jive with Parker’s opinions on Rhone-style wines but find his opinions on Napa Cabs completely off from theirs. That’s fantastic and it sharpens the effectiveness of using that tool.

But just as our tool boxes at home aren’t limited to just a single screw driver, so too, should we be open to the usefulness of having a variety of tools and opinions at our disposal. You might find that Jancis Robinson’s opinion on Napa Cabernets fits your taste more. Even better, you might find the tastes of your local wine shop employee and yours go hand in hand.

Truly the best advice that any wine lover can take to heart is to keep tasting and to keep asking questions. There really are no rules or right way or wrong way to go about it. It’s your time, your money, your mouth. So own that and take your own path.

But you are completely welcome to spit all that I just said right into the bucket. In fact, I couldn’t be more proud if you did.

A Magnitude of Triviality

I greatly respect Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator. I love his writing style, particularly his Making Sense series of books, where he makes frequent use of anecdote and relatable metaphors to explain wine concepts. It’s a plain spoken style that I often try to emulate in my own writings and teachings on wine. But Matt Kramer is also a wine critic and as such is prone to the same navel-gazing and self justification for their existence that all critics indulge themselves in from time to time. The most recent example comes from his explanation of the difference between professional wine critics like him and mere wine loving folks. For Kramer, it was about differences in magnitude.

Think of it this way. You’ve seen a certain movie a dozen times, then two dozen times. You know it intimately. You begin to notice things you missed the first time or two. Then, after the tenth time, small elements begin to loom ever larger. By the twentieth time, that effect gets magnified yet more.

This is the critic’s perspective. After tasting 200 or 500 Cabernets from a single vintage, it’s not that you’re bored (although that’s surely possible). Rather, it’s that, often unconsciously, what to anyone else seems a very small difference is precisely what captures your attention and excites you.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

I sincerely apologize if this post causes you to spend several minutes of your life wondering if Matt Kramer has a navel piercing.

The shorthand summary of this quote and the article is that wine critics are important because they taste so much and therefore can pick out the minute differences in wine that most people often do not. While this is undoubtedly true and Kramer’s logic is quite sound, it does beg the question that if the “magnitude of difference” between a 95 point wine and a 94 point wine is derived from these minute differences that only become apparent when awash in a sea of peers–then what’s the value of that to regular consumers? If they’re not going to be able to pick up on these subtle differences, then why would they care if those notes are in a 95 point wine but not a 94 points wine?

The point where a “magnitude of difference” become a “magnitude of triviality”

It’s okay to look at wine scores as a reference point. When you are a consumer, looking at a literal wall of wine in front of you, it can be comforting seeing a sign that says “95 points! Wine Spectator” or “94 points! Beverage Dynamics”. It’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking that because someone thinks this highly rated wine is good it must be a “good wine.” But you have to remember that while it may be a “good bottle”, that doesn’t mean that it is a “good wine” for you.

It’s important to understand that Kramer’s “Magnitude of Difference” between a critic and someone like you cuts both ways. All the knowledge that he’s acquired, all the bottles that he’s tasted has shaped his palate to where it is. Yes, he will certainly taste and pick up on things in the wine that you won’t but that also means that you will taste things and focus on aspects of the wine in ways that he won’t. Your “magnitude of triviality” is different and that matters a lot when you consider that you are the one that is ultimately consuming (after likely paying for) the wine.

This is why you should always fall back on yourself, your palate and what gives you pleasure as the final arbitrator of what is “good”. I don’t care if someone is telling you this is one of the greatest bottles of all time, from an amazing vintage and a prestigious estate with critics falling over themselves to award it 100 points. If that bottle doesn’t give you pleasure then, for you, its not really a “good wine”.

It’s just a wine that other people liked.