“I don't listen to what art critics say. I don't know anybody who needs a critic to find out what art is.” …. Jean-Michael Basquiat

This will probably be the least read but most important blog post I’ve written:  It asks: “What is a wine review, really?” What does it mean for you? How should you take what the wine critic says  (I prefer the term wine “reviewer”) to mean for you?

As with any review of wine, it’s important to remember a few things.  Pliny the Elder, a Roman historian, said “The best wine is that which taste good to thine own palette.”   He said that over two thousand years ago and I believe it still applies today.  Updating that for students in my “Wine 101 Appreciation” classes, I tell them: “Don’t let the wine snobs bully you.”  Certainly, most somms and reviewers are not intentionally trying to make you feel inadequate.  You just need to understand they are operating off a list of bullet points as to what makes a wine average, good or excellent.  And these bullet points (acquired through a disciplined course of study or years of passionate independent study) may be more detailed and nuanced than yours.  But your tastes are your tastes, funded by your wallet and you’re entitled to them without apologizing.

It’s also important to be aware that no matter the “wine expert’s” level of knowledge, he/she comes to a declaration of the wine’s quality with a lifelong of prejudice.  And this is something most experts don’t admit.  Yes, it’s true that there are objective standards universally accepted as to what markers identify excellent wine. But every reviewer will tell you that he or she has tasted wines they thought were over or under rated.  Why is that?  And since these differences of opinion are fact, then what does a wine review really mean to you?

Grapes are fruit, but a fruit forward
wine is not the same as a fruit wine.
In my own case, my prejudice is toward “old world” style wines.  I bring that preference of style with me to every wine I taste.  Unconsciously.  Everyone in this business acknowledges that “blind tasting” is necessary.  Knowing what wine you are tasting, for example, -- seeing the label and knowing its reputation -- will affect your evaluation.   But how do you “blind” a taste preference that was acquired decades ago, reinforced over time and that now is firmly implanted in your physiology?  You can’t.  Not completely. 

Let’s use my own prejudice as an example. When I became of legal age to buy wine in my home state in the Midwest, California (new world) was growing prunes, almonds, apricots and other agricultural products.  Some wine, of course, was being produced and some of it was quite good.  But its distribution was limited. What was commonly available, in even small neighborhood liquor stores, was French (old world).  Much of Western AND Eastern Europe had been making wine almost since dirt was invented. But even so, quality wine from Spain, Italy and other countries was primarily being enjoyed within the borders of those countries.  New York State enjoyed some shelf space, but red wine was limited to Cabernet Franc with Riesling being the white option. Bordeaux from France, on the other hand, was plentiful and inexpensive.  It was being exported from top Chateaus with an uninterrupted history (no Prohibition experiment there) going back hundreds of years within the same proud family.  As were the craftsmen of Europe’s guild system respected, winemaking in families was craft. And the French were respected the world over for establishing the standard.

That changed with The Judgment of Paris in 1976, or better said –
Can your Sauvignon Blanc be grassy?
The Judgment of Paris put California on the world stage. But by that time, it was too late. My palette had matured through “old world” style wine: less fruit forward and with more earthy notes, and that taste introduction became the marker for identifying what made, for me,  good wine.  I often say, I don’t just taste the fruit but the whole “process”… the earth, the barrel and everything else.  For me, that defines balance. But how about you?  No wine reviewer can completely shuck himself of his prejudices.  So when you read a review, understand that some of that praise for a wine is distinctly personal to the reviewer’s personal preferred style.  And the reviewer’s personal preferred style may be different than yours.  Ever read a movie review heavy with praise for a film that you then went to see and thought stunk?

The taste can be had
but only in some.
And there are other considerations even more unpleasant to admit: As we age, our bodies change. Our palettes, our sense of smell may become less sensitive. But more confusing is that our tastes may change in opposing directions.  So while we may prefer our food more aggressively seasoned, we may prefer our wines to be softer, less tannic.  Or we may not.

A good reviewer must be aware of all these things and put forth some conscious effort to become free of the effect of any prejudice when tasting a wine for review.  Recently, I tasted a California Pinot Noir rich in fruit (blueberry) and about as “new world” in style as a wine could be. It was delicious. It was beyond delicious!  I absolutely loved this wine. Its mouthfeel, the finish, the way everything worked together was just so well done that I couldn’t help but sing its praises.  But, for me, such wines are more exceptional than common.  And while my taste preference may be leaning somewhat now toward softer, more fruit forward wines even that definition establishes an area that is difficult to communicate.  Exactly how fruity must a wine be before it is fruit forward?  And where along the journey of a changing palette is that wine reviewer when writing about that wine?

Finally, let’s look at this area of communication.  Somms-critics-reviewers use words like body, back taste, legs, and descriptors like forest floor and other strange terms when describing wine.  There are many who use this against them. This too is unfair.  As in any craft, there is a necessary jargon.  Talk to a lab technician, a chef or a mechanic and you will see that the language of their craft is established to provide a common understanding. So too with wine.  The wine reviewer is using these terms to help you understand what you may expect to taste from that wine, whether it’s cellarable or not, what foods the wine may best pair against.  Understanding wine language will enhance your understanding of any wine review and increase your appreciation of wine.  Numerous inexpensive books can help you with this. Four of my favorites are: (1) Windows on the World Complete Wine Course by Kevin Zraly (2) Wine. A Tasting Course by Marnie Old (3) the Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil and (4) The Everyday Guide to Wine (a book and video course) by Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan.

Any one of these books will help you better understand your own tastes.  You’ll learn what it is in wine that you enjoy – wines of low/high acid for example. Or cool climate vs. warm climate Pinot Noir. What’s the benefit? You’ll be more comfortable ordering wine in restaurants and when perusing the aisles in a big-box wine store. You’ll chose fewer wines that you don’t enjoy and more that you do.  You’ll be better able to pair wine with food and not have to resort to pulling out the old standby.  Learning is fun and the experience is immediately joyful.  And you won’t be intimidated by the wine snobs.

All this, of course, is at great risk to me because with all that new found knowledge, why would you need a reviewer?   

……………. Jim
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