Tasting versus drinking, again

I have a worry. It’s that wine critics are doing too much tasting and not enough drinking.

The competition amongst the critics is becoming intense. As the Robert Parker era closes, there’s a bit of a power struggle. The point-scorers are vying for power. Who will have influence?

The wine world is now too big for one critic to cover. So what we see is teams of critics emerging. Their strategy is to try to be as comprehensive as possible. So they all try t0 out-taste each other. They try to be first. The result is that these hard-working critics taste hundreds of wines a session.

On one level I understand the approach. I can taste 150 wines in a day and give a relatively accurate verdict at the commercial level. But I cannot taste 150 fine wines in a day and discriminate among them. At the top end, we are talking about a level of discrimination that’s quite different.

For serious wine, we need to take our time. Drinking helps, too. I would rather jump off the competitive treadmill, taste fewer wines, and give a more considered, accurate, insightful opinion. My goal with wineanorak is to steer people towards the sorts of wines that I think deserve attention. The best way for me to do this is to combine large tastings (which are necessary for context) with some proper wine drinking. It is only when you sit down with a bottle that you begin to get to know it.

It’s the difference between shaking hands with someone, followed by a quick chat, and spending the evening with someone.

If critics carry on with their numbers approach (‘We’ve tasted and rated 2000 wines from this vintage’) they will prove increasingly irrelevant to wine lovers who can share their more considered opinions via social media.

16 comments to Tasting versus drinking, again

  • Hadn’t really thought about this too much before, but I am glad you brought it up. I have tasted 30+ wines in a single sitting, but never 100+. Even when you spit consistently, after 10 wines (especially reds), your palate starts to become overwhelmed. You are 100% right about what it takes to truly get to know a wine. I also think your comments are especially true when tasting blends and seriously complex cool climate wines. Maybe this is the reason why I am finding critics’ ratings are becoming less and less helpful.

  • Well said, tasting a wine evolve over a meal is the best way to assess it and trying it a day later gives an even better view.

  • keith prothero

    Could not agree more. I take far more notice of your and other tasting notes when drunk over time with food.
    Which is why I tend to take more credence of notes by gifted amateurs such as Simon Grant,than I do of most professionals ,unless I know the context of when the wines were tasted.
    Frankly,it wold be very useful for professional tasters to give this information.

  • I agree with Keith that context is very important.

    Another key bit of information often missing from tasting notes is how a wine evolves in the glass and over the course of an evening – this is often the source (sauce?) of interest and delight for wine lovers, but it cannot be picked up from a quick slurp and spit.

  • Another great post, Jamie. Personally, I find that opening more than 8 – 10 wines in a day is too much as I evaluate them over a period of 24 hours. This isn’t the first I have heard of a backlash against a publication making the proclamation of “2000 (insert region) wines reviewed in this issue.” Sometimes less is more. Many winemakers I taste with privately tell me they dislike the speed tastings that some critics utilize yet recognize it is part of the process of getting reviewed.

  • This is so true! In the same sense it can be a great wine but just not your preferred style. It can be a good quality wine that you know others will enjoy and like and as such it should get a worthy review. Mrs Prosecco at the school gate is perfectly pleasant (and loved by many!)but I’d rather share a villa on hols with the Champagne clan.

  • Next person who says a wine was ‘showing well’ on a specific day gets a black eye. It’s not a film!

  • Marlene Rossman

    Once,at a competition, I had to taste 300 Merlots over a three day period. By the middle of the second day, I was over it–everything tasted the same. So, I slowed down ate an olive and some crackers and while I did not taste all 300, I came close.

    These competitions, to my mind, are rather useless. Most folks (at the judging) get palate fatigue very quickly-even those, such as I, are experienced tasters, but there is a limit…

  • Bertie Eden

    “They” did a tasting recently that was published somewhere that tasted several wines over 4 days and the wines all got best marks on day 3. Anyhow yes too many critics judging too quickly so many wines. I get points that vary from 87 to 96 on the same wine depending upon which part of the world the critic is tasting. Last year one wine in USA judged by two USA journals 89 & then 94, one month apart. So its nonsense and rubbish and we need to give the consumer a fair critic. Impossible you say and i think you’re right. I find it strange that Parker still reigns and all those that copy his system have never reached the same level of power. Something new has to be set up. Using tech tools available we have to unite join together and be serious in time with the wine, etc etc..don’t have the solution but am looking. wow i hate medals and the IWC as well.

  • A nice post Jamie, and while I agree with the overall sentiment (that drinking provides valid opinion and should not be discounted versus tasting) you make many questionable statements in my opinion.

    First, can you point me in the direction of these teams of critics that are “emerging”? I haven’t seen any such development. Jancis has long had a team-based approach, The Wine Advocate too. Suckling is effectively flying solo save for a few blog-style contributors. Galloni also flies solo. I’m struggling to find these new teams that are trying to out-taste each other, in an apparent response to what you call the “close” of the Parker era.

    Second, where is this evidence that the Parker era is closing? He continues to rate Bordeaux annually, has taken up California again, and continues at the head of the Wine Advocate. His scores are all over wine lists. OK, he has handed Rhône reviews onto someone else, but that’s hardly the “end of an era”. If you’re predicting retirement, you probably need to look a long way into the future. I think that his energy and enthusiasm will see him continue for many years yet. He may (speculating) even be contracted/expected to continue for many years yet by the WA owners.

    In short I think you’re over-stating the way the wine world is evolving; it is changing, yes, but you’re over-egging the pudding a bit here. Especially when it comes to your suggestion that Wineanorak is different because you “combine large tastings with some proper wine drinking”. Show me a wine critic who doesn’t engage – very frequently, if not daily – in a bit of “proper wine drinking”. I too back up notes from large tastings with visits to wine regions so acquire more detailed background information on the vintage and the wines and “proper wine drinking” to check, reinforce and inform new opinion on the wines. I’m not really sure that make us special though – wine writers/critics are generally also enthusiasts to whom this is surely second nature.

    And I find your last statement to be nonsense, and of course that’s because you meant it to be provocative. Reports on vintages, opinion-rich and with plenty of notes (you can’t form an opinion on a vintage without tasting a lot of wine) are still essential for those looking to buy early from classic regions such as Bordeaux (especially) but also Burgundy and others I study less. It’s not valid to expect buyers and drinkers to wait for your report on the 2011 Haut-Brion drank with dinner at a fancy restaurant about 20 years from now, before they decide whether or not they should buy it. Even if that post makes a more entertaining read (the ‘stories’ Hugh Johnson decries the loss of in wine writing) and places the wine in a more appropriate context, it’s not fit for purpose as a guide to buying.

    On the other hand, if you had directed your post towards critics who generate reams of tasting notes in seeming isolation with (a) no background information on producers, growing season, vintage, appellation or otherwise and who (b) accompany said notes with too-similar scores for these controversial numbers to have any meaning anyway, I might have been more inclined to agree with you. Tasting, tasting, tasting is one thing, but it does have to be discriminatory.

  • Daniel, I had a 1983 Warre’s over the weekend. It was showing beautifully (ducks). :-)

  • I would much rather read a text than just glance at a number. As a factor influencing me whether to buy the bottle or not, I’m 100% sure that the number is meaningless, whereas I MAY find the text useful and/or interesting, or even funny, stupid, whatever :)

  • Donn Rutkoff

    I can’t wait to see comments from writers or managers at WA, WS, WE, Charlie O., etc. Maybe Mr. Shanken will weigh in with a comment.

  • Chris, my friend is 3 months pregnant and is beginning to show. My real point is there’s tasting and then there’s drinking. There’s showing and then there’s tasting.

  • I completely agree with your sentiments, Jamie! Possible New Year’s resolution for 2014?

  • Another great read Jamie. Happy New year :)

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