Posts Filed Under commentary

Ditch Your Wine Tasting "Training Wheels" (The Trouble With Wine Ratings, Part 3)

Vinted on November 19, 2008 binned in commentary, wine review

“Scores are like your training wheels – hopefully you take them off at some point.” – Joel Peterson

I’ve never been a big fan of wine ratings or wine scoring systems. Mostly because I don’t know anyone who speaks in ratings. Even sports fans (who, justifiably, love numbers, rankings, and comparisons) don’t really speak in ratings.

Man, the Steelers offensive line was totally an 87 in last night’s game…

Preposterous.

I also find it odd that wine rating talk generates so much passion when it is discussed. As cases in point, I offer two recent examples:

  1. Wine Enthusiast editor Steve Heimoff’s critique of Mutineer magazine’s critique of wine ratings (and Mutineer editor Alan Kropf’s response).
  2. A thread on the excellent wine social networking website OpenWineConsortium.org, titled “What are the faults with the 100 point [wine rating] system” which, as of this writing, has eleven pages of responses.

I shudder to think of the cross-talk that might ensue on the web in response to the granddaddy of wine rating lists, Wine Spectators’ Top 10 Wines of the year (only five of which I’ve actually sampled…).

Me, I’ve changed my tune slightly on wine ratings since I wrote two articles about the trouble with wine ratings (Part 1 and Part 2). That’s because I’ve come to realize something very important when it comes to wine ratings…

There is no trouble with wine ratings.

Think about it – there is no harm at all in rating a wine. In fact, wine ratings have played an integral part in wine criticism, which itself has played an integral part in furthering wine into the incredibly exciting state that it’s in today. There are over 7,000 wine brands available to U.S. wine consumers – somebody has to help consumers make sense of it all. As former wine writer and Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson told me recently over lunch (much more to come on that, by the way, in an upcoming post): “If we didn’t have wine critics, we’d have to invent them!”

The trouble comes in how the ratings are used.

A rating system makes an assumption that there is an absolute,” said Joel. “We know that there are no absolutes. It’s a more measure of like than of absolute quality.”

To back up his observation, Joel told me a story about a tasting experiment that he performed with a group of experienced wine tasters: he took all of the Zinfandels that he could find that scored 90+ points in the big wine mags, and had them taste the wines blind. The result: all of the wines scored between 85 and 96 points.

Joel then took all of the 90+ scoring wines from that tasting and had them taste those wines again at a later time. The result: the wines scored between 85 and 96 points!

Scoring is relative, and it’s naturally tailored to the taster’s palate. The trouble is, people put too much faith in scores without reading the fine print.

Joel’s take: “Robert Parker was really the change-over point. A wine critic can make make or break a wine in the same way that a music critic can make or break a live music performance. Scores are like your training wheels – hopefully you take them off at some point.”

Would you ride down the street proudly on your shiny Schwinn bicycle with banana seat, handlebar horn, and red sparkle paint job with training wheels still attached? All the while bragging to your friends about how you only ride bikes with training wheels on them?

Well, that’s pretty much what you’re doing if you decide to only buy wines from the Wine Spectator top 100 list, or if you insist that a sommelier only show you wines rating 94 points or above when dining at a restaurant.

Where you goin’, training-wheel boy??

Far better, I think, to discover your own palate.

And then ditch those training wheels.

Cheers!
(images: allposters.com, ehow.com)

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Some thoughts on Californian Wine (from Across the Pond – Guest Post)

Vinted on October 29, 2008 binned in California wine, commentary, guest posts


Following is a guest post from Andrew Barrow, the brains behind the venerable (and excellent) wine & food site Spittoon.biz in the U.K. While we North American wine bloggers were toiling (aka drinking) away and working hard this week at the first NA Wine Bloggers Conference in Sonoma, I asked Andrew to provide a different perspective on the California wine scene than what we typically experience (good or bad) here in NA. Check out Andrew’s thoughts bellow – it’s a much different, and enlightening, scene than you might be used to here in NA – and check out his excellent writing (and superb photography) at Spittoon.biz. Cheers!

As I write I’m sipping a glass of Californian red – a Robert Mondavi Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 to be precise…

It’s fairly typical of the type of Californian wine readily available in the UK. Following the 1WineDude’s request for some foreign thoughts on Californian wine, the Woodbrige is ‘research’. A day or so ago, more research, with a bottle of Zinfandel – the only interesting Californian red available in the UK’s largest high street chain of off-licences.

Both wines display a certain richness, demonstrate varietal characters and are both very drinkable on their own.

“I look at many blogs – most are American – they talk of making hit wines, of boutique vineyards, limited edition bottlings and so on – names that get the writer (and their readers) excited and lustful. The same names mean nothing to me. The wine just do not make it across to the UK.”

I don’t know what the sales figures are on these wines but they will certainly be eclipsed by the likes of Gallo White Zinfandel, Chenin Blanc etc. There is no escaping these critic-derided wines. They sell at basic prices by the case load. The vast majority of Gallo drinkers wouldn’t know and wouldn’t care where they come from. How ever much we deride them, they are the bedrock of California wine in the UK – both in terms of style and in sales. Drinkers of these are highly unlikely to trade up to the Mondavi or the Zinfandel.

I look at many blogs – most are American – they talk of making hit wines, of boutique vineyards, limited edition bottlings and so on – names that get the writer (and their readers) excited and lustful. The same names mean nothing to me. The wine just do not make it across to the UK.

We are blessed with a multitude of specialist wine merchants in the UK – many are holding their own against the supermarkets and the high street chains. Only a couple though offer a decent range from California. And don’t even begin to look for Arizona or Long Island, although a smattering of wines from Oregon and Washington have found their way to these little islands. But those specialists are offering the wines at eye-wateringly high prices. You have to ask why would anyone bother – the range of wines readily available from across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa often provide much better value for money [in the U.K.].

“[The CA wines available in the U.K. lack] texture and perhaps a little complexity that similarly priced wines from say the South of France or Italy, so readily available here, provide in spades.

With my evening meal I switched to the Mondavi Woodbridge Chardonnay 2006. This retails at about £7.50 [roughly $12 USD]; the average price of a bottle of wine is half this. The wine is lightly oaked, again highly drinkable but lacks texture and perhaps a little complexity that similarly priced wines from say the South of France or Italy, so readily available here, provide in spades.

And that about sums it up really – you CAN get various Californian wines in the UK but they come at a price that doesn’t often stack up well against similar wines from elsewhere. And those Gallo wines, at the cheap end of the scale, must be enjoyed by someone. You can’t really be saying they are brought solely on price can you?

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Garden Party: How To Keep Wine Blogging From Going Mainstream

Vinted on October 27, 2008 binned in commentary, wine bloggers conference, wine blogging

So… I’m “freshly pressed,” so to speak (specifically in terms of palate fatigue and possible liver damage), from the first North American wine bloggers conference in Sonoma. Overall it was a fantastic event, about which I could pen a great number of virtual pages in covering. But that’s not what I’m going to write about.

Not exactly, anyway.

I’m also, as I type this, just returned from a visit to C. Donatiello winery in Healdsburg. I could write a lengthy amount (what else is new, right?) about how nice owner Chris Donatiello is (he’s quite pleasant, and generous), how beautiful the aroma garden grounds were (very), or the quality of their wines (extremely promising for a first vintage, but unfortunately not yet widely available – anyway, more on those upcoming on my twitter wine review feed).

But that’s not what I’m going to write about. Not exactly, anyway.

Instead, I’m going to write about how the face of wine media is changing, and why that’s dangerous for wine bloggers. Because I just spent the better part of three days at a conference where I and my fellow wine bloggers were being at times courted by the Sonoma wine industry, which helped to sponsor the event.

The congregation of 150+ wine bloggers at the WBC, whose individual influence in the world of wine could by-and-large be considered modest (at best), or insignificant (at worst), has amassed the collective power and reach of this new(ish) arm of the wine media – one that is now drawing a larger and larger amount of wine marketing attention. Gary Vaynerchuk underscored this during his WBC keynote speech, when he provided the energetic NJ businessman’s view of the opportunities available now that the ‘old guard’ is no longer the all-dominant force in wine media. The attention given to bloggers by PR departments is a natural progression – and now this is happening for the world of wine.


This is a dramatic turn of events compared to how wine blogging was viewed (more or less as a fad) a little more than three years ago. The winemakers, PR, and the Sonoma wine industry in general “get it” – and it’s all happening rather quickly thanks to the immediacy of the Internet.

Which means that wine blogging has the potential to completely screw itself now.

First, I need to make one thing very clear: there is nothing wrong with what the PR departments in Sonoma are doing by sponsoring the WBC and courting the wine blog-o-world. It’s their job – one that they’ve been doing for years with the traditional wine media.

In a way, wine blogging has arrived. The danger is that, as guest panelist Tracy Rickman told us during one of the conference breakout sessions, outside factors (such as the potential influence of the courting PR) can influence us to become more and more mainstream. At the moment we actually become mainstream, we have lost our edge (and might as well be ‘overtaken’ by the next phase of wine media, whatever that may be).

Uh-ohhhhhh…

In the same breakout session, Wine Enthusiast’s Steve Heimoff cautioned that winery PR would no doubt attempt to “use” us, and that we needed to be prepared – and cautious about to whom we lend our trust. Keynote speaker Alice Feiring (yes, she actually entered CA wine country for this…) added (among some very inspiring dialog), “Trust no one.”

What’s a wine blogger to do?

Go on blogging, of course!

I’m not saying that bloggers need to become prudes who completely shut down at the very thought of having to walk a tightrope line of credibility just because they’ve been invited to an industry event, or a personal winery tour, or the like. Heaven knows I’ve got no problem whatsoever being courted by winemakers, PR contacts, or the wine media in general (in fact, my view is that it’s about time this has happened).

The trick is maintaining the willpower to keep a unique, individual, and (hopefully) credibly opinionated voice as a blogger while the “courting” ramps up.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I’m looking forward to the ride…

Cheers (and “Organic Flow” forever)!
(images: 1WineDude.com)

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I Hope Steve Heimoff Kicks My Ass (Thoughts on the Wine Bloggers Tasting Challenge)

Vinted on October 20, 2008 binned in commentary, wine bloggers conference, wine industry events

You know what?

I hope that Steve Heimoff kicks my ass.

Not literally, of course (hey, I didn’t study a bit of Wing Chun for nothin’!), but tastingly. (Is tastingly a word? Ah, who cares – adverbs kick ass!).

Who is Steve, and why should I want him to kick ass? And how does this relate to wine? Well… it’s… complicated

It actually has to do with the first-ever North American Wine Bloggers Conference being held this week in Sonoma, which both Steve amd I are attending (more on that later in the week). At about 5PM PT on Friday, some of the attendees will be taking part in a Wine Bloggers’ Blind Tasting Challenge – as described by the conference organizers:

Bloggers will test their skills in identifying grape varietals and regions. Because we will have only local Sonoma wines, the competition will focus on identifying the type of grape, determining the vintage year or AVA within Sonoma County, matching the wine to the label description, etc. This will be a social exercise with small groups sitting around tables and will be done in rounds, going from easy to hard. Ultimately, one winner will be crowned as the “Wine Blogger Top Taster”.

The last sentence is the one that seems to be causing some controversy among some of the wine blogging community. The controversial piece being the media coverage planned for this portion of the conference, the reaction to which you can read in detail in this not-so-safe-for-work discussion on the Wine Bloggers Conference group at OpenWineConsortium.org (title: “What Bullsh*t is this? So much for the Wine Bloggers Conference“).

The competition itself is meant to be friendly, with (hopefully) some fun moments with the media on hand to capture it all. The counter argument is that the media coverage will in effect exploit a community that has had its fair share of media exploitation already this year.

And it’s my hope that Steve (remember him?) takes part in the competition and kicks our blogging asses.

Because that would show us bloggers (myself included) that we have a lot yet to learn about wine and the art of tasting it, and eloquently writing about it. It’s easy for us to lose sight of that and get caught up in the ‘side show’ media elements of blogging. It’s great to have an opinion, but we also need to know what we’re talking about – and for wine, that foundation is built in tasting. As Lao Tzu said, “the great way is easy, but people chose the side paths…”

Oh, yeah, regarding Steve he’s an author and long-time wine writer for Wine Enthusiast, and he is also a wine blogger. As such, he straddles the ‘newer’ and ‘older’ worlds of blogging and traditional wine media in a unique way. He’s a good blogger, too, in that he’s smart and opinionated enough to get people thinking about, talking about, and sometimes really, really not liking his takes on the world of wine. Steve and I have traded both barbs and compliments on-line, and I’ve got a lot of respect and patience for him – and I’m looking forward to meeting him in Sonoma, because I’d love to interview him about his take on the future of wine writing.

Anyway, Steve probably tastes hundreds to thousands of wines per year. This is way, way above the total tasted by most wine bloggers, myself included, by a factor of… well, I hate math but I’m sure the factor would be measured exponentially (ah – another kick-ass adverb!).

Which means that if he participated in the Blind Tasting Challenge, Steve could unleash a Chuck Norris level of whoop-ass on the rest of us.

That’s a good thing.

Because sometimes, we need that to keep our progressive, opinionated, but ultimately well-meaning blogger banter in perspective. Wine has been good to us bloggers, and not a day goes by when I’m not grateful to wine in some way/shape/form.

And I’m certainly not above having my butt handed to me (as I expect to have happen at the Bind Tasting) if it means I’m going to learn something and have another opportunity to increase my debt of gratitude towards wine.

Let the ass-kickings commence!

Oh, before I go… Steve, if you’re out there reading this, you should know that a Google image search of your name turns up this little ditty… I suppose there is some resemblance… not sure if it’s you but I really, really hope it is… and if it is, do you still have the Jethro Tull-style hat?


Cheers!
(images: steveheimoff.com, winebloggersconference.org, umass.edu)

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