Going Pro: How To Taste and Rate Wines for Today’s Consumers. Sort of.

Vinted on November 3, 2010 binned in about 1winedude blog, going pro

Welcome to the first installment of Going Pro – what (I hope!) will be a (very) long series chronicling my foray into making whatever-the-hell-it-is that I do here a professional (read: paying) endeavor.
Every Wednesday on 1WineDude.com, I’ll be writing about some aspect / story / triumph / tragedy related to taking my passion – connecting YOU with the experience of wine – full-time.  I plan to do this every Wednesday until, well, until one or more of the following conditions have been met:

  1. I’ve “made it big” and no longer have time for the unwashed masses because I’m too busy cleaning my fleet of yachts.
  2. I can’t get Internet wi-fi reception from my cardboard box under the bridge.
  3. The articles have run their course and are no longer valuable (except to me as a means of therapy).

Okay… you’re right… number three will almost certainly never happen because I need all the therapy I can get.  Anyway…

The inaugural post  in this series is gonna be a loooong one… but I think you’ll find it worth the reading time commitment, and I hope you’ll be sufficiently moved to chime in with your thoughts.

I had a conversation with my friend Steve Heimoff about tasting preferences vs. wine ratings in the comments of a post last week, the topic of which had nothing whatsoever to do with tasting and rating wines (or, at least that’s what I thought when I wrote it, silly me!). That comment-convo seems pretty benign on the surface but it had some profound implications for me (probably because I ended up sort of talking to myself… more therapy… ok, maybe I need a drink…).  Implications that get to the heart of how I taste and rate wines, which n part gets to the heart of what it means to Go Pro with wine.

Now, much to the surprise of a lot of people, none more so than myself, I’m now in the invigorating and strangely frightening  position where my views / reviews on wines actually matter to some people. I’m the kind of guy who, literally to a fault, doesn’t want to let people down, and so I’ve had to take the position of rating and describing wines much, much more seriously in recent months – and I’d argue that this change in perspective is essential if you even want to start thinking about going pro when it comes to wine.

And since my approach to tasting is so dramatically different to what most of us are used to in the conventional wine press, it seemed a good place to start the Going Pro discussion…

Before we talk about my way, it’s important to understand something very fundamental: many, many professional wine reviewers equate their personal preferences with a wine’s intrinsic quality. If they like the wine, it’s a good wine, and gets a good score/rating; if not, then the wine is not a good wine, gets a lower score, and is deemed not worth anyone’s time.  Simple as that (though reaching the score/rating is arguably anything but a simple process).

This makes some sense: people subscribe to their magazines, newspapers, etc. in part to hear that reviewer’s expert opinion on a wine and, if they’ve taken the time to evaluate whether or not their palate preferences agree with the expert’s, then it’s theoretically a good match.  The expert is an expert because s/he has tasted a ton of wine from a given area and usually tastes blind to help make the assessment as objective as possible – which is important if the publication also accepts ad revenue from producers whose products they review.

That’s more-or-less been the formula for the last couple of decades.

Oh, I forgot the part where everyone argues about it on-line all the time, but you can find that stuff on your own.

My approach is so fundamentally removed from what I described above that it bears some explanation.

One thing that has been touted again and again is that consumer preferences are changing.  People want to feel connected to the experience of a wine, and want to feel connected to whoever is telling them about a product. That’s in large part why –

1) I don’t taste wines blind.

Fundamentally, I believe that it’s impossible to remove subjectivity entirely, so I’d rather know at least the variety, region and price when I evaluate something so I have a framework within which to evaluate it.

Also, no one ever ever drinks wine that way at home, unless it’s part of a fun parlor game.

Yes, I know what Robin Goldstein just said about blind tasting here.  The bottom line is that I’d rather experience wine they way that everyone else normally does, so that I am coming to it from the same standpoint, and we have thus maximized are chances of “connecting” when I describe that wine to YOU.  Of course, we know that a wine’s price impacts our enjoyment of it, however I am reasonably confident this effect is somewhat minimized for me because…

2) I don’t care about the forces affecting a wine’s price, I only care if I think the wine is worth the price on the bottle (or not!).

In my experience, while not tasting blind probably makes me more susceptible to the subtle marketing influences working on my brain and my wallet, it probably makes me less susceptible to my personal preferences. There are three important differentiators at play here:

  1. I’ve worked for a brand marketing juggernaut (one the of the largest and best at it in the world), so I know more about the manipulation than the average dude.
  2. I’ve done the homework on the wine side of things (the wine certifications, for example).
  3. I might not taste as many wines as the full-time guys & gals, but I’m well on my way there and I don’t pay for > 99% of the wine I evaluate.

All of that gives me access to info. and wines that most hardworking wine consumers don’t have, which helps to make my opinion hopefully an informed one.  If I pan an expensive wine, or champion an inexpensive one, it’s not my money on the line so my opinion is not tied to whether or not a winery is going to send me more samples (if not, f–k ‘em) or will pull advertising from my blog, etc. In my view, the samples actually make me more independent, not less.

3) I draw a hard line between my personal preferences and a wine’s intrinsic quality.

Is it flawed? Is it typical of the variety and place where it was born? Does it go well with food? Can it improve with age? All of that has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with whether or not I loved the wine or would buy it myself.

Nothing.  Nada.  In other words, I could tell you I didn’t like a wine but could still say it’s an “A” level wine. And I am 100% okay with doing that.

I mean, at this point, do we need any more evidence that people have different tastes, and taste and react to wines and food differently? I don’t think so – so I have to subscribe to the notion that while I can make some intrinsic evaluation of a wine, no one person is capable of determining if a wine is empirically good or bad based solely on their personal preferences. And I do feel strongly that there are some aspects of wine and food that can determine overall quality and set a baseline upon which our personal preferences can be built.  Sometimes (as in the case of Brett) you and I might disagree on whether or not something is a flaw, but there will be no question where my head and heart are in the debate and hopefully no question of how how I got to that particular evaluation on any given wine.

Better than the rest?  No, just different, and there’s room for different in the wine world – this method is certainly more “me” and hopefully that remains valuable (otherwise, I really need to revise this whole Going Pro idea…).

I expect some will dig the approach and others will hate it.  I just hope that we don’t get too caught up in those details, because the point, to me anyway, is to try to connect you with an experience and help you build up your won wine chops so that you can make better determinations for yourself, not to reduce that experience too far into a number or a letter - as Master of Wine Tim Hanni recently put it in a comment left on this site:

“A lot of time, press and blog space is wasted trying to prove that one [wine rating] system is better or worse than another. They are ALL metaphorically based systems with words, icons or points and people respond to each in different ways… understand the systems, the people and at the end of the day guide PEOPLE to wines they will love and the pundits, mavens, evangelists and critics they share the most affinities with.”

Ok – let the stone-throwing commence! :-)

Cheers!

(image: anotherwineblog.com)

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    Comments

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Admirable and noble, Joe. But I always take issue with the notion that having the same information that consumer will have has anything to do with an un-biased assessment.

    You may think that you are being fair and you may think that you can separate your preferences from the "intrinsic quality of a wine" but when you know what you are tasting, you are likely already set up for at least part of the results.

    As for intrinsic quality: as far as I know, there is no standard against which to measure quality in the wine reviewing world, so I have no idea what that phrase means. Can you explain?

    • 1WineDude


      You're right Thom, but in a way I am saying that I don't care, I'd rather approach it the same way as the readers and stay connected with them.

      Intrinsic quality is probably a bad term. What I mean is, a wine is flawed or not, it exhibits regional / varietal characteristics or doesn't – there are some things that are detectable and could be argued aren't as influenced by preferences (only tolerances). In other words, if a wine is what I think to be bretty, then we can argue how bretty but not whether or not it's got brett – in fact, we could confirm it if we had a lab :). Those things are a bedrock for tasters, I think, and can be evaluated regardless of preferences.

  • Richard


    As a rule, I usually only leave feedback on blogs if I have something of a different opinion to offer. So this comment is one of those exceptions that prove the rule.

    Obviously, you may organize the way you taste and rate wines anyway you choose. Your methods are no better or worse than anyone's. The main thing is connecting in a meaningful way with the people who read your blog and use your ratings to purchase new wines. Do what you like, (you don't need me to tell you that) and have fun (ditto)!

    I have said this before in a blog, but I think it bears repeating:.generally when you taste a wine it represents a very short period of time in that wine's life span, your perspective and opinion is subject to change every time you taste it.

    I would like to wish you well in your endeavor and hope you achieve success and nice shiny fleet of yachts to clean and buff.

    BTW Did you know that if you stare long enough at the wallpaper on the left side of your blog, while thinking of your next line in the comment box, you start to see monkey faces?

    Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Richard – I appreciate the vote of confidence and well-wishes.

      Great point about a wine review being a snapshot in time for both the wine and the recipient. I suppose my goal in all of this in terms of ratings is to provide budding wine geeks with the minimum amount of info. they would need to consider a wine (or not); the reviews hopefully then connect them in some deeper way to a wine; and the articles in the blog help to provide fodder for increasing their wine confidence & knowledge to the point where they can then totally and confidently disagree with the ratings/reviews/articles and flame me in the comments! Maybe I should rethink this…

      I was unaware of the monkey-face illusion but it seems fitting for my blog… since I have a site redesign pending (will likely go up tonight), I am now wondering what animal illusions will happen with the new background…! :)

  • Kim Kolb


    Joe, thanks for validating that the way I review wines is okay. I have not received a Sommelier certification, but will soon. I also like to see the wine I am tasting. I want the person that goes into the store on my recommendation to see what I see or at least understand what I see and was saying to describe the wine. My reviews are nothing spectacular but I am working to improve them and to try and taste past the notes that are provided.

    There have been many times I have passed a Colorado Wine by because one time I tasted it and thought it was not good, but after a recommendation from someone, I try it again and am pleasantly surprised. I am too inexperienced to do a blind tasting other than to tell you what I smell and taste. I will leave that to the "Experts".

    I want the person reading my notes to feel the joy and excitement of the wine and by giving a review that describes the experience I believe does that. I try to write a review as if I were telling it to someone who can't taste, by describing things that they can relate to through touch. I know sounds korny, but I feel drinking wine is an experience, at least for the first 15 minutes and then it is just "bottoms up"!

    Great Post

    • 1WineDude


      Hi Kim – just be prepared for detractors, because I can tell you there are many people who would disagree with my method and tell you it's tainted and wrong six different ways from Sunday.

      But you gotta be you – and use the way that best connects with your audience.

      Cheers!

  • Benito


    Tasting truly blind is hard, because you need someone else organizing the samples for you–handling the e-mails, grouping the bottles, opening and pouring for you, etc. I used to attend a weekly public wine tasting that was truly blind, and the catch was you had to go to the sponsoring store to find out what the wines were. I got decent at blind tasting, but as soon as I stopped going regularly I lost a lot of those identification skills. It's like running or lifting weights or martial arts: you've just got to keep grinding through it on a regular schedule, even on days when you don't feel like it. Every time you stop, it pushes you back a little further.

    I taste semi-blind, I suppose–just knowing the region and grape, or whatever is on the front label. I know that if I look up the full details, I'm going to read someone else's tasting notes. The website may say that it has a strong aroma of lingonberries, and goes great with smoked eel. So I'm either subconsciously influenced by that determination, or in order to avoid parroting someone else's thoughts, I force myself to write about anything but lingonberries and eel. Same reason why I don't read the backs of labels before tasting.

    Typically after the first sniff and sip, I'll take some notes, and then later try a bit with food. When I go to write it up for the blog, I'll then look at the composition of the grapes, the price, vineyard data, etc. For me it's not a journalistic integrity thing, or the One True Path of Wine Tasting, but I've found that it's lots more fun for me to do it this way, and keeps the process fresh and interesting.

    Totally agreed on the samples and independence. Samples definitely help you avoid ruts, force you to try grapes and regions you may have given up on in the past, and expose you to wines that are not available within your local retail market.

  • Steve Heimoff


    If you don’t want to taste blind, fine. Let’s agree on this simple truth: there is no one best way for a critic to taste. Every system has its advantages and disadvantages. Doug Margerum has been advocating for open tasting quite eloquently, while Charlie Olken stumps for blind. I do both, depending on the circumstances. I will say this: I hope you will occasionally treat/challenge yourself to a blind tasting! Just for your own edification/amusement/frustration. It's a worthwhile and humbling experience, but it can also be gratifying. Bottom line: the Tasting Police come in 2 flavors: absolutists who insist on only open, and absolutists who insist on only blind. They are both our Taliban. Extremes in tasting approaches, as in most other areas of life, should be avoided.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Steve – I have and still do sometimes taste blind and it's usually more an exercise and great education in my own perceptions and taste/

      Wise words on the middleground (I wish the candidates in many of these midterm elections had a similar outlook! :).

      Cheers!

  • Thomas Pellechia


    What I don't understand is why some reviewers don't understand what is pretty well accepted and very well known by producers of products from candy to soda pop to malt liquor and to wine: humans are suggestible and that can–and does–affect our preferences. None of us are immune to it,not even us Taliban, which is a fine noun/adjective to describe those who should be marginalized for daring to disagree with Mr. Heimoff!

    I don't question the motive of tasting with information in front of you–I question the logic.

    In any case, in as much as readers want reviewers to do what they do, great: have at it, and since Joe explains in detail what he is doing, I applaud the openness and information that I believe consumers should have.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Thom – I may be under the marketing influences to some degree, but I am transparent :).

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    I just came back from an investigation into my prostate–I was completely transparent for the first time in my ;)

  • Todd - VT Wine Media


    Hey, nice site upgrade. I don't see any monkeys in the margin.

    You are free to evaluate wine in any way that works for you, as long as it creates a useful and entertaining information conduit to your readers. I think the real value is in providing transparency about your process, and how that process reflects your individuality. I would rather know how someone comes to a conclusion, than hang on the conclusion itself. Often consumers are dealt scores and notes that come from "On High" with no knowledge about how they are produced. It usually takes some real work to figure that out.
    Keep making wine a little bit easier to explore.
    Cheers!

    • 1WineDude


      Todd – upgrade still in progress, but going well, so that means monkeys may still appear…

      "I would rather know how someone comes to a conclusion, than hang on the conclusion itself." – I think we understand one another! :) That's the point I was trying to align with at the very end of the post when quoting Tim Hanni.

      Cheers!

  • Juice


    But you say "I only care if I think the wine is worth the price on the bottle (or not!)." Which brings me to my question, what are the components that make you decide whether or not a wine is worth the price on the bottle (or not) if you aren't paying for the bottle, i.e. how do you decide if a $25 bottle is worth $25 when $25 didn't come out of your pocket?

    I hope I don't come off sounding like a d*ck! I would really appreciate an answer on this as I am early in my wine studying career and still trying to find my way in the world of wine. I personally enjoy your writting style a lot and hope you continue with this format even in your pro career. Thanks

    • 1WineDude


      Whoops – responded too soon! :)

      That's a totally great question and one that I suppose I sorted of did/didn't answer in the post. The short answer is by tasting a sh*t load of wines in every price category that I can.

  • Juice


    First off congrats on going Pro! It is a huge step in your career and your personal life and I wish you all the best. Just don't forget about us when you have your yachts, and throw an annual bash on one of them and invite us all :).

    Now I have a question for you, where your answer can maybe help me out with my studying/tasting/notes/reviewing. You say "In my view, the samples actually make me more independent, not less." I'm not sure if I agree with this or not because, I am currently buying and paying for my own wine to taste for the course that I am taking, which I think makes a person an independent reviewer of the wine, especially when you consider the price of a wine and whether the bottle is worth its price tag.

    • 1WineDude


      Thanks, Juice!

      Well, it can go either way probably; my view is that since I'm not paying for it I have no vested interest in the wine emotionally, and can say that it's worth the price or not without having the added pressure of wanting that $120 bottle to be SO GOOD even when it's not.

  • 1WineDude


    Hey Thom – no problem even if you WERE questioning it! Everything is out in the open here. Well, except for your med exam, okay? :)

    Personally, I never thought about it. I am sure it could influence some people, though, but if they're in it for free wine then I have to think that the situation would tease itself out somehow and that reviewer would lose integrity and their readership, etc., and they'd end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy because when they lost readership they'd probably lose freebies as well! I mean, think of the things that have been discussed openly just here on 1WD, and how smart the people reading it are for the most part – I have to believe that is gonna out someone who is vying for nothing more than freebies. Eventually, anyway.

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    My med exam was in not out ;)

    But what if the people who are in it for the free ride only tell readers about the wines that they like and not about the wines that they don't like, you know, the way even the great critics have begun to screen what they tell the public (only 80 and up ratings, etc.)?

    To me, that kind of screening is an inherent ethical dilemma, as it can easily show wineries that they can feel secure that their failures will not be exposed, so keep sending the wine and keep hoping for exposure of the successes.

    I will believe until I kick off that the wine reviewing world needs a set of standards both to identify what the word "quality" means and also to identify some basic codified ethics. It escapes me why a group of professionals would not take such a thing seriously enough to want to lay down some guidelines.

    • 1WineDude


      Thom, I honestly believe that even those people, **in the online space**, will be outed in some way/shape/form. Things are too wide open now for secrets to stay secrets long, especially when those secrets undermine credibility.

      I agree with you on the quality standards and CoE *in theory* but in execution it's a nightmare. I mean, try getting me and Ken Payton to agree on a brett level that should be considered a fault, for example. My threshold will be waaaaaay lower than Ken's – does that make him wrong, or me wrong? Nope. People who identify more with his palate or my palate are gonna prefer different wines and that's why it's better to have a Ken and a Joe both actively covering wine-related stuff at the same time.

      I think we'd only ever get to agreement on the most basic of things, like cloudiness or TCA'd wine, etc. – and standards already exist for those things (sort of!) in the WSET, fro example…

  • Thomas Pellechia


    Joe,

    Your last paragraph would be a start.

    Re, Brett: It isn't the ability to identify and/or accept certain Brett levels in a wine that matters. What truly matters is the damage that Brett can do to a wine over time–in the bottle. That's the subject of Brett. Say what anyone will about the yeast, the technical wine industry views it as a spoilage organism because that's what it often turns out to be. Much of the acceptance of Brett stems from aspirational marketing techniques and not exactly from winemaking.

    • 1WineDude


      Thom, you're preaching to the converted here. The trouble for standardization is, not everyone has the same view of Brett that we do. And I firmly believe that just as in politics and sports, the views will likely never converge.

  • 1WineDude


    Hey all – GREAT post by W. Blake Gray today on the impact of cognitive dissonance on wine reviewing, and it speaks directly (and more eloquently) to the point I was trying to make in item #2 above in this post.

    Also, it uses the phrase "Mmm, feet" which is AWESOME.
    http://wblakegray.blogspot.com/2010/11/why-more-e

  • Mark Cochard


    Joe, Don't forget the littel people here as you move on to the big stage. Remember the systematic approach as a way to stay objective. I personally have adpoted this tasting system. http://the-stupids.com/wp/tasting-note-index/thre

    • 1WineDude


      HA!!! Mark, I think I've had a lot of Shemps! :)

  • WineWonkette


    You really should thank the photographer for that awesome wine pic of you coming out of the spit bucket like the Wine Genie(ous) that you are ;)

    • 1WineDude


      The photog was indeed brilliant! ;-)

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