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:
- I’ve “made it big” and no longer have time for the unwashed masses because I’m too busy cleaning my fleet of yachts.
- I can’t get Internet wi-fi reception from my cardboard box under the bridge.
- 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:
- 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.
- I’ve done the homework on the wine side of things (the wine certifications, for example).
- 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! :-)