Monday, January 26, 2009

Tasting 1400 bottles of wine

That’s how many bottles I will be surrounded by this week. No, I did not buy them (as if I have that much money). These are the wines that we have collected for a comprehensive review of Chile by Josh Raynolds, wine critic for the International Wine Cellar.

This is going to be one hell of a tasting. The first day is going to be spent simply taking inventory of the wines that are here, and putting them in order for Josh to taste. Each wine taster is different, and each has their own particular style of tasting wines. For instance, Jay Miller, critic for Robert Parker’s The Wine Adocate, likes to taste each individual wine for a single winery before moving on to the next winery. Josh likes to taste by varietal order and then by price, which means we will be starting with sparkling wines on Tuesday, through all the whites and onto the reds.

It’s the “by price” that always gets me. In order to organize a tasting where the critic tastes by price, we put a number on each bottle of wine. After the numbers are on the bottles, we put them in number order. Knowing which sticker goes onto each bottle requires a lot of research on each wine long before the bottles show up. We have a VERY long spreadsheet, which lists each wine, their brand name, their vintage, their varietal composition, the appellation each wine comes from, and the price of each wine. If you want to learn appellations and brand names, there is no better way than by putting this list together.

Some people have asked me how long do I think this tasting will take. We have scheduled four days of tasting. I mean full days, starting at about 7:00 AM and finishing between 5:00 – 6:00 PM. Josh usually averages about 180 wines a day, Jay did closer to 200. We prepare Carrs Crackers, water, and regular breaks for the tasters, allowing them to go at their own pace.

Can these tasters really taste anything after the 137th wine? Well, the last time we held this review for a critic I tasted with them. As an amateur taster, I was still able to able to distinguish defining characteristics in different wines through my 80th wine. After about that I had to re-energize my taste buds by walking away for a while, eating something, drinking some water. For a professional, such as these critics, I really have no reservations about putting as many wines in front of them as they wish. Each critic takes the same focus of attention for each wine, be it the first one or the 151st one.

There is another thing I like about these tastings. Besides allowing me to continue my wine education by having the opportunity to taste more wines, there is a lot of wine left over. Since it is only one person tasting, there are only a few ounces missing from each wine. That leaves a lot of wine remaining that needs to find a happy home.

Superbowl party anyone?


Bob Dwyer said...

Thanks for this very interesting insight into the logistics associated with a professional tasting. It's all quite fascinating to me as a consumer of professional reviews.

The "by price" gets me too, but perhaps for a different reason than it gets you. This seems quite unusual to me because the taster would seem to be negatively predisposed to the inexpensive wines, don't you think?

Actually, I just reread your entry- was this tasting done blind? Or not?

Rob Bralow said...

My pleasure. This tasting is also much different than a trade tasting, where each producer will set up a table and invite retailers, sommeliers and wine buyers to come taste their wines.

A good critic will not factor in the price while they are tasting in terms of ratings. I would be very willing to bet that there will be some $18 wines that scored better than some $80 wines in this tasting.

The main reason for tasting by price is that often a wine that is more expensive will be more heavily treated with Oak, making it a heavier wine, although not necessarily better. Josh and I tasted many wines where we prefered the cheaper, more lightly oaked version of two wines from the same winery.

No, none of these reviewer (International Wine Cellar or Wine Advocate) taste blind. I do believe that the other pubs (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits) all do taste blind.

Bob Dwyer said...

Thanks for your response, Rob!

From reading about Robert Parker's tasting methodology ( ) I was under the impression that the Wine Advocate tasted blind too:

"When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions"

I guess the term "when possible" leaves the door open for all tastings to be done non-blind (Wine Enthusiast also says "when possible" but Wine Spectator is adamant about always tasting blind or stating otherwise specifically). Or perhaps this is a different between Robert Parker himself and Jay Miller. Either way, it seems a little misleading to state that tasting is done blind when possible if that isn't the case the majority of the time.

My concern is that I believe that knowing the price plays into the psychology of tasting for even the best critic. An expensive wine that is thin is declared "elegant", harsh becomes "bold", and barnyard is said to be "earthy". At least potentially.

I don't see International Wine Cellar's tasting policy stated explicitly on their site (I don't have a subscription), but it would be interesting to see a comprehensive listing of tasting methodologies for all the major publications.

Thanks again,
Bob Dwyer

Rob Bralow said...

The sheer quantity of wine that they need to taste makes it almost impossible to taste everything blind. It is just too time consuming. Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast have a legion of tasting directors and managers whose only job is to set up these tastings. The Wine Advocate and IWC have very few people on staff, which keeps their costs down.

Not to say that they never taste blind. For instance I know that Josh took several bottles home to taste blind amongst California Cabs and Bordeaux.

I understand your concerns about price, but I tasted some great $12 wines and some really crappy expensive wines. The moment I tasted them I knew that I wanted another sip or I couldn't spit it out fast enough. Price played a large role in my expectations, but once the wine was in my mouth there was little to care about the price. Especially since I did not purchase any of the wines I had tasted. I think for wines I buy, the more I pay for them the more I want them to be good. When it comes down to it, the consumer will know the price, have seen the label and from those already made a decision on how it should taste. Why shouldn't reviewers do the same?

I only defend the position because I am a big advocate for the IWC. Besides having a very classy and professional group of tasters, I trust Josh and Stephen Tanzer because I find their palates the most similar to my own.

Tish said...

Jay miller does NOT taste blind? That doesn't bother me, but with his boss so identified with blind judging, this does not compute.

Katie said...

Would agree with Bob, here...I was under the impression that Parker's peeps tasted blind as well, but I guess that "when possible" clause is very dangerously open ended. Wish they'd be a little more transparent.

Tannat said...

...would it really be that time consuming to bag a thousand bottles and assign a numeric value to the bag/bottle in question?

for the sake of objectivity?

Kirsten Wright said...

I have done a few wine tastings but could never imagine that many bottles! I can’t wait to see what happens and what the results are. It is wonderful that you have been able to arrange an event like this. I agree with tannat that either paper bag and number them or put a big numbered dot on them. Objectivity would be good. Oh and, where are those bottles going? :)

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