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Even the "Wine Experts" Can't Get It Right


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Last April, Wine Spectator magazine rhapsodized about a $130 bottle of 2006 Clos Otta Shiraz from Barossa Valley, calling it, “Plush, round and opulent, offering a gorgeous, showy mouthful of sweet blackberry, black currant and café au lait aromas and flavors….”

And the rating? An impressive 94 points. Should we believe it? Maybe.

But then again, maybe not.

When wine lovers stroll into their favorite wine shop, it’s tempting to search the racks and bins for bottles touted by major wine magazines as vinous versions of great works of art. Today, “mega validator” publications have immense influence over wine worldwide because the public has come to believe they are the final arbiters of what’s tasty and what’s not.

But as wine consumption soars in this country, a rising number of enophiles are questioning the pros’ opinions. And with cause.

A fascinating article in the November 20, 2009 issue of The New York Times lays bare the subjectivity of wine tasting. The article goes into considerable detail about a series of controlled scientific studies on tasting conducted by Robert Hodgson, a retired professor of statistics at Humboldt State University in northern California. And the professor’s conclusions? Don’t always trust the experts.

Over the course of four years of evaluating wine judges’ decisions, Hodgson found their ratings varied by as much as 4 points---plus or minus---on the same wines tasted three different times from the same bottle. Yep. A wine tasted blind the first time and justifying a 90-point rating might well be given an 86 or 94 rating on the second or third evaluation. Same wine. Same judge. Same imprecision.

An even more revealing study by the good professor disclosed the high probability of a wine winning a gold medal in one competition and garnering zip in the next contest it was entered in. The medals appeared to be awarded by random with each wine having about a 9% chance of winning a gold medal in any given competition.

Are we surprised? Numerous studies over the years have revealed the subjectivity of wine tasting. One of the more startlingly evaluations was conducted by wine researcher Frederic Brochet using two identical white wines. Cunningly, however, he colored one a deep garnet hue resembling a cabernet sauvignon using flavorless food dye. Tasting the “red” wine, the panel noted attributes of red currant, cherry, raspberry and spice on the very same white wine they had just declared as exhibiting lemon, apricot and honey notes. Perhaps we should simply taste wine with our eyes, hey?

Another example from one of Brochet’s unique tastings involved 57 French wine gurus asked to evaluate two red wines. The crafty evaluator, however, poured the same average rated Bordeaux into two different bottles. The first was an expensive Grand Cru bottle and the second one had previously been the lair of a cheap table wine. The one mostly highly rated by the experts? Of course, the pedestrian red poured from the more expensive bottle. And remember, these were experts. The mind is a terrible thing to trick.

A common secret is that some bars substitute mid-range liquors for the leading brands when they pour mixed drinks. Almost nobody is the wiser because most cocktail sipping patrons simply cannot tell the difference. As long at the brand name is called out upon ordering, the satisfaction is achieved, even if the drink delivered to the table is not what was requested. It’s a bit embarrassing, but we all are susceptible to such chicanery.

The Wine Trials is a fascinating book summarizing the findings of 17 blind tastings held over the course of a year involving more than 500 tasters. One interesting evaluation compared a bottle of Dom Perignon, a $150 Champagne from France, with a Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut, a $12 sparkler from Washington State. Both wines are dry with firm acidity. But, sixty-six percent of the tasters preferred the $12 bottle of bubbly when tasting both bottles blind. This finding was consistent with the authors’ yearlong study of a wide range of wines. Often the taste of money is what influences how a wine is perceived. If it costs more, it must taste better, right? The placebo effect is not limited to just medicines.

Today, the chance of bringing home a terrible tasting wine is small. Yes, there are unexciting producers out there but too much science and proven winemaking skills are employed to produce much wine that is undrinkable. Given the overall rising quality worldwide, few wineries could survive by peddling swill in a marketplace full of decent little quaffers.

So what’s a body to do? How to we separate the indifferent from the great and not bust our wine budget in the process? First, trust your palate. Yes, it’s great fun to identify the raspberry, smoke and spice components of a wine and declare it a 95-point winner. But if you can’t perform such palate gymnastics, and you simply like what you’re drinking because it’s “yummy”, go with it. Over time, you will become more skilled in classifying winners and losers and sharpen your buying skills. Taste. Taste. Taste.

Secondly, try evaluating wines blind. This is easily accomplished in a group setting where several similar varietals can be wrapped in paper bags and compared and evaluated. Such an approach is both fun and educational. In the event you’re not up to hosting tastings, consider buying two or three bottles of recommended wines and taste all of them at the same sitting. Using an inexpensive rubber stopper and hand pump, save all three bottles for the next night’s meal. Over a two or three-day period, you will be able to pronounce your top choice of the three. Then add the winner to your growing list of favorites.

Third, consider the impact of price. The Wine Trials demonstrated time again the effect cost has on our perception of quality. One of the book’s more important conclusions was that after pouring 6,000 glasses of wine to over 500 tasters who did not know the producers or cost, drinkers favored moderately priced wines over their more expensive brethren by a statistically significant margin. Expensive wine likely does provide greater pleasure for an experienced taster, but it can often be more tannic and robust than an average drinker cares for. Why spend the money simply to impress, if it’s the enjoyment of the wine that you are pursuing, not the image.

Finally, rely on a trusted wine shop owner more than the major wine magazines. A frequently visited shop owner will soon discern your favorite styles and budget. He will also begin to guide you to some selections you might otherwise overlook. Some under appreciated reasonably priced beauties are coming out Spain, Chile, Virginia, New Zealand, South Africa, Oregon and other emerging wine power regions. One of the great joys of wine is the anticipation of opening a bottle of something you’ve never tasted before.

So remember, your next favorite wine might well be sitting on the shelf of your local shop patiently awaiting your arrival. Don’t let it get too lonely. Both the chase and the taste are wine pleasures to be enjoyed frequently. Become your own expert.

For Tales from the Vine to the Wine visit Hagarty-on-Wine.

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I have found that my most favorite wines were found serendipitously. We were at a dinner last year and just asked "Jacques Gastreaux" to pick a wine for all of us who had ordered different stuff. He just picked a moderately priced Malbec and, low and behold, it went well with everything we ordered. I went and found it at Calvert Woodley for $18 a bottle. I would serve that to anyone at my house. Further, my husband came home with a bottle of "Les Anemones" from Ansonia Wines on 18th Street. It is their own blend of Riesling and some other stuff and is just beautiful. Sells for $15 per bottle. Then, a neighbor came to dinner with a bottle of Portugese wine that blew me away. I asked my local liquor store to order it and it sells for about $12 a bottle. At this point, I don't believe one has to spend a whole lot of money for wine to just drink for fun or to go very well with food. So, I am a little bit peeved when folks show up with a bottle of Yellow Tail or Barefoot to gift me. Please.

The upshot is, that I am very leery of the emails I get from the Wine Library or others who tout highly-rated wines (by whom?) and want a bunch of bucks for them There is an ocean of very good wine out there for not a lot of money. Finding the good stuff, however, takes some luck.

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My soap box cause is the general lack of knowledge the wine drinking public has about the giant corporations behind the bulk of mass marketed wine. Much like the food industry (ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, Nestle, General Mills), there are huge international corporations that control large portions of the wine seen everywhere today. If this interests any of you, take the time to look at the websites of Constellation Brands, Allied Domecq, Diageo, and of course, E&J Gallo. This starts to explain why their wines pop up so often in wine columns and magazine recommendations. I prefer to deal directly with importers with small, family run operations, both imported and domestic. Cutting out 3 middle-men and a huge advertising budget has a dramatic effect on the price of wine.

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Cutting out 3 middle-men and a huge advertising budget has a dramatic effect on the price of wine.

Indeed.

There are subtler effects, as well. The large wine conglomerates pigeonhole their markets by palate as well. Each of them has access to essentially endless tanks of wines in all styles (and a full quiver of adulterants, as well). The lush, frooooty ones, by and large, come here. It's not as easy to get a firm, bright-acid, low-alcohol, just-grippy-enough red wine from the Bigs in this country because....that wine is pigeonholed for the mass wine markets of Germany and other central European nations that don't have a lot of local red wine. That's the style pigeonhole in which those countries have been placed.

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My soap box cause is the general lack of knowledge the wine drinking public has about the giant corporations behind the bulk of mass marketed wine. Much like the food industry (ConAgra, Archer Daniels Midland, Nestle, General Mills), there are huge international corporations that control large portions of the wine seen everywhere today. If this interests any of you, take the time to look at the websites of Constellation Brands, Allied Domecq, Diageo, and of course, E&J Gallo. This starts to explain why their wines pop up so often in wine columns and magazine recommendations. I prefer to deal directly with importers with small, family run operations, both imported and domestic. Cutting out 3 middle-men and a huge advertising budget has a dramatic effect on the price of wine.

Indeed.

There are subtler effects, as well. The large wine conglomerates pigeonhole their markets by palate as well. Each of them has access to essentially endless tanks of wines in all styles (and a full quiver of adulterants, as well). The lush, frooooty ones, by and large, come here. It's not as easy to get a firm, bright-acid, low-alcohol, just-grippy-enough red wine from the Bigs in this country because....that wine is pigeonholed for the mass wine markets of Germany and other central European nations that don't have a lot of local red wine. That's the style pigeonhole in which those countries have been placed.

OK, so help out the average wine consumer (like myself) and tell me what to look for on the label so I know I'm dealing with a smaller importer. :)

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OK, so help out the average wine consumer (like myself) and tell me what to look for on the label so I know I'm dealing with a smaller importer. :)

Without previous knowledge of a small company, look for someone's name. Eric Solomon, Terry Thiese, Jorge Ordonez, Fran Kysela, Joe Dressner, etc. The back label will usually say "Imported by" or "Selected by" and then the name.

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OK, so help out the average wine consumer (like myself) and tell me what to look for on the label so I know I'm dealing with a smaller importer. :)

It's really a matter of personal taste. I love Rhones and Loire Valley reds. A few of my favorite importers are Neal Rosenthal, Peter Weygandt (who now has his own retail store in Cleveland Park), Simon N Cellars.

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OK, so help out the average wine consumer (like myself) and tell me what to look for on the label so I know I'm dealing with a smaller importer. :)

Locally, also look for Wine Traditions (Ed Addiss), Michael R. Downey Selections and Siema (Italian), Grapes of Spain (Aurelio Cabestrero Selections), Vin de Terra (Jonas Gustavsson, specializing in Spain and Portugal). Dionysus also has a good portfolio. Kacher, of course, is the granddaddy of local importers. Potomac Selections carries Tom Calder Selections - Tom is based in Paris but has local ties, and he has a fantastic palate.

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Without previous knowledge of a small company, look for someone's name.

Thank you - this advice is very helpful. I know everyone means well, but a huge list of names can get unwieldy and/or intimidating pretty quickly. It's almost easier to know what *not* to buy. As an example, Mr. lperry likes hard cider, so I look for small producers when I happen to be somewhere that has a selection. A few years ago when they really started to take off, I learned to check the label and make sure it wasn't marketed by, say, Coca Cola or Coors.

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just remember. There's only one thing in Modesto, California.

Years ago, I read Ellen Hawke's book "Blood and Wine," and could never again bring myself to drink anything from the Gallo empire. If it's from Modesto, I don't buy. Sometimes, that's the only clue because the name "Gallo" often appears nowhere on the label.

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On purpose.

Did you know that Gallo is the largest grower of organic wine grapes in California? Of course they have been sued/cited for the damaage to various watersheds and habitats they have inflicted on developing their organic vineyards. They ahve rerouted natural water days and put in drainage systems that have had negative impact on wild life. IIRC they have fought off all protests but don't talk to farmers formerly {or newly as te case may be} down watershed of some of Gallo's large vineyard developments unless you want to expand your non-family-friendly vocabulary.

By the way, Mac Murray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco and other "non Gallo" labels are Gallo owned.

Just goes to show what an empty term organic can be.

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By the way, Mac Murray Ranch, Rancho Zabaco and other "non Gallo" labels are Gallo owned.

So is Bridlewood. They also have interests (not sure about ownership) in some foreign labels such as McWilliams from Australia and are now the importers of Alamos from Argentina.

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Because the conversation has turned in this direction, I'm curious about large international conglomerates as well. I have gravitated toward Spain, France (outside Bordeaux), and Italy. Apart from knowing not to pick up Santa Margherita, I have no guidelines to follow, so I always look for something labeled DOC, AOC, DOCG (etc.) Reasonable or poor strategy?

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Because the conversation has turned in this direction, I'm curious about large international conglomerates as well. I have gravitated toward Spain, France (outside Bordeaux), and Italy. Apart from knowing not to pick up Santa Margherita, I have no guidelines to follow, so I always look for something labeled DOC, AOC, DOCG (etc.) Reasonable or poor strategy?

Easy, first find a vintner you trust, there are a few that do not do carry any wine from these conglomerates, while others that do sell them should be able to steer you towards more classical styles. Frankly, I find the smaller terroir driven wines to be more exciting, as they are a representation of the place, history, and cultural of the region where they were made as opposed to a certain muddled and wearisome style that expects every grape to act like new world Syrah or Grenache so to please one or two critics.

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...from knowing not to pick up Santa Margherita....

That people will willingly pay upwards of $26 retail and Lord-knows-what at a restaurant for this average, DOC Pinot Grigio is one of the great marketing triumphs/crimes (depending on your perspective) of the industry.

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Perhaps a little late, but I heard two stories from the authors of Freakonomics which are closely related to the earlier posts. Links below. Food (wine?) for thought. I will be interested when they do this test for beers....

"The latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” When you take a sip of Cabernet, what are you tasting? The grape? The tannins? The oak barrel? Or the price?"

Read on! (or listen-on!)

http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/freakonomics-radio-do-more-expensive-wines-taste-better/

http://freakonomicsradio.com/in-vino-veritas-sort-of.html

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Thank you to the wine experts of DR! I have a new strategy for buying wine. I was in Whole Foods (that's an entirely different issue), and was looking at the Italian white wines. I chose one I'd never heard of that was DOC, turned over the bottle, and saw "Michael R. Downey Selections, Lorton, VA" listed as the importer. Local. Check. Someone's name. Check. Into the basket.

The wine was a 2007 Cà Fischelle Gambellara Classico, $11, I think, and was quite drinkable, although perhaps better suited to the summer due to its lightness. Not fantastic, but pleasant enough, and good with food. Taking into consideration my history of wine buying, and the crappy ones I've picked up at random, a vast improvement indeed.

So thank you again for the enlightening thread. I'm looking forward to better wines. Cheers! :)

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