As part of my blog redesign, I have added more information about how I taste and review wines at Wine Enthusiast. Please note that this does not represent any change in practices. Rather, it is a further explanation of the practices I have been using since I became a contributing editor at the magazine in 2013. You can read information about the rating system used at Wine Enthusiast as well as information about and special designations here.
All wines are sampled blind and in a standardized setting
All wines that I review for Wine Enthusiast are sampled blind in a standardized setting (location, time, serving temperature, and stemware). I am in all cases unaware of the producer, appellation, vintage, and price when sampling and reviewing wines. Doing so is an attempt to remove biases that such awareness can cause, both positive and negative.
While I regularly taste wines with winemakers at home and at wineries, these notes are strictly informational. All scores come from bottles sampled blind, in a standardized setting.
There is no screening of samples prior to evaluation
All wines that are part of my beat (currently Washington and Idaho) that are submitted for review are subsequently tasted and reviewed by me personally. No one else screens or reviews my wines under any circumstances.
Unlike some publications or reviewers, there is no screening process for wines prior to being submitted or reviewed at Wine Enthusiast. I am looking at everything that comes through, rather than a subset.
The benefit of this is that it allows me to taste broadly across wines that are part of my beat, providing both myself and consumers with a clearer picture of what is going on in the area. The benefit for wineries is that it eliminates gatekeepers when submitting wines.
Scores for all wines submitted for review are subsequently published*
The benefit for consumers of not screening wines prior to review is that it allows them to see almost all of the scores given to the wines that I taste. If a wine is submitted to me for review, a score is subsequently published for that wine.
When wines are screened, the scores by definition represent a subset of the wines submitted. This means, for the consumer, when you don’t see a review for a particular wine, you never know, was it not submitted? Was it submitted and screened out by someone before getting to the reviewer? Could the winery just not get their foot in the door to get someone to even screen the wine?
If a wine was submitted to me for review at Wine Enthusiast, I will taste the wine, and you will subsequently see a score published. There are only two exceptions. The first is if the wine was rated less than 80 points. We consider these wines to not be commercially acceptable. The second is if only one bottle of a wine was submitted and it was determined to be contaminated by TCA (cork taint). These two reasons are why there is an asterisk (*) above.
Sets arranged by variety/style
The capsules are stripped from the wines, and the wines are placed in opaque bags prior to evaluation to obscure identifying information. Wines for review are sampled in small sets of four to twelve. Sets are arranged by variety or wine type, such as a Bordeaux-style blend or Cabernet Sauvignon. I do not sort wines by and an unaware of when tasting producer, vintage, appellation, or price, again to remove the possibility of bias that this awareness might bring.
Small sets and no mass tastings
I keep the number of wines I taste on any given day small, typically from a minimum of eight – the most common number of wines I sample per day – to a maximum of 20, with the latter being rare and typically only done for white wines. I avoid tasting larger numbers per day as I believe doing so is not fair to the wines or their producers.
Tasting large numbers of wines per day can lead to a variety of issues, for example tannin accumulation, that can unduly influence a score. Additionally, when tasting large numbers of wines in a single setting, even the most skilled taster who is faithfully spitting all of the wine they are sampling will be influenced by the effects of alcohol.
I have used a breathalyzer to confirm this during previous (non-Wine Enthusiast) mass tastings I participated in, where I have registered above the legal limit after a morning of large-scale tasting (60+ wines in three hours), even though I was spitting all of the wine. This effect is compounded by a morning and an afternoon of mass tasting (often well over 100 wines). These mass tastings are not uncommon at wine competitions and also professional review tastings at some publications.
During mass tastings, a reviewer’s perception for the first wine they taste is obviously vastly different from the 40th or 100th due to the effects of alcohol. I believe this is unfair to all of the wines in question. Tasting in small sets removes the potential effect of substantial alcohol absorption on the subsequent scores that can occur in large scale tastings.
Multiple passes per wine
When tasting wines for review, I typically make more than one pass through the flight, taking independent notes each time. I usually spend 5-10 minutes per wine, tasting the wine and writing a tasting note. These tastings take place over several hours.
While I may taste a wine over several days to get a sense of its overall ageworthiness – and I resample all wines on the second day to look for latent cork taint – any notes beyond the first day when the wine was tasted blind and in a standardized setting do not affect the subsequent score. Rather, they might affect the wine’s drinking window if it is a Cellar Selection and perhaps the other special designations listed here.
Evaluating typicity and overall quality
When tasting wines for review, I am evaluating them for typicity and overall quality. Typicity means, for example, does a Washington Merlot taste like a Washington Merlot? If it does – or does not – this may subsequently impact the score or text of the review. For example, if a Washington Merlot smells like a very green Cabernet Franc, this would be considered atypical for the variety and would most likely impact the score.
Quality looks at a number of factors, such as the pleasantness of the aromas and flavors as well as the overall balance, complexity, depth, intensity, finish, and length. I also think about what a wine is trying to accomplish and how well it accomplishes it.
I try as best I can to review wines irrespective of my own personal palate preferences. That is to say, I am trying to assess what the quality of the wine is, not whether I might personally like to drink it at home. This differs considerably from how consumers approach wine.
For example, let’s say a Chardonnay is made in a ripe style and fermented in 100% new oak that has an overt, but balanced, influence on the wine. Perhaps I do or do not personally care for that style, but, regardless, if the style is well executed, I would rate the wine highly. For a consumer, if the wine is not in a style that they would personally prefer, they would most likely pass on it and not think highly of it. This is fundamentally different from a critic’s approach.
If you have any questions about how I taste wines for review at Wine Enthusiast, please email me at [email protected].
Image by Richard Duval.