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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
10/05/2010
Tuesday Tributes: Best of the Blogs
Steve Heimoff on Blind Tasting: We Respond

By Charles Olken

Steve Heimoff is the California wine reviewer for Wine Enthusiast magazine. He also writes an eponymous blog whose existence is totally independent of his magazine day job. Because his personal blog is so well-written, accessible and interesting, it has risen to the very top of the popularity charts. There are different ways of measuring these things, but, by any one of them, Steve’s blog now rates with leaders of the wine blogosphere pack.

He typically writes during the five weekdays, and rests on the Sabbaths. He covers all kinds of things, and his blog entry last week about his drive to Santa Barbara was awarded our blog of the week for being a beautiful loveletter to the beauty of the California countryside. This week he is back with a tale of tasting at a winery in Santa Barbara, and he is asking questions about the role of blind tasting in the context of a debate he had with a winemaker last week about this very subject. I have very strong feelings about this subject, most of which agree with Steve, but not all. Still, for bringing this subject out into the open and for the extended set of comments on his blog from all sides of the wine world, this entry entitled Reopening the blind vs. open tasting debate makes Steve the first back-to-back winner in Best of The Blogs.

Here is an excerpt from the Heimoff article followed by our full response.

HEIMOFF: “I tasted and reviewed the Margerum and Happy Canyon wines open, not blind. In doing so, I explained to Doug (Margerum) that I usually review wines at home, blind, under stringent circumstances; and I was feeling a little guilty that I was tasting them open, with the winemaker, at the winery. I added that I could only try to be as objective as I could despite the non-blind circumstances.

Well, Doug had what can fairly be termed a strong reaction to that statement. He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t believe I should be tasting his wines blind. (!!) We ended up having a discussion, and below are Doug’s reasons, as I understood them, why a critic shouldn’t taste blind.”

I read Steve Heimoff, the blog, every day. And long before the CGCW blog came into existence, I became a regular contributor/debater on that blog. I have been in this business for a few years now, and, not surprisingly for a critic, I have a few opinions. Below is my statement about blind tasting as posted yesterday on the Heimoff blog. The references to Oded and Adam are Oded Shekked, owner/winemaker at Longboard and Adam Lee, owner/winemaker at Siduri.

OLKEN: Perhaps a few facts will help.

--I consider Oded and Adam to be professional friends. I mean my next comment as no criticism of them. BUT, in this seemingly never-ending discussion, and why should it end anyhow, it is the wineries and distributors who want their wines tasted with the label open. And, from that, I infer that they believe there is some benefit to them. Otherwise, why care?

--Wineries pull this "I do not send my wines out for review" crap all the time, "but you can come to the winery and I will let you taste anything you want". Adam and Oded are not among those who do that. So, I asked Tom Rochioli for a second bottle to replace one I bought at a store. His response was "come on up. I don't send out wine for review".

I asked how it was that Parker and Tanzer were reviewing his wine. He said they come to the winery. I asked if he thought that it was appropriate to have wines judged that way instead of in blind, peer-to-peer comparisons and he replied, "I GET BETTER SCORES THAT WAY".

Apologies for the caps, but that phrase goes to the heart of Doug Margerum's comments. He thinks he gets better scores when he is there explaining his wines to critics and explaining the context in which they fit. Never mind that he is not serving them to the critic in that context. He is explaining the context and telling the critic why his wines are better than they seem. Again, otherwise why do it unless he thinks he benefits from that process?

The point of blind tasting is to make judgments about wines in neutral context and to bring one's tasting acumen to bear. The (Margerum) argument that one cannot taste Chinon blind against Happy Canyon Cab Franc is a red herring on both sides of the equation. Simply put, no one does that. It is an argument ad absurdum. Speak about context. That argument has no context because it is not done in order to achieve finite ratings by anyone with any sense of knowledge and responsibility.

Joe Roberts (1WineDude) does make a valid point. There are differences in the ways in which reviewers operate. Guys like Steve and myself are what I call "comprehensive reviewers". We taste everything of a variety we can get our hands on. Other folks have other mandates, and their comments are far less comparative, can be shorter, like Joe's, or longer like Brooklyn Wine Guy's, but they are not meant to be comprehensively definitive, even when they appear with a rating. OK, I get that.

But, when it comes to the Wine Enthusiast, to my Connoisseurs' Guide, to Parker or the Spectator, the consumer has every right to expect the reviewer to taste blind as a way of eliminating the bias that creeps in otherwise. Yes, context is important, but an experienced reviewer tastes wine blind and supplies the notion of context. "This bright, acid-driven yet not outrageously sour Chardonnay would really work with oysters on the half shell". Or conversely, "This bright, acid-driven Chardonnay will take the enamel off your teeth, and serving it with oysters is not going to make it or them taste any better".

If a reviewer is not capable of tasting a wine and discerning not only its quality but what the right context is for that wine, then the readers of that reviewer are being shortchanged. Tasting at the winery with the labels showing, the winemaker at your elbow chatting you up and winery dog licking your hand is, in my opinion, the antithesis of the way a professional taster should bring context into play. It is the taster's job, not the winemaker's job to bring context into the evaluative process.

I hope you don't feel guilty, Steve, but I also hope you don't review those wines, because even if you are totally transparent about where and how you tasted them, you still face questions of unintended bias. I presume that this column is actually part of your process for dealing with that very concern, and I applaud your approach. I just believe that your reviews oght not be done that way.

Respectfully submitted,
Charlie

Comments

No Subject
by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:10/6/2010 9:03:48 AM

There's little question in my mind that tasting at the winery with the winemaker results in higher scores. Charlie views that as a strong argument against doing so. However, one could just as easily posit that, since tasting blind at home results in lower scores, that is a reason not to do so!

Home Tasting
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/6/2010 9:11:25 AM

Steve,

Eric Asimov of the NY Times reviewed my new book yesterday with the comment--this is an opinionated look with no boosterism. In other words, it is the "the facts, just the facts", to quote Joe Friday (you do remember Joe Friday, don't you?).

That is how I view tasting in a neutral setting. Let the wines speak, not the winemaker. Just sayin'.

 

Curious
by Samantha Dugan
Posted on:10/7/2010 8:16:13 AM

Tasting with the winemaker can backfire as well you know. We didn't carry a certain brand of very well made and popular Sauvignon Blanc for years after a horrible winery visit that left a wretched taste in my mouth.  As a retail buyer, (not a reviewer per se but we do decide the fate of which wines will rest upon our shelves and publish a newlsetter with "reviews" though no scores) we are never tasted blind but it is essential for us to "blind" otherwise we are stuck with dead products. I can say in all honesty that I have never brought in a shit wine because I adored the sales rep but....I have both had to say no to someone I like because their wines were merde and said no to wines I like due to the fact that the person showing them to me was a douche. Guess that's why I like my end of the business, it's all about personal relationships and my customers rather like hearing about that special connectiion between the person who makes or sells the wine and me...and then in turn them. Those connections mean more to the end user than you kight think. Oh and Charlie Love, I cannot believe you of all people has a limit on how many characters one can use!

scores versus stories
by John Kelly
Posted on:10/7/2010 2:52:51 PM

As I said elsewhere, I believe for scores to have any credibility at all they must come from blind tasting by trained, experienced professionals in a neutral and reproducible environment.

This approach results in a clinicism that is useful but not particularly entertaining. A story built upon a visit to a place and chats with the wine people there can be educational, enlightening and entertaining, and provide the reader with a context for increased enjoyment of wines from that place. I don't think it is appropriate or helpful to score wines tasted in the story context.

Besides, anyting that results in continued score inflation is a bad thing. What are we going to do when the de facto 22-point scale (78-100) becomes a 5 point scale? When are we going to be saying "110 is the new 100"? Charlie it seems to me unlikely that CGCW is going to add another star to its ratings on your watch. We must just say no to score inflation.

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