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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
04/20/2012
Friday
A Day In The Bizarre Life Of A Wine Critic -->

By Charles Olken

Wine criticism, like all subjective criticism, can be arcane at times and inconsistent despite best efforts. It produces no new products, advances few new understandings of the world and is entirely reactive rather than being proactive.

James Conaway, who made his wine bones with his earlier book, Napa, and has gone on to other writings about wine, including a soon to debut novel entitled “The Language of Cabernet”, recently described the evaluative side of wine writing, as “a bizarre profession”. I could argue with that if I wanted to, but all the defenses of wine criticism have been heard before, and I would need to argue that what I produce is not hyperinflated rhetoric but carefully researched, thoughtful commentary.

You have heard it before. No doubt, I will trod that ground again. But perhaps, a look at my “bizarre” life will at least shed some light on the topic. If you find my day to be bizarre, so be it. I find it to be work worth doing and thus worth the striving for excellence that I and everyone involved here at Connoisseurs’ Guide bring to our work.

Let’s take a normal tasting day. We taste most days at 10:30 AM. We used to taste only in the evenings, but, as the number of wines grew and grew and grew, we found that we were tasting most nights of the week and that began to get in the way of things like sleep and seeing the family.

So, most days, we now taste in the morning. We have a more or less set schedule that sees us visit the major reds every four months while taking on the whites as they accumulate in inventory. On a typical tasting day, I go into the cellar either the night before or first thing in the morning and choose sixteen wines to taste in two flights of eight. Wines are tasted by variety, by vintage and we attempt to get a swath of wines from various appellations and varying price levels while being careful not to allow size and richness to dominate less aggressively designed wines. In other words, there is care taken to get a reasonably competitive sample.

The wines come out of the cellar about two hours in advance, are wrapped in aluminum foil and lettered by the office staff and either put on the table to warm up to tasting temperature (mid-60s for us) if red or put in the fridge to cool down if white. We chill sparkling wine and aromatic whites a bit more than dry whites, but all whites are chilled because that is the way they are meant to be consumed. Indeed, a good winemaker considers how a wine will taste when appropriately chilled as part of his decision-making regimen.

When the wines get to the table, the tasters know only the variety and the vintage. And here is where the “bizarre” comes in. We are expected to bring knowledge of the variety to the tasting. We are expected to bring knowledge of the various locations where wine is grown. And we are expected, without knowing which wines are in front of us, to evaluate each against the standards that we have worked so hard to understand. We look deeply inside the wines and, despite not knowing whether we have Napa Valley or Edna Valley in the glass, we work to construct a description that is so precise that our readers will agree with that description an overwhelming majority of the time. Because, if they do not agree, they will not subscribe to our publication the next time a renewal letter comes around.

While we are not judging the wine against a specific terroir-driven standard, we do bring knowledge of how a grape performs across a variety of sites, both here in California and elsewhere around the world. In that sense, we bring to each tasting broad understandings about the range of possibilities. We can often guess the provenance of the wine blind, but that is not what blind tasting is about. It is about judging quality against both hedonistic and known performance standards.

There are some, and Mr. Conaway, despite his intimate knowledge of the industry is one, who think that wine writing is done to please the wineries. I suppose that some writers might feel that way, but most of them do not. It is not the wineries who keep critics in business; it is the consumers. And the consumers do not come to wine publications en masse, but one at a time. It matters not whether one is the Wine Spectator or Sam’s Sangiovese Scribblings, the decision to subscribe or not is made one consumer at time.

I suppose that makes what we do a little bizarre to some. But, in point of fact, we are not much different from the makers of soap. We offer a product and people choose to buy it or not. It is not how high our “points” are that sell subscriptions, but whether or not the consumers find value in what we write.

A typical tasting lasts about three hours, ends in time for a late lunch, and then leaves time for a bit of writing or for a quick visit to a winery or to attend an outside tasting. It is bizarre, when one thinks about it. We wine critics get paid by our readers to play a game of sorts. It is a serious game just as professional sports are serious to most of those who play them. But, in truth, we look across the table at times and marvel that our jobs are to taste all this wine no matter how good or bad it is and tell the world what we think. Maybe it is not so bizarre after all. Maybe instead of leading bizarre lives, we lead very lucky lives. We taste wine for a living and need only please ourselves first and then our readers by the accuracy of our words.


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For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.

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