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TUESDAY TRIBUTES
03/12/2013
Tuesday Tributes
THE ROLE OF CONTEXT IN WINE REVIEWS

By Charles Olken

Amidst the anguished analysis of the wine criticism world brought about primarily because of the Wine Advocate’s twists and turns, and secondarily by the recognition that a very large number of today’s leading critics will be aging out of the business in the next decade, has been a quiet but useful conversation about the role of context in wine reviews.

The idea is that each wine exists within the context of its place, cepage, winemaker’s intent, vintage and a half dozen or two of other bits of data that are integral to its makeup. Those who believe that context is determinant argue that they are better tasters when they know all about a wine in advance. In other words, they want to taste each wine with the label showing and with as much knowledge about the wine as they can possibly muster. That argument was mostly recently in a thoughtful way by the San Francisco Chronicle’s Jon Bonne.

It is not a new argument, of course. They have always been winemakers and distributors who claim that the only way to understand their wines to taste them not just with the label showing but with someone knowledgeable at your elbow telling you what you are tasting. That technique is obviously delivers as much “context” as one can get short of knowing the wine at every step of its life cycle—and with tens of thousands of wines to taste, no one can know that much in advance.

One recent example will suffice. Francis Ford Coppola, the great filmmaker turned winery owner, has built a large empire of vineyards and labels. While he is not a match for the exploits of Jess Jackson and the Gallos, or more recently for Bill Foley who has quietly gobbled up a bunch of brands far beyond his Santa Barbara starting place, Mr. Coppola has nonetheless produced wines in an array of prices from mid-level to very high. Here at Connoisseurs’ Guide, we have been lucky enough to know his labels from the beginning when he took over the old Inglenook facility in Rutherford and launched wines like Rubicon and Pennino.

And then came, Coppola Diamond Collection, Director’s Cut and now a label simply identified as Director’s. We received five Chardonnays from the Coppola empire the other day for our review—look for them to appear in our May Issue. But when we went in search of Coppola’s Cabernets from his Rutherford property, we were told that they were no longer available to be tasted blind. After three decades of putting those wines out for review, and with a slew of fancy ratings and positive commentary trailing behind, those wines now can only be tasted at the winery with the winemaker in attendance. Apparently, the wine review community is not able to appreciate them fully unless we are schooled by the winery.

And thus, the debate. Now matter how one slices it, tasting with context is a form of tasting while an advertisement is running. It reaches its most pernicious peak at places like Coppola’s Rutherford winery now renamed Inglenook, and at a host of other wineries who think that they need to control the information flow.

The question then needs to be asked. How is that procedure different from tasting not at the winery but with the label showing and with the information at hand about past performance, winemaking style, the winemaker’s and owner’s personality, the specific place of origin, right down, in some cases, to the vineyard.

To put it in “context”, if a critic knows that the Chardonnay before him is made by HdV or Ramey and is from the Hyde Vineyard, can the critic judge that wine against Mr. Coppola’s Sonoma County Director’s Cut Chardonnay (selling for less than half the price and having less than half the panache, the cachet, the “you have loved me for years” magnetism)? Even acknowledging my own bias based in almost four decades of running CGCW on a blind-tasting only regimen, I would argue that the answer has to be a resounding, “No”.

Context is useful to understand a wine wholly and completely. Context of that sort is unnecessary to place a wine in the hierarchy of goodness, to judge its varietal precision, to judge its depth, to judge its balance, to judge is beauty, to judge its ageworthiness. Those judgments are the ones that critics have to make, and it is not all that hard to make them when knows what one is doing.

But what about context in today’s debate? I would argue that context comes in two ways. The first, and by far the most important, is the wine in context of its newly minted peers. That context, after all, is the context that is most important to the wine buyers who look to expert opinion for guidance. But, the other “context” that of the wine itself, does become known to the critic once the blind-tasted wines are revealed. The first judgments about the wine are already made, and they cannot change. But, the data-based context does come into play in ways that further inform the written review.

Wines that have a history of changing for the better over time, and wines of a similar stripe, even when never tasted before, can and do get a knowing glance. Marimar Chardonnays, Corison Cabernets, Storybook Mountain Zinfandels must first stand on the results of blind tasting. But, they will often earn an extra comment based on the critic’s experience with those wines over time. For instance, it would not violate the blind-tasting “rigor” by adding a comment to a Storybook Mountain review of the type “this wine reminds of the XXXX Reserve which we recently tasted at twenty years old and had held up magnificently. Or the opposite, “based on our recently 25-year retrospective tasting of Storybook Mountain Zins, this one seems more an eight year wine than a twenty year wine”.

What is lost when critics taste with the labels showing is independent judgment of the type that is only possible when the wines are not known at the time of tasting. Whatever is gained by knowing context cannot be enough to warrant that absence of blind tasting.

But, what can and should be acknowledged by blind-tasting advocates is that the larger context does help tell the story of the wine. And that aspect of wine commentary is really what lies at the heart of the context debate. Is it story or independently derived judgments about hedonistic/organoleptic quality that ultimately are what winelovers want?

The answer ultimately is in the eye of the beholder. And that answer has no right or wrong because the big-cellar collectors, the high-ceiling restaurants and their ilk want one thing and folk who are regular wine drinkers but not consumers of wine reviews by the hundreds and thousands want another.


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Comments

Hmmmm....
by TomHill
Posted on:3/11/2013 12:04:43 PM

Charlies sez: "They have always been winemakers and distributors who claim that the only way to understand their wines to taste them not just with the label showing but with someone knowledgeable at your elbow telling you what you are tasting."

 

Hmmm, Charlie....that statement sorta stuck out in my mind. I've tasted a few times w/ winemakers and they're usually pretty free about commenting on the background/facts of the wine we're tasting...but I can't recall any instance when the winemaker was actually telling me what you are tasting. They usually just stand back and listen for your reaction. Prolly because any of the winemakers I've tasted w/ didn't give a rat's a$$ about my opinion.

   What you say about context is certainly true, though. Though, when you tastes Calif's first StLaurent or Fiano, it's tough to come up w/ that context part w/o referring to Austria or IItaly.

Tom

 

Hmmm....Yes and No
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/11/2013 12:26:04 PM

Tom--

Thanks for the comment. Like you, I do taste at wineries all the time. And, because those tasting are not for publication but for knowledge, the winemakers are not engaged in "advertising". But, when a winery says, as several do, "you can only review my wine here at the winery with the label showing", then that is advertising.

I am reminded of the comments of a famous winemaker whose Westside Road Pinots are greatly admired. We had purchased a bottle of his Pinot and liked it, and in the CGCW methodology, we retaste all wines that are going to get big ratings--and we do request those second bottles from the wineries.

In this case, it turned out to be a winery that does not send out its Pinots for review but he graciously invited me up to taste the wine with him.

I asked him if he felt that was a fair system of wine review and he commented, "Parker and Tanzer do it. Besides, I get better reviews that way".

I consider that answer to be significant, informative and more or less definitive in terms of why wineries like Inglenook/Rubicon have adopted the same policy.

It is not that I do not understand the context. Crikeys, I have been tasting wine from that property going back (in vintages) to the 1940s. There is a reason why that policy has been instituted, and, why I am no great cynic, I find it hard to believe that the winery does not think its policy is better for the public commentary on the wine than blind tasting.

The Blind Tasting Debate
by Mark J. Frost
Posted on:3/11/2013 2:02:14 PM

Charles, once again I agree that a blind tasting eliminates the other "impressions" that are conveyed with the winemaker in attendance. Thank you for your thoughts.

I may only be able to identify three or four elements in a wine. When the winemakers then tells me of five or six others, I'm then either lost or conscious of my lack of tasting ability.

While you may not want to post them here, I'd be interested in the who's who of Wineries who will only allow tasting in their presence. I know we've discussed a high end Pinot and Chard maker before.

Thanks again.

Role of Context in Wine Reviews
by Mary Rocca
Posted on:3/11/2013 3:05:21 PM

Charles, 

I'm pleased to see we agree on reviews.  For a small winery like ours, we favor blind reviews, as we find our wines stand on their own quite well...  it's a way of evening out the competition.  Of course, if you cared to sit and taste through them with our winemaker, we'd love that too! 

What I really appreciate is that once tasted blind, you can then add further comments based on your knowledge of a winery over time.  

Thanks! 

PS:  I'm sending in two vineyard designate Cabs for your review- perhaps a Syrah too! 

Yup....
by TomHill
Posted on:3/11/2013 7:03:06 PM

Charlie sez: "Like you, I do taste at wineries all the time. And, because those tasting are not for publication but for knowledge, the winemakers are not engaged in "advertising". But, when a winery says, as several do, "you can only review my wine here at the winery with the label showing", then that is advertising."

Couldn't agree more on that point, Charlie. And, as Mary points out, your adding of comments after you've tasted blind...adding context if you will..that's something I also wholly endorse.

Tom

 

context, circumstance or control?
by Alfonso
Posted on:3/16/2013 7:45:04 AM

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Could it be that some wineries also want the reviewer to consider circumstance instead of context? Many times at home there are bottles piled on tables and a slew of wines to be tasted. I don’t think the wineries are off base in trying to get a reviewer to slow down and take more than 5 minutes to taste a wine they have taken a year or more to make. Of course if they are really only trying to control the process, well then, good luck, as we all know wine writers like to control their own process.

Circumstance
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:3/16/2013 9:55:37 AM

Alfonso--

Not sure I know what you mena by circumstance. I am sure wineries would like to have their wines examined for as much time as they can get, but even when one visits a winery, it is rare to spend a lot more than five minutes on a wine.

Sure, there is time spent meeting, greeting, speaking about vineyard location, winemaking philosophy, etc, but when the corks get pulled, the actual time spent with the wine at a winery does not generally get that much longer than five to ten minutes.

I do like the idea that some reviews/;commentaries focus on one or two wines over time, with food, etc. That is a very different kind of winewriting than comprehensive peer-to-peer comparisons.

The "story" of a wine is less individualistic than some folks would have us believe. Steve Heimoff had a good editorial about that the other day. He pointed out that we all paid our dues in our early wineloving years by learning all about crop loads, trellising systems, sun exposure, picking choices and styles, sorting tables, crush pressures, free run vs. first press and how much to add back, fermentation temperatures, ML or not or partial and how to control it, medium-toast vs heavy toast vs toasted heads, time in barrel, blending, acid additions, closures--and about a hundred other choices that winemakers must make.

But, in the end, the real question turns out to be: how does the wine taste? And while the "story" of the wine is important, or even the circumstance of the tasting, it is my view that the only way to get an honest, admittedly less than two hour view of a wine is to taste it blind in comparison to its peers and to pay careful attention to what you are tasting. Of course, it halps to know what one is taliking about, but that is less controllable, and ultimately is not the judgment of the reviewer and more the judgment of those who read the reviews.

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