Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

The Wine Spectator continues to amaze and amuse. Brilliantly written reviews exist but are overshadowed by baffling references and verbose ramblings muddying the waters rather than making them clear.

First the good news from October's two editions. Phrases like "just a baby" (A.N.), "will need some cellaring to stretch out fully" (J.M.), "powered by the racy acidity" (A.N.), "rustic in character" (B.S.) and "ballerina of a wine" (A.N.) all tell me about the style of the wine much more than blathering on about fruit specifics.


However, more bizarre examples ruled the roost. Some one please explain to me how "layered flavors of...furniture polish" (A.N.) could possibly lead to a 93 point rave about a riesling? Or how the descriptor "eau-de-vie" (a colorless fruit brandy) could appear in four of the top five ratings for white Chateauneuf-du-Pape? Should we assume a higher alcohol level makes the better wine? Or how "winey" (J.M.) is allowed to appear in three reviews? Isn't that oenological cop out the equivalent of "it tastes like chicken?" Or how a 91 point, $85 wine could have "gritty tannins" (B.S.) in the review?


I bet I can get a $6 red wine to taste like it was "laced with hints of Campari" (J.M.) rather than spend $75 on a St. Joseph. For a $45 bottle of Vino Nobile di Montepulciano I might want more than "an impression of weightlessness" (B.S.) unless it's for me and I could float around the room by consuming a glass.


Then we find bizarre notes like "sweet stargazer lily" (A.N.), "flash of quinine" (J.M.) and the overly specific "Kenya AA coffee notes" (J.M.). Double takes no doubt followed the reading of "oatmeal and mace overtones" (H.S.) in a 94 point syrah review. I assume the cooking spice is being referenced but there are no guarantees. I have not idea what "green almond" (J.M.) tastes like but would look for something less than $49 to experiment. I had to look up "bilberry" (B.S.) and "plumeria" (M.W.).


Now this post is getting too long and my energy has been sapped too much to complete the purpose of this post. Promise it will appear tomorrow...


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Power of Experts

A post from Steve Heimoff yesterday made me think. http://www.steveheimoff.com/index.php/2011/11/14/do-people-like-wines-just-because-the-critics-tell-them-to/
The answer to his question is a resounding yes, of course, maybe even duh! If not, would we see wild swings in popularity and out of stocks for recent high scoring wines? What about the publications and blogs? Anyone who ever bought a wine based on a rating alone has been influenced.
A tasting early in my learning featured a pointed lesson. The teacher of the beginner's class asked us what we smelled in a particular white wine and nodded along with all responses. Finally, he mentioned cassis and, slowly, one head, then two, then all nodded along. He started to laugh, told us we just learned a good lesson and said he didn't smell cassis in the wine but that the power of suggestion from an authority ruled.
The salient point however, is less that critics sway opinions and more about how those critics operate. Most operate ethically but an embarrassing number in authoritative tasting scenarios either do not know enough to inform their audience properly or are not confident enough to admit they do not know an answer.
Taste wines, trust your own palate no matter what anyone else says. If you must listen to pundits, listen to a few different ones and look for consensus or choose one that most closely matches your own palate. That can be discovered through tasting wines rated highly and not so highly by said writer.
I have never observed a money back guarantee on a wine review. Since it's all your cost and risk, make sure to be confident about your palate.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Wine Spectator's Slips and Skips

The September 30, 2011 issue deserves more than my rant about punditry. Two sets of reviews end up reading like a skipping record and one group contains various misspellings of a single grape name.
A variety grown by different producers in the same region should exhibit similar profiles. Tasters also can become focused on one flavor throughout a tasting noticing its presence perhaps more than they should. I have fallen into this trap. When the wines begin to taste the same, take a break. Walk away, eat something, break the cycle. Barring that, perhaps better editing might suffice.
J.M. and A.N. must have had a groove going when they reviewed Chilean syrah and blends and Soave, respectively. J.M. used the word anise in four of nine reviews and pastis in a fifth. A.N. just misses 100%. In a review of Soave wine the word almond appears in seven of the nine reviews and one of the two without it mentions marzipan (almond based). Other words exist, other nuts too. I'm aching to try the wines blind to see if I can pick the one with no almond notes.
I need to stop picking on the Spectator but as a publication that claims 2.5 million readers they dominate the marketplace and are the face of wine writing to many consumers. The magazine does not claim to be experts or perfectionists but I find their facts to be solid and their presentations professional.
When focusing on a region people do not know well and a grape they know even less, one might hope they could at least spell the grape correctly.
My gripe does not focus on the way it appears on the label. In the Spectator, producers' names get printed in red with wine name in bold, black type following. Any errors, or creative license, taken there belong to the producer, label designer and the agency approving it. The spellings that irked me are in the body of the review.
Granted, the country is Greece and the grape is assyrtiko. Further, Even the Oxford Companion to Wine lists assyrtiko or assyrtico. However, if a leading publication decides to write reviews about this grape, it seems realistic to ask for one spelling from one reviewer.
Instead, we get "Asirtiko, Assyrtiko, Assyrtico and Assytrico." The wine world uses assyrtiko as the accepted version. Google corrected each different spelling of mine to this version as well. My complaint here is minor, but worth noting because of the status of the magazine and the potential confusion for readers.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Preposterous Pundit Pontification of the Month (Silly Wine Review of the Month)

Now that it's November, it must be time for a September post...hey, reading ALL those reviews is tedious.
For the first time my reading made me feel like offering compliments instead of complaints. After a momentary, "Nah, this is the internet. People bash one another from a distance and with much more vigor and vitriol than deserved," I decided to do it.
Bruce Sanderson, reviewer for Wine Spectator gets kudos for using the following in reviews, "Not for the faint of heart." "Impressive...if a bit over the top." And, "It's hard to deny this red's appeal and instant gratification, though I don't get any sense of place."
Bravo! Those are phrases that actually mean something to me and tell me about the wine. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Why is it so rare that reviews offer regular sentences that actually explain the wine?
Because we end up with verbose, bizarre descriptions like the white winner for the month from J.M. Chateau de la Guimoniere Chaume 2005: "This exotic white is starting to show burnished, mature flavors of citronella and lanolin, with marzipan, date, creamed papaya, ginger and dried apricot notes. A twinge of green tea keeps this going through the finish." 93 points. Where do I even begin? The label picture tells us, if we look hard, the wine if made from chenin blanc and is moelleux, meaning mellow, or medium-sweet in wine terms. The wines are not as sweet as full botrytized dessert styles.
Leading with citronella and lanolin repels rather than attracts. The rest of his words makes such an unappealing concoction I can not imagine plunking down $36 for a bottle, and I like moeulleux chenin blancs.
A crowded red field meant a much tougher choice than the runaway victory above. However, all were J.M. entries, so he was guaranteed the September sweep. Ernie Els Stellenbosch Signature 2007: "Ripe and suave, with alluring blackberry, plum sauce and roasted fig notes laced with black tea, cocoa powder, maduro tobacco and smoked apple wood notes. The long, grippy finish smolders nicely, with dense, dark fruit and lovely mouthfeel." 93 points.
At least I think I know where he's going here. I can picture most everything, but it seems like a lot of smoky notes. Roasted fig, tobacco, smoked wood and smoldering finish signals a heavy toast in the barrels and makes me wonder about wildfires in the area. Great reviews should either make the wine sound good or offer a warning about a significant feature that appealed to the reviewer but may have a limited audience beyond that. Neither of those things happens here.
More issues with September's issues in a day or two...