food for thought

Monday, October 19, 2009

Don’t worry – I’m not going to re-launch my full-blown rant about the faux “objectivity” of blind tastings. I am going to continue to peck away at the notion that somehow tasting a flight of wines blind is a more rational and fair way to award scores and ratings. My one-word rebuttal to that deeply entrenched falsehood is “context”!

Context, mes amis, is what gives any work of art its importance. Context references such things as timing, influences, sources, past work, peer work, and marketplace conditions. When reviewing wines for publication, which often requires scoring them on the 100-point scale, I want to give these new offerings the very best opportunity to shine. Which means putting them in context.

With that in mind, I do not blast through a blind flight in a few minutes, draw my conclusions, and soldier on. Like most of my fellow critics, I am generally tasting new releases, and wines up for review may only recently have been blended and bottled. I try to give them a week or two at least to recover from shipping (if they have been sent to me). I do most of my tasting at home, where I control the stemware, the background odors, the timing, etc. If I am tasting at a winery, I generally ask to bring the open bottles home with me, so that I can give the wines another, perhaps more thorough look, later in the day, with the evening meal, and often the next day as well.

As often as I have done this, and as good as I believe myself to be at doing the quick judgments that are endemic to judging, I am still capable of being caught completely off guard by a wine that suddenly, unexpectedly, blossoms.

Last Saturday afternoon I met briefly with owner Steve Kenyon and winemaker Dave Stephenson out at Otis Kenyon winery. They wanted to show me their new releases – all from 2007 – which included the Matchless Red (a merlot/cabernet blend); a Walla Walla syrah; and a Horse Heaven Hills carmenère.

First impressions were murky, clouded a bit by my own palate fatigue, plus the fact that we were doing a “tailgate tasting” in the warm sun outside the winery. But my least favorite was the carmenère – a very limited bottling (100 cases) destined for the mailing list and tasting room only. It seemed a bit too herbaceous (not unusual for carmenère) and even a bit alcoholic, though just barely over 14 percent.

Some hours later, I revisited all three wines over dinner. Mrs. G and I were enjoying a meal of chicken/portabella ravioli from Cugini’s, a great Italian deli in Walla Walla. We’d debated on whether to go with red sauce or olive oil, ultimately settling on olive oil and chopped herbs fresh from the garden (they had rather miraculously survived last week’s Arctic blast).

I was drinking the Otis Kenyon syrah with my ravioli, and quite happy with it, but Mrs. G decided to sample the carmenère, opting, she explained, for the most unfamiliar wine on the table. Shazam! It was a match made in heaven. What had seemed a bit too herbaceous in the afternoon sun, turned out to be a perfect complement to the pasta speckled with just-harvested garden herbs. The extra breathing time had helped a bit, but it was really the food match that elevated the wine to an entirely new level.

Which led me to another question. When reviewing a wine – and especially when assigning it a numerical score – should it be rewarded with an extra point or two for a particularly good food match? Or does that run the risk of over-praising a wine that shows less well on its own? And let’s face it – there is no way to even test out food matches with most wines, so is it even fair to consider the question? Food for thought… and fuel for a future post looking at the hidden deficiencies of wine rating systems.


Mark said...

Excellent question (or conundrum). Because I buy most of my bottles at wineries, I'd toss the responsibility for convincing me about oddball varietals at the wine maker. If particular flavor combinations bring a wine to life, then serve an example in the tasting room. And no, I'm not talking about another bowl of wine crackers. Not all of us have can do our own reviews prior to purchase, so, yes, the professional reviewer should, to the maximum extent, experience and comment on real-world food pairings.

Sean P. Sullivan said...

This is an issue I have struggled with. The right food pairing can make a wine shine, and food always brings out different aspects of a wine. Many people drink wine with food. That said, it is not possible when sampling a large number of wines to have food to pair alongside the wines in anything approaching a systematic way. For this reason, when I review wines, I tend to evaluate them without food and stick with crackers or bread until I have gotten a sense of the wine. Then I might add some other things in. My thinking is that doing this allows for a more systematic evaluation of the wine but I often wonder if this is the most fair way to evaluate them.

For example, some wines are truly made to be consumed with food. If you are having those wines without food, how can those wines show their best? Other wines are made to be consumed like cocktails. If you have those wines without food, the might show better than they would with. Is this then a fair comparison when evaluating these two wines side by side?

About the best I have come up with is saying on particular wines that I think it needs some food to balance the tannins or acid etc. That said, if I paired it with something when I first tried it, I might really love it. But then shouldn't I do the same with all of the other wines? It's a nice problem to have I guess but I do find it to be a dilemma. It's an area where reviewing wines doesn't quite match up with the way a consumer might experience them.

Keith said...

I've experienced it in reverse: I first had a bottle of wine with a great meal, then later bought and tried the wine without food and didn't like it. It reminds me of what a wine specialist in France told me about French attitudes towards tasting at wineries, that French find the practice a bit strange, because wine is always served alongside good food. (And food is always served with wine.)

Wawineman said...

Wine is like a piece of furniture...good ones fit in many rooms, selective ones fit only a few rooms, and bad ones belong on the curb.

I try my wines in typical, average pattern: on opening (by itself), with good cheese and decent crackers, anything extra laying around (for spontaneity), then with a main course where I estimated the wine would pair well based on the winemaker's notes. However, lately, instead of traveling the worn path, I've taken twisted detours (Quilceda Creek cab with Papa Murphy's pizza) just to experiment and hope to find something unusual (seldom).

I then sum up the experiences and give a fair rating on the overall enjoyment I had with the bottle, pointing out and peaks and potholes. I think that's being fair and consistent to both the wine and the reader.

Don Phelps said...

At Hard Row to Hoe Vineyards we used to do a number of food pairings with our tastings but decided to stop for one primary reason. If we pair it with a particular sauce or cheese and folks rave about it and then go home and drink it by itself and it does not taste as good they tend to feel led on. Since we want folks to like the wine for itself we have tended to offer what types of foods it will pair with but not actual samples.

Andy Plymale said...

Ask Bob for his spam meatloaf recipe.

Deborah said...

Otis Kenyon is pleased that you and Karen found a "Shazam" food pairing with our Carmenere, and we appreciate you raising the issue of the importance of appropriate pairings, particulary when evaluating wines like ours that are intended to be food friendly. In our kitchen we're always searching for those perfect pairings, and we'd love to know what fresh garden herbs you chopped into the olive oil that made the Carmenere pairing work so well with the chicken/portabella ravioli. (And Cugini's is fantastic.) For another surprising "Shazam" pairing, may I suggest the 2006 Otis Kenyon Cabernet with blue-lipped mussels with manchego cheese?

PaulG said...

Wish I could remember which herbs were used; that's Mrs. G's bailiwick. I think it was French tarragon and something else, can't quite dredge up the exact memory.

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