the race is on (and here comes bottle shock up the backstretch)…

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

With apologies to George Jones… what can be done about the intense competition to be the first to print with “reviews” of wines (often unfinished) and vintages? The race is always on, as witnessed by the frenzy over the late winter Bordeaux barrel tastings of wines barely through malolactic. That may be the most egregious example, but it also serves the wineries with a more practical purpose – the opportunity to flag the vintage as [insert best of something here] and pump up the interest in buying futures.

I don’t participate in that particular cluster-f**k but I do find myself drawn into the race to be first to print with reviews on new wines and wineries from Washington and Oregon. As I see it, it’s my turf, and needs to be protected. And as I see it, no one is going to do a better job at coverage than me. Yes that’s highly egocentric, but in the same way that a professional athlete is egocentric. The day you stop believing that you can’t beat the competition is the day you should hang up your shoes, racket, glove, or in my case, keyboard.

I did a tasting yesterday with a new winery owner, who was presenting his first releases for review. I am the first to taste the wines, he assured me, and I will be the first to write about them (I think) and they are quite good, so that lines up perfectly. But he brought along a barrel sample of an ’09 chardonnay, and that led into a discussion about whether or not barrel samples should be reviewed, and if so, how.

I have yet to meet a winemaker who wasn’t enthralled with barrel tasting, and why not? This is their métier. It’s what they do. They cradle the grapes from vine to vat to barrel to bottle, sometimes over a period of years, watching them evolve into the wines they will present to the world. I, on the other hand, take the hand-off, like a runner in a relay race, as the wines are freshly bottled and released into the marketplace. My tasting experience really begins there, and I have worked hard over a long time to develop the ability to see what potential a young (but finished) wine may hold. This is why I generally taste at home, over long hours, sometimes days. It gives the new wine a chance to spread its wings a little, and fly (and sometimes, to crash and burn).

This is my solution to the question posed. I don’t pay much if any attention to barrel tastings. I focus on finished wines. I like to taste them right before or at release. If the winemaker tells me that the wine has recently been bottled, I often give it an extra couple of weeks rest before opening it. If it seems unusually “dumb” or closed up, I give it another look the next day. On rare occasions I have waited weeks or even months to taste and review a wine I know to be good because the winery is a gold standard enterprise that doesn’t make a bad wine.

I’m not sure that others follow such strict guidelines. I see too many writers and publications simply aiming to be the first to tout a wine or a vintage. That may help in the short term, but over time too many of those rushed evaluations turn out to be wrong. And the writer and publication begin to look like they’re fishing for ad revenue rather than doing their work as carefully as possible.

Blogging has opened up new possibilities for me, unanticipated and quite welcome. I can get notes and reviews “published” immediately, without the timelines attached to print. And I can take the opportunity to explain, at length, my methodology, so that you know exactly where I’m coming from. The goal is to serve readers well, to respect the wines, to maintain independence, and, yes, to be first – but first with meaningful reviews and commentary.


Cabfrancophile said...

I think WE takes a bit of flack because of its commercial lifestyle-oriented presentation, but I have to say the way you and Steve Heimoff approach writing tasting notes is just plain spot on. It's refreshing and much appreciated by the critical consumer. I can't help but look at the insanity of Bordeaux with a cynical eye. My general impression is the wine press is basically colluding with the producers to drive sales. This is not the role of critic in my mind.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there is much merit to be first to review a wine. Timely is important in terms of being able to use the review to help make buying decisions, but all the other review qualities (unbiased, accurate, descriptive, etc) are far more important than being "first".

Santa Barbara WIne Club said...

Protect your turf Paul!
I agree, barrel tasting is fun, but I don't buy barrels at the store.

David Larsen said...

Tasting barrel samples can be a valid approach for judging a young wine. It can even be preferable if the choice is between a barrel sample taken just prior to bottling and the same wine that is suffering from bottling shock, which can be anytime up until 6 months after bottling. But my biggest concern with a barrel sample would be that it is not representative of the bottled wine because of the variation between barrels, e.g. due to the use of older and newer barrels. Because of this and other reasons, a wine is not truly "made" until it has been bottled.

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