Anyone can drink a glass of wine and spew words to describe it. Sometimes they publish this opinion and call themselves experts. Worse yet, occasionally people believe them.
Wine reviewing has become a convoluted world, where critics hide behind words and subjective opinions rather than speaking wine facts. Worse yet all too often wine reviews also miss sharing the soul of the wine drinking experience. Instead they focus on why their opinion is more relevant than your perceptions and individual experience.
All too often wine drinkers sop up the common wine review, because they think anyone with such acute senses must be right. This point was made rather well by The Economist entitled “How to Lie about Wine.”
Blood is Thicker than Wine
GUY and I are always trying to figure out how best to talk about wine because inevitably we’re asked what we think of this or that. With both of us trained in how to taste and communicate our findings, we’ve come to the distinct conclusion that it’s not so much about finding the most esoteric verbiage to describe a wine. Rather we revel in the story that’s in the glass because let’s face it folks, who wants to taste a descriptor like “ox blood.”
So are we being duped into believing that if we can’t taste what a critic tastes, our palates are faulty? I came across a blog recently named HoseMaster of Wine by wine industry man Ron Washam. It appears Ron believes that’s just what’s happening. He describes the current state of wine reviews by writing, “All the wine rags spend a lot of energy trying to convince you that it’s in your best interest to read the descriptions. Why? They’re boring. Fortune cookies have fewer words, more literary value, and far more truth.” He makes a rather poignant point. Most wine reviews are commonplace and offer no true informational value.
But is information truly what we need? Can we tolerate a purely esoteric wine review? One of GUY’s favorite wine review websites is The Red Wine Haiku Review. It’s here that author Lane Steinberg elevates the wine review to pure emotion using the traditional haiku format. Lane says of his work, “These haikus provide a quick blast of an impression without getting too specific. If the haikus are good, you should be able to taste them in your mind.”
Tenuta Sette Ponti Crognolo 2010 (Italy)
A right to the jaw
The champ is flat on the mat
Slowly, he rises
William Hill Bench Blend Cabernet 2007 (California)
They take meetings in hot tubs
As the fog rolls in
Surh Luchtel Syrah 2005 (California)
An enormous room
Light pours in through a skylight
Onto the soft bed
GUY loves the pure emotional context of these reviews. The brevity requirement of the review format forces Lane to focus on the experience of the wine. And the more you learn about wine, the more you come to see it’s truly all about the experience.
By using a formulaic approach that highlights brevity and emotion, Lane explores a style of wine review that stands in direct opposition to the style de rigueur. Where Lane deals in artistic obscurity, most wine writers follow in the footsteps of the “nortorious” RP–expansive in his perceptions of scents and flavors in a wine. But if Lane’s work has a downfall, it’s marketability. Put a haiku review shelf tag next to a 90 Points RP blessed shelf tag to see which moves.
One of the few wine publications I read regularly nowadays is Sommelier Journal, where my former wine instructor, David Glancy, Master Sommelier is Advisory Board Member and contributing writer. I’m a big fan of his wine reviews and I’ve included one below:
2010 La Crotta di Vegneron Fumin Esprit Follet, Vallée d’Aoste $35
The Valle d’Aosta appellation lies in the foothills of the Italian Alps at the French border, just north of Piedmont. Fumin is an indigenous grape that, since being rescued from extinction in the 1980s, has more commonly been used for blending than for single-varietal bottlings. The Esprit Follet shows an almost inky color that runs from ruby to purple. Black-pepper, anise, and rose scents lead to cassis, plum, and tart cherry on the palate, supplemented by lingering toasted oak and iron-and-gravel minerality. The wine is medium bodied, with bright acidity and slightly coarse tannins; meaty and savory, it begs for hearty fare like veal stroganoff. Importer: Villa Italia Wines, www.villaitaliawines.com .
DAVID GLANCY, MS, CWE, CSS, FWS
Founder and CEO San Francisco Wine School
What I admire about David’s writing is his succinctness with just the right amount of descriptive words and history. Right away he identifies the wine region, which for this Italian wine could be the simplest and most important information to convey. From there he hits the varietal with a brief history (folks like to know what they’re dealing with.) Then he smoothly expresses his interpretation of the wine itself, using simple descriptors, including the wine’s body and a possibility for food matching. Of the many different wine reviewers I’ve read, I think David is spot on.
Fortune of Cookies
Reviewing a wine can be a little tricky as we’ve seen. The closest we’ve come to understanding the current industry standard can be outlined in some simple bullets:
Provide details on the label: A good way to start
Convey the history: Couldn’t hurt
Inject some humor: Absolutely
Be creative: Sets the mood
Blatantly lie about the contents of the glass: It’s often done!
So is that the recipe? A dash of whimsy, a pinch of embellishment and a handful of credentials? With a combination like this, the possibilities are endless, but stay away from “ox blood”—that wins no friends. As for PROTOCOL, we’re working on our own approach to reviewing wine—drinking, and maybe a little trust in the fortune cookie.
Tina and GUY, Partners
PROTOCOL wine studio