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Buying wine -- the usefulness of medals, critics, retailers . . .

Over on the "General Chowhounding Topics" board, there is a wide-ranging discussion that began on the topic of "How important is wine to food?" http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815240 While some of the "regulars" of the wine board were participating, it's veered far enough afield that I thought I'd take one aspect of that discussion and re-post here -- on the wine board -- in the hopes of stimulating more discussion and getting more feedback.

The following is a post of mine that I wrote in response to someone saying to me that "(I) have basically convinced (the writer) to devalue any awards that a wine may have been given."

Here is my reply, in its entirety, but I would specifically draw your attention to the final section.

I am curious to know what others may think.

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In all honesty, IMO it's six of one and half-a-dozen of the other . . .

Keep in mind that every Fair/Competition has its own methodology, its own way of tasting and processing the results. For example, one event might categorize the wines by price point, while another does it by appellation; one might separate all of the entries of a specific variety by vintage, another may lump all them all together. Also, some may have *only* winemakers as judges, some may *exclude* any and all professional winemakers, while some may opt for a more "mixed" panel, with one winemaker, one retailer, one restaurateur, and one "other" wine professional. Some may use three judges per panel, some four, and some five. Some may limit the number of wines any one judge tastes in any one day to 75; some may have a judge taste as many as 200 wines the first day (when it's the far easier "Eliminate/Retain" rounds), and then fewer and fewer on each successive day when medals are rewarded. Some may taste only in the mornings, over the course of five days; others are a 3-day event, 8:30 until 4:00-5:00; others are over in a single day. Some may make all of the prospective judges pass a test/series of tests before qualifying them as a judge; others may not. And on and on and on . . .

With a panel of tasters, you (tend to) eliminate palate biases. With a single reviewer in a publication, the consumer has to figure out what that individual taster's biases are. With a single reviewer, you may have some esoteric wines receiving high scores which the consumer may love *or* hate. With a panel of tasters, you (tend to) -- at times -- play to the lowest common denominator (i.e.: a wine that is varietally correct and "solid" may end up with a higher score than one that is esoteric but delicious; some judge may love it, while another hates it).

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Speaking strictly for MYSELF, the value in awards, competitions, and fairs is NOT in any one single medal. That is, one Gold Medal is meaningless. But if a wine gets, say, six Silver Medals in six different competitions, that is far more meaningful to me -- a broad consensus of (hopefully) professionals think that this wine is special. To my knowledge, only one competition publishes all the wines that were entered (most only publish the names of those which received some sort of medal/recognition). Ergo, you don't know if "Wine A" -- the one which received a single Gold Medal -- entered only one competition, or entered 10. But at least you know that six different panels of judges found something worthwhile in "Wine B."

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

Speaking strictly for MYSELF, the value in a single reviewer exists ONLY if that reviewer is CONSISTENT in their tastings, in their own likes and dislikes, AND then, only if the consumer can understand and interpret that individual's likes and dislikes to his or her own palate.

Some tasters/reviewers/critics I find completely useless, as their preferences are (seem to be) all over the board. Parker IS (well, can be) useful to me *despite* our palates being so different precisely because he is consistent, and over the years I've come to understand when he speaks of "hedonistic fruit," I run the other way regardless of his 98-point rating, but when he speaks of high acidity and minerality and "82 points," I know I'll probably really love it! His former associate, Pierre-Antoine Rovani was far less consistent, and thus, far less useful for me as a consumer.

/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\/\

For me, the BOTTOM LINE boils down to this:

1) Every piece of information is useful, but that *no* single piece of information is indispensable.

2) The individual consumer needs to develop trust in his or her *own* palate, rather than kneeling at the alter of the self-appointed Wine Gurus and praying, "For God's sake, tell us what to drink."

3) The "serious" consumer needs to develop a relationship with 2-3 equally "serious" retailers -- ask questions, get recommendations, and provide feedback *regardless* of whether or not the early recommendations are successful. Good retailers taste dozens and dozens of wines every week, and probably 10 for every one that shows up in their store -- the more they get to know the consumer's tastes, the more better their recommendations and the more helpful they can be.

Cheers,
Jason

P.S. This last point presumes, of course, there are some "serious" retailers where one lives, as opposed to only state (or provincial) -owned stores.

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  1. I buy my mine in three ways. 60%directly from wineries thru clubs or walk-in. 30% from online sites from which I have had good results, and 10% frome wine shops. Since 90% of my purchases are California wines, I found most wine shops I have tried push French versions of my fav. varietals. I read no wine publications beacuse I am not trying to cellar or lay down for the future. I do read the wine writer for the SF Chronicle, because as you say, Jason, consistancy is more important than agreement.

    Far too many people approach wine afraid of making mistakes and afraid of looking foolish.
    Attempts to de-mystify it are often met with scorn from "serious" consumers who enjoy the insider feeling, and from the restaurant biz who can charge outrageous prices for ordainary plonk.

    Raings, Medals and recommendations are useful as shortcuts until a person develops trust in their own taste.

    2 Replies
    1. re: budnball

      I'm sort the flip-side of budnball's buying: 80% old world (primarily Italian, French, German, Spanish) and 20% others. And I have a 1,000 bottle cellar, so I'd better be interested in the next 5-10 years! Although 2/3 of what I buy is from 3 online sources, two local "serious wine retailers" are very important to me. Given that I like to find small producers who craft non-generic (and non-international) wines, I simply cannot do that without their tasting experiences and advice. Because I value their expertise, I'd MUST regularly buy from them--maybe not a case, but something!. While I might save a few bucks by buying either online or from big-box wine stores, serious local wine stores (at least in Ohio) struggle to stay in business. It's in my long-term drinking interests to support them.

      Clearly the most difficult (but fun) process is calibrating my palates with those I read and taste with. Without doing this, I'm back in some herd tasting-what-I'm told.

      All-in-all, I think Jason's post is spot-on!

      1. re: Longing for Italy

        I hope your venders appreciate your loyalty. I also wonder about the business viablity of the small wine makers that I buy from. It seems like a really narrow profit margin, what with all the variables, like this years strange weather in California. One of the reasons I buy my wine locally is to support the neighborhood, so to speak. There are scores of wineries within an hour or so from my house and with such a bounty, i don't feel the need to go further out. Between Livermore, Santa Cruz mountains and the Carmel/Monterrey area, we have quantity and quality galore.

        Truth is, there is almost too much good wine around.

    2. I used to read the wine critics and look for the wines they recommended. As I tasted more wine and developed my own palate I then could look at these reviews with a more critical eye based on my own likes and dislikes. Eventually I stopped reading them all together. Besides finding them can be nearly impossible.

      The same goes for medals. I used to put stock in them and I think that for some prestigious competitions may hold weight. I have a friend who is a certified sommelier and he was asked to judge at the local state fair. He says it was the most god awful experience of his life. Some of the wines he would not even taste they were so disgusting so a gold medal with that pool of participants may not be worth much.

      I belong to two wine clubs and in both cases they are wines I love that are not sold at local retailers. Otherwise my purchases are made at a local retailer that has a very large selection. I don't typically rely on the retailer to tell me what to buy but I do use the tasting notes that are posted. I peruse the shelves and select things based on varietal, price, and region. I buy a full case once a year for my birthday with wines that are special and these are doled out once a month on my birth date, locally known as the "12th wines"

      At other times of the year I purchase random bottles for either everyday drinking or to pair with a specific meal. I go through phases with these wines currently I am in a Lodi Zin phase.

      6 Replies
      1. re: pairswellwithwine

        Random thoughts . . .

        Your experience is completely normal and follows the "traditional" evolution of first relying on others and then, as your own palate develops, relying more and more on yourself.

        As far as you friend who is a "certified sommelier" (whatever that is -- you mean an M.S.? or WSET?), it doesn't surprise me that "it was the most god awful experience of his life." By far the most difficult group I've ever had to taste with, be it at an international competition or on a magazine's tasting panel, has been sommeliers and restauranteurs. But I would offer just one additional comment:

        >>> Some of the wines he would not even taste they were so disgusting so a gold medal with that pool of participants may not be worth much. <<<

        I've been to plenty of wine judgings where NO gold Medal was awarded, so if the entire group was "disgusting," so be it!

        Cheers,
        Jason

        1. re: zin1953

          The best way is to taste it yourself. I have done this at wineries, wine stores, wine bars, wine festivals. Even then its hard to judge a wine on a single tasting at a single moment in time. I find my smell and taste vary from day to day I need to drink several bottles of a wine to make a good judgement. Short of being able to taste it I depend on my local wine store and I also find cellertracker to be a good resource. But more often than not if a buy a bottle without tasting I end up not liking it and worse it can be undrinkable. Robert Parker has probably the worst track record of anybody I can think of.

          1. re: pantani

            Well, naturally the best way is to "test drive" the wine by tasting it first, but that is not always feasible. Not everyone can, for example, plan a tasting trip through Sonoma or spend a fortnight visiting the wineries from Marlborough and Central Otago . . . nor are the Sonoma Vintners Association or the New Zealand Winegrowers necessarily coming to neighborhood -- depending upon the neighborhood, of course: there *are* annual tasting events held in many locations, but certainly not all, or even most.

            I do have a question for you, if you don't mind, as I'm confused by one thing you said.

            >>> Short of being able to taste it I depend on my local wine store and I also find cellertracker to be a good resource. But more often than not if a buy a bottle without tasting I end up not liking it and worse it can be undrinkable. <<<

            Now, obviously you cannot taste through your computer, so is Cellartracker helpful for you or not? "More often than not . . . I end up not liking it." Is your local wine store (Vintage Wines? WineSellar? SD Wine Co? Holiday Wines? another store?) *not* helpful?

            Just curious . . . .

            Cheers,
            Jason

            1. re: zin1953

              Short of being not being able to taste one is left with a few choices, pick a bottle at random perhaps because the label is attractive or it is from a producer who is thought to have good wine - or- research what other experienced wine consumers have to say about it. Now I know that tastes vary widely and what one thinks is a really great wine somebody else will hate. I use cellartracker as a sanity check to increase the odds that I won't be pouring the wine down the sink. Doesn't mean that won't happen but I think it less likely. My local wine store is SD Wine Co and they sell wine at a deep discount so obviously their selection is dictated by that. As you probably know they have a tasting every Saturday which I find quite helpful. So I would say that their tastings are helpful, but their shelf talkers are not.
              Another thing I find helpful is their "staff picks" I have tried several of these with generally good results. I think that I have learned the most about wine by visiting wine regions and the central coast is where I have spent the most time. Not too long ago I was given a bottle of Silver Oak which is a more expensive bottle than I will probably ever buy. Myself and everyone who shared the bottle thought it was no better than a low end California Cab. Could have been an off bottle but I suspect it has more to do with the Emporer has no clothes.

              1. re: pantani

                Well, Silver Oak has long been running around with no clothes on . . . even in the old days (1980s), when Justin Meyer still made the wine, there was an Alexander Valley Cab, one from Napa Valley, and a "top-of-the-line" single vineyard Cab called, "Bonnie's Vineyard." And, to my palate, there were ALWAYS in that order -- the cheapest wine, the Alexander Valley Cab, was their best; the most expensive, the "Bonnie's," their worst.

                That said, even at a store like SD Wine Co., time spent actually speaking with a regular employee (versus part-time or, let's say, "casual" employee) is well worth it. The more they get to know *your* taste, the better their recommendations to you will be . . .

                1. re: zin1953

                  Way back then, I was still a fan of the Napa, but that was because of the Milat Family fruit in the wine. I loved that "mint note" in the wine, and it has been gone since about 1998. As of the 1997 Napa, I have been less, and less impressed.

                  Now, some of the Twomay Merlots have been surprisingly good.

                  Personal tastes,

                  Hunt

      2. I think that wine critics and awards and so on really do influence the way people buy wine. And I think this is primarily because the vast majority of people don't actually taste the wine before they buy it. As a previous poster said, you can't feasibly travel to South Africa, New Zealand, California, France, Germany and so on to pick up your wines. This is where the critics opinions and medals become important to many people. I also don't think that the vast majority of the public really wants to make an informed opinion. I think most people are happy looking at the bottle, reading the blurb,and buying the wine within their price point. If there's an award associated with it, all the better. I also think that for those who collect wine or stock a wine "cellar" aka open rack over their refrigerator (cringe) (again, not oenophiles) with say a dozen or so bottles, the critics choices form the basis of their collection. They may read in the Globe and Mail that Beppe is recommending the 2009 \Cab Sauv from a certain area to be stored for a certain period of time, and they're happy with this.
        As for the serious wine collector/wine lover, the critics and medals/awards are only part of the picture. It really is an informed decision, taking advice from a critic whose work and history speaks to them, the awards in the particular shows, and personal experience or taste (i.e. I like the wines from X vinyard, Beppe says 2007 was a great year, they got 2 gold medals internationally, I think I'll try a bottle...then buy a bunch if I like it)....
        Critics, awards are just one piece in the puzzle.
        As for me? Well, I like wine, not an expert by any stretch of the imagination, but my husband and I do travel to the Niagara region and taste and purchase for the year. For us, the medals will influence what wines we taste in a particular flight at a particular vintner, but it isn't the be all and end all. We like what we like!
        Now, if we could figure out what to do with all the 'hostess gift' bottles of wines we just, um, don't drink, I'd be a happy girl...
        :)

        4 Replies
        1. re: freia

          You don't have to travel to taste wine, though. Tastings are held at almost every wine/liquor shop on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Also, almost every restaurant has by-the-glass options. Some even have 20, 50, 100+ btg choices.

          I know this wasn't your main point, but I wanted to say that there are plenty of chances for Joe Average to taste before committing to a bottle.

          1. re: invinotheresverde

            True, that, but not everyone who likes wine lives in a town where there is a vendor who offers tastings of the scope that you suggest. In my small town, I have the Ontario Liquor Control Board. That's it, that's all. No tastings there. Restaurants around here do sell by the glass but it generally isn't the wine that i would be interested it. Usually the more intriguing wines do come by the bottle and again, this is where even buying such a bottle and tasting it would be based on critics and medals. Now beer? Thats a different matter...:)

            1. re: freia

              It does sound more difficult where you are, definitely. Where I live, I could attend, no joke, probably 30+ tastings every Saturday if I chose to.

              I guess I've just always been an atypical buyer, even in my pre-somm days. I shopped by region and occasionally by grape and vintage. Price was an indicator from time to time, too. Never cared about medals or critics. I didn't want someone else's opinion to sway what I was tasting.

              1. re: invinotheresverde

                JEALOUS! That sounds amazing. I appreciate your confidence in your palate because I think we'd all agree that at the end this is what it really comes down to. Critics, judges, medals, retailers, all have a great and important place in the wine industry and for those of us who really enjoy wine, but it really comes down to what you like. :)

        2. Wow I am a little in shock. I dont care about medals, tanzer, parker..
          I am a sommelier and have been started tasting everything in the restaurant where I worked when I became their assistant and later the head sommelier and through trade tastings of course-loads óf them. I would suggest to find out what you like through tastings with local wine shops. very cool would be if you find a sommelier who you become friendly with and taste with her/him and maybe they take u to some big trade tastings.

          3 Replies
          1. re: Reni1

            I'm confused. Is this a reply directly to me, or in general?

            1. re: zin1953

              to you of course

              1. re: Reni1

                Yeah, that's exactly why I was confused.

                The original post was a split off from another thread entirely -- http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/815240 ("How important is wine to food?") -- and that conversation took a left turn in the direction of the value of awards and/or critics. Since that was off the OT, I took the liberty of starting a different thread.

                From your response, it seems rather obvious (to me, at least) that you haven't read very much of my posts, and/or understood the context of the thread . . .

                That aside, I would respectfully say that not everyone lives in locations where off-sale license holders can do on-site tastings; not everyone can get a retailer to invite him to "tag-along" to a trade tasting*; not everyone eats out in restaurants with sommeliers often enough to "befriend" them.

                For people like that, there has to be another way(s). And -- without knowing where you work, or if BYOB is legal where you live (but presuming it is, for a moment) -- I would bet that many of your regulars DO care what Parker, Tanzer, et. al. have to say, and that many of the wines they bring in to your restaurant DO have high numbers and were purchased because of them, rather than tasting-before-buying.

                Cheers,
                Jason

                * While some retailers do indeed invite good customers to trade tastings from time-to-time, most wholesale reps/winery reps HATE it when they do. These tastings cost enough as it is, and most of those good customers are there NOT to taste the winer per se, but are there as a reward for past business and to keep them loyal to that store, that retailer. In other words, it can benefit the retailer; but it is rarely of direct benefit to any wholesaler or winery.