Wednesday, October 24, 2012

What writers really say about wines we don't like

Writers usually only publish reviews of wines we like. But we taste so many more wines, and have strong opinions even if you don't normally read them.

I was rooting around in some old notebooks yesterday and found these tasting notes from a session -- most likely multiple sessions -- with Jon Bonné during my time at the San Francisco Chronicle. I don't remember what all we tasted; I must have kept the actual notes in a different notebook. And I don't remember who said what. So with apologies/thanks to Jon, here's what I have written down:

This is what lemonade would taste like if it were made by Satan.

It's like a Dunkin Donuts strawberry cream donut in a puddle.

(Wine number) 10 smells like a rat trap -- 11 is the rat trap that worked.

That tastes like diluted Palmolive.

Floral and sweaty: Like nice deodorant on a person who needs it.

Mid-inhale, I thought, why am I bringing in more molecules of this?

(Wine number) 43 is body shop. And not the nice Body Shop: auto body shop. The grease trap at an auto body shop.

Jon: 6 parts water to 1 part cream soda plus lemon juice
Blake: Ricola cough drop left in the sun

Number 2 smells like bad cafeteria pudding

This one smells like a gym where I used to wrestle. They had this stuff they rubbed on the floor.

This tastes like grapefruit floor cleaner.

Jon: Has there been an occasion for you to smell lark's vomit?
Blake: I think if you smell something that might be lark's vomit, there's a pretty good chance that (wine's) not getting in the paper

Tasting (wine number) 5 reminds me of going to a movie I know I'm going to hate so I know exactly how much to hate it.

I got stewed cheese, window polish and shoe cleaner.

What is it in the winemaking that makes it smell like urine?

(And you thought wine tasting was all fun and games. Any winemakers care to answer that last question?)

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John M. Kelly said...

I actually pee in the bottles I send to wine reviewers. Well, I used to anyway. I was always hoping for that elusive 50 points, so much more effective marketing than 89 points. But since you guys started to wuss out and stopped publishing reviews where you trash a wine, I've just given up.

W. Blake Gray said...

John: Next time, try eating asparagus first.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

Blake, it does bring up an interesting point, which is when do you actually publish a terrible review? Movie critics do it, as do car critics, book critics, theater critics, restaurant critics, etc etc.

I understand that maybe it's not fair to trash a <$10 wine (or whatever threshold is appropriate), but don't professional reviewers have some responsibility to publish a review, even if it is terrible, of high end/expensive/trophy reputations when such bottles are indeed crap?

Just a thought....

W. Blake Gray said...

Mark: When I worked at the Chronicle, we had a no-negative-review policy for several reasons.
For me, the best was that readers remember the names of wines but not usually what was said about them. (Psychological research supports this.)
Also, there are so many wines to write about. Why expend space on wines we don't like?
And there's the practical reason that the paper wanted to continue receiving samples that wineries could send without fear.

I still feel similarly as a blogger. I'd ask you: Name the wines you think would deserve to be trashed, if we don't like them? It's not like The Avengers; there's no one wine everyone will drink, except maybe Two Buck Chuck, and what's the point of trashing that?

Take KJ Vintners Reserve Chardonnay for example. It's way too sweet for my taste. But does it do anyone any good for me to publish that? People who like it, like it. People who don't, don't need my validation.

Mark Andrew Sinnott said...

Blake, fair points, and I agree with you in those situations where it is a very selective review, e.g. one where its a 'short list' of notable wines from XYZ area, or perhaps a simple callout based on a selective experience (for example your postings on being a judge at various competitions).

I think the situation however is very different when a publication such as WS or WA is doing a 'comprehensive' tasting of a region and vintage - say 2010 Napa Cabs to pick an easy one. In those formats, I think it is absolutely fair to slap the good and bad together for all to see. It's not about 'which wines do I think deserve to be trashed'. It's about getting a complete picture of a particular reviewer's palate and preferences. I recall a rare severely negative review (79 points) when Jim Laube trashed a Ch. Montelena Cabernet (might have been the 2001, I forget) it was interesting... and basically confrmed that he and I have differnet preferences, which is as useful as knowing who I would trust on a positive review. Nonetheless, it would provide not only more context on a reviewer but also serve a great purpose for the readership (aka the paying subscribers). Many people say they follow a reviewer based on his/her recommendations; isn't it fair to include the bad as well as the good in the samples?

On a practical level, if I go to the store and buy ABC winery 2009 Pinot (based on a great vintage report) and am very disappointed, I would love to have been able to see a review on it, just as I could of a favorably reviewed wine. I then make up my own mind (as in the Montelena example). Leaving it out because it sucks to the reviewer seems neither objective nor fair to the reader. I think 'buyer beware' is fair and warranted.

As for not receiving the free samples as a potential result, well then so be it. For the big pubs, they should be purchasing their own in any event, to avoid bias. I recognize this may not be realistic for bloggers or the smaller pubs, but that is (to me anyway) how it should work. Doesn't WA have this policy already?

W. Blake Gray said...

Mark: I agree with you regarding Wine Spectator and even more so, Wine Advocate. They claim to review everything, so they should run all the reviews.

That was never the Chronicle's mission and obviously isn't mine.

Fred Swan, said...

I tasted a Pinot today that smelled exactly like a McDonalds hamburger, including the bun, meat and dill pickle.

Wink Lorch said...

Two decades ago when I was undergoing one of my doomed attempts to pass the tasting part of the MW exams (havng passed the theory already) I was attempting to find the right words in the right MW format to explain why I thought a particular wine to be very poor quality. Short of time, tired and expecting to fail, I wrote "And the finish was short, which was a relief".

Tom Ewing said...

Great post, Blake. Being a NY industry veteran, I know that having a Master's Degree in Descriptive Adjectival Phrasing is a requirement. Two of my favorites: "aromas of sheep breath" (a Grenache from the Languedoc) and "dead lobster crotch" (factory-grade champagne). Obnoxious for sure, but funny nevertheless. The thing about truly bad wine is that the opportunity to pull out all the stops when writing about them is irresistable.

W. Blake Gray said...

No advertising allowed in the comments. If you want to advertise on my site, pay for it like you would in any other publication.

Beau said...

What about pointing out flaws in a wine, like excessive brett, VA, EA, sulfides, etc? Should wine writers do that?

W. Blake Gray said...

Beau: Beyond the general philosophies discussed previously, it does beg the question of who you're writing for. Most of a newspaper audience wouldn't know what those terms meant.

Beyond that, you get into the question of whether "excessive" VA is a flaw, or brett is a flaw. I'm not a winemaker or sommelier so I have my own opinions. But this is too late in this comment string to get into it.