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Get Real

by David on October 14, 2007

So, I was going off on the ratings system again in a recent post. Actually, it was this rant in the CityBeat blog about the ratings guide called “justwinepoints” that got me started again. I don’t like to call anything “dumb” but, as I’ve said before, I do believe these folks are misguided in the idea that descriptors are an unhelpful bore. Their decision was probably influenced by the overly precious, flowery descriptors that turn up in some columns – some of them are truly nauseating. But, not all of them, and I think we all want to get an idea of what it tastes like. So, I ranted, but I also promised that I wouldn’t come to you with a problem without suggesting a solution.

Enter friend Abigail, who works here in our tasting room. We were chatting about the whole numerical ratings system over lunch and agreed that scores seem to be too simplistic and don’t allow for differences in taste, but that we also wished the writing was more direct. Here’s a write-up from the Wine Spectator:

“Ripe, rich and full-bodied, with layers of currant, plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit, shaded by spicy, cedary oak and finishing with a long, complex aftertaste.”

Now, reading that without knowing what kind of wine it is, you’d think it was a warm-climate Cabernet, right?

Well, it was an evaluation of a Pinot Noir that got 93 points. Hmmm… Should he have marked it down a little for lacking varietal character or typicity? Or, at least comment that it’s a delicious red wine, if not very Pinot-like? Just wondering…

So, we started brainstorming.

First, disclose your preferences – whether you lean toward big, fruit-forward styles or leaner wines. And, try to tell us what it smells and tastes like in a practical way. You know, besides the emotional descriptors like hedonistic and beguiling or yummy things like truffle notes and wild berry offer some basics. Is it a ripe, warm-climate or leaner, perhaps cool-climate example of the type? Which flavors dominate – or is it a true melange? Is it a big, in-your-face style or something you relish discovering over a period of time? Tannin/acid levels? Is it representative of the type?


1. Depth
2. Hue
3. Appropriate for the variety?
4. Anything that stands out about it (positive or negative)?

Aroma: which way does it lean?
1. Ripe or lean? Fresh or rich?
2. Big or subtle?
3. Appropriate to the variety/region?
4. Descriptors including which are dominant and whether oak plays a large or small role.
5. Anything that stands out about it (positive or negative)?

Flavor: which way does it lean?
1. Light, medium or full-bodied example of the type?
2. Ripe or lean?
3. Appropriate to the variety/region?
4. Descriptors including which are dominant and whether oak plays a large or small role
5. Tannin/acid levels for the type
6. Drink now? A keeper? Both?
7. Anything that stands out about it (positive or negative)?

1. Length?
2. Pleasant?

1. Is it a good, representative example of the type?
2. If not, is it still delicious anyway?
3. Is it delicious by price standard?

OK, no one expects these guys to go through the whole checklist for every single wine, but it’s a good reminder of context and to comment when something about the wine is unusual. I think the conclusion Abi and I came to was we want to know if it’s a good example of the type and what to expect in terms of overall character and weight.

We also want to know what the reviewer thinks of the quality to price ratio. For instance, the SF Chronicle included Screw Kappa Napa Cab in their top 100 wines (from the west coast, more or less) in 2006. It’s only about $12.00-$15.00 so, of course, I ran out and got some. It’s a heckuva wine for the price. Do I think it belongs in the company of their other top-rated Cabs? No, I do not. Just my opinion, of course, but these things need to be in context.

So, how did the Spectator do with the Pinot Noir description? They let us know that it’s big and ripe, a warm-climate example – that’s good. Implies the oak is subtle, but it’s not real clear. From the descriptors, they might have called it a Cab-drinker’s Pinot and there’s no indication about the tannin levels. The grape makes me expect low levels, but the description might lead you to think Cab tannins. Do they think it belongs in the company of other Pinots that sell at a similar price-point?

Here at the winery we’ve talked about a “get-real” approach when it comes to describing our wines and I think it would be healthy for all of us who write about wine to think less about demonstrating how clever we can be with words and more about whether we’re communicating clearly to the reader. Any thoughts about what you’d like to see or how you’d like the reviews structured?

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