My mailboxes – the hard-copy one and the electronic one – have been overflowing lately with announcements of wine sales. If I still had any discretionary income, I’m sure I’d be buying – especially since every sale seems to feature wines of extraordinary quality. Of course, none of the enticements I receive ever says anything as understated and unsexy as “extraordinary quality.” No, each of the wines offered is “off the scale,” “simply astonishing value,” “opulent,” “voluptuous,” “a sensual sensation,” and finally – the clincher, they seem to assume – 93 or 95 or 99 points, according to The Wine Spectator or Robert Parker, those two sources being essentially the only ones regularly cited in retail ads.
Let me be clear from the start: this isn’t going to be yet another anti-Robert Parker rant. I happen to think Parker is a hard-working journalist who calls ‘em as he sees ‘em – as do I and any number of other hard-working wine journalists, and as you also have to do whenever you choose a wine in a restaurant or buy one for home consumption. And that is precisely the point I want to make: You, just like Parker, just like me, only taste with your own mouth. Somebody else’s tasting note, as far as you are concerned, might as well be a novel – or probably, given the length of most, a poem. A haiku, in fact:
These berry notes
promise long-lasting lingual delight.
OK, haiku never rhyme – so I’m out of practice. But I’ve got lots of practice tasting wines, and every time I taste, I’m spot-on accurate – for my palate. Maybe not for yours, and certainly not (I infer from what I’ve read of his tasting notes) for Robert Parker, but for myself, I’m locked in, just as you are for your palate, however much or little you know about wine.
Somebody else’s tasting note can rarely tell you anything about what you’re going to taste in the same wine. That’s not only because it isn’t the same mouth tasting (except for some genetic miracle; separated at birth?). It’s not the same wine either. Wine is changing all the time, evolving and maturing, or going past maturity into senescence and death. It changes in the bottle more or less rapidly depending on how the bottle is handled and stored. I’ve tasted bottles of ostensibly the same wine from the same vintage that were a decade apart in age and development. Sometimes that’s good: You can drink a 50-year-old Bordeaux or Barolo without waiting 50 years. And sometimes it’s bad: That Beaujolais or Dolcetto that should be at its peak is dead as a doornail. Even professional tasters don’t always give the same wine the same evaluation when they taste it on different occasions and in different circumstances. Sometimes they don’t even recognize it. That should tell you all you need to know about the validity of tasting notes.
Scores, for all their apparent conciseness and precision, are just a bigger fiction, especially when the wines in question are young samples of wines that are meant for aging. Tasting 75 or 80 just-bottled Barolos of a morning, as I do every year at the Alba Wine Event, I know that tasting notes that go into detail about nuances of cherry (black or sour?) or tea (oolong or lapsang?) or tobacco (Virginia bright or Kentucky burley?) can be accurate for that minute that you are tasting that single wine – but go back and retaste it 15 or 20 minutes later, and it may be very different. Young wines change in the glass, change by the minute; so just which of those versions of the wine does that score represent? Is it a 90-point wine when just poured, and a 95 or an 85 fifteen minutes later? Gimme a break.
Beyond that: what, exactly, makes the difference between a 92 and a 93? All that means is that the taster liked both wines and liked the 93 ever-so-slightly more. Either that, or the taster in question has worked out a recondite scoring system that assigns a certain number of points each for color, aroma, taste, palatal feel, finish, and overall impression (those are the usual categories). If so, that would be useful to you only if you agreed with the distribution of emphases on the scale in the first place, and then with the evaluation of those qualities in each individual wine. Most of us know enough about statistics to know how likely that is.
Let’s cut to the chase here. How do you really learn about wine? By drinking it – only by drinking it – and paying attention to what’s in your mouth. Tasting two wines side by side is the easiest way to do it: That automatically teaches you every time, because you always have a pole of comparison. Even if you’re only saying something as basic as that this wine seems smoother or sharper than that one, you’re learning something. And not the least of what you’re learning is what your own palate perceives and enjoys, which is what wine is all about.
Can scores and tasting notes help you? In a very limited range, in an advisory capacity, yes. If you can find someone whose palate seems to resemble what you know of your own, you can use that person’s notes or scores to find wines you might like – but you still have to taste the wines for yourself to know for sure. There are some rough guidelines (big generalization time!): If you come from the Northeast US or a major cosmopolitan area such as New Orleans or Chicago, you are likely to have a palatal bias towards European and European-style wines – wines with discernible acidity, emphasizing power less and elegance more, less fruit-forward and more composed. If you’re from elsewhere in the country, you’re more likely to veer towards the California/Australia style – bigger wines, pronouncedly fruit-driven, often verging on sweetness, whether from residual sugar or new oak.
I can’t use The Wine Spectator’s evaluations for anything, for instance, because their tasters have such pronounced California palates: So for me their scores and notes amount to nothing. Parker I can use as a very rough guide for some French wines, making allowance for the differences in our palates. But that all depends on my knowledge of my own palate, and it must for you too.
So get out there and get busy tasting wines: you’ve got a lot to learn about two fascinating subjects: wine and yourself.