How I rate wines

by Jeff Miller of Artisan Family of Wines (Seven Artisans, Sly Dog Cellars, Red Côte)

jeff-smI came across this post from 1 Wine Dude over the weekend:

Are Wine Critics “Wasting” Points On A Wine’s Color? (http://www.1winedude.com/index.php/2011/11/09/are-wine-critics-wasting-points-on-a-wines-color/)

This reminded me how different my way of rating a wine is from most critics. My way is pretty simple: take a quick look, then a quick whiff, then a quick taste, and decide how much I like the wine. No extended evaluation of the color, or scents, or anything else. Just look, sniff, taste, done.

I must admit that once I’ve decided how much I like a wine, I will spend more time trying to figure out why. But that’s largely beside the point when it comes to figuring out how much I like the wine in the first place.

Most wine evaluations give so many potential points for color, nose, taste, etc. But what I’ve always found is that when I go through that ritual, I end up with a score that often doesn’t jive with how much I like the wine. In that case, I go back and adjust the component scores so that they add up to my overall sense of how good the wine is. If you believe that the quality of wine is in fact based on how the components add up, that’s cheating. But I’ve never believed you can add up the points for color, nose, etc., and come up with the wine’s true worth (at least in my mind’s eye).

But I think my way is the better way. Because how much you like a wine is really a visceral reaction. It’s a quick and dirty take on how much it pleases you, not on how clear it is, how dark the color is, and the like.

I have another major problem with how these component score evaluations are usually done. The usual categories are clarity, nose, taste (attack, mid-palate, finish). Noticeably lacking are any explicit categories for acidity, oak level, oak toast level, and tannin structure. As I said above, once I’ve decided how much I like a wine, I do go back and try to analyze what I liked and disliked about the wine. For me, at least, these ignored aspects of a wine count for a lot more than the traditional clarity, nose, palate categories. A wine lacking good acidity is almost always going to rate low in my estimation, for example. High oak will usually get a lower grade as well (though not quite so consistently as low acidity). Wines with good tannin structure tend to rate quite a bit higher than those lacking that quality, at least in most red wines. But some red wines (e.g., Pinot Noir) don’t have lots of tannin, but I like them nonetheless.

So when I go back and try to figure out why I liked (or didn’t like) a particular wine, I almost always find that how its acidity, oak, and tannins rate determine how much I liked the wine. But even applying these different standards from the norm sometimes leads to results that don’t jive with my visceral reaction to the wine. Wine is just too complex for any simple test to do that.

All of this dovetails with the fact that people differ enormously in how much each of these factors matter to them. One of people who taught me winemaking thought that color was irrelevant—it didn’t matter to her at all. I feel differently. Which one of us is right? It’s a dumb question, since on a matter that’s so subjective, there can be no one right answer.

So I’ll continue to eschew the accepted ways of scoring wine in favor of my quick look, smell, taste method. If wine critics don’t agree with me on this, I think my method is the same most wine consumers use.

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2 Responses to “How I rate wines”

  1. 1WineDude says:

    Thanks for the mention!

    “I must admit that once I’ve decided how much I like a wine, I will spend more time trying to figure out why” - I *love* that view and it’s very, very similar to the message I have been giving wine lovers who ask me about trying to up their own personal “wine I.Q.”

    Cheers!

  2. SUAMW says:

    If you follow a per-determined set of criteria, the score WILL be about the wine and not your preference for/enjoyment of it.
    That is the whole point of professional wine evaluation for a larger audience.

    That aside, while I think points can be wasted on the visuals of a wine, this should not be ignored: clarity, hue/color, depth of color and presence of effervescence as well as quality and quantity of perlage and mousse ARE important: a dry chardonnay should not sparkle, a “Champagne-style” wine should not bubble and mousse like Coca-Cola and a red wine 2 years out of the picking bin should not be bricking or brown.

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