There was an interesting article this past weekend in one of our national newspapers – front page, no less – about wine experts, and if they actually know anything. It called into question everything from wine ratings (what makes a 90 point wine vs an 80 point wine) to whether the average person can actually tell “good wine from average wine” in blind tastings.
Now, I don’t know if I would call myself a wine expert. It is definitely a hobby, one that I have been passionately engaged in for over 25 years. And I do give advice and reviews. But I have no formal training – aside from a few courses and membership in some wine associations – and wouldn’t even think to try and explain any of the technical details relating to winemaking.
But, from my perspective, I think this all misses the point. And that’s because taste in wine – like in so many other things in life – is personal. It’s not good or bad, right or wrong (aside from wines that are actually “off”, of course). Echoing the words of a teacher I once had “the best wine is the wine you like the best”.
And that is always the approach I take in reviewing or recommending wines. For the former, I make sure people know what my personal likes are – fruit forward reds, buttery Chardonnays, slightly off-dry Rieslings and Roses, etc. That way, if I say a particular wine is “great”, people will know that statement has some context to it.
I try to do the same thing when people ask me for a wine recommendation. Inevitably, my first question is “What style of wine do you like?” Dry or sweet? Fruity or woody? The answers to those questions are what guide my recommendation. I also ask for a wine they already know they like. If I know it – and its style – I can then probably make recommendations for others (the same price, more expensive and even cheaper) that person will probably like.
I take the same approach (in reverse) when picking wines for my cellar – which I will keep for 5 – 15+ years to develop and mature. Many times these wines cost $40 or more and I can’t afford to just “taste before I buy”. So I need some help.
So I have looked for a reviewer who seems to like the same style of wines as I do. For me, Robert Parker and his associates at the Wine Advocate meet that criterion, particularly when it comes to wines from the Rhone Valley, Italy, California, Oregon and Washington State. I know if they “like” a wine from these areas, it will probably have a lot of fruit in it, and enough of that fruit to age well. So the chances are I will like it too. And that has been my experience since I began relying on the Wine Advocate over 20 years ago.
Interestingly, I don’t go by their reviews for all wines. That’s because I know there are wines and wine regions – Bordeaux, for example, or Spanish Garnachas or most Chilean reds – that I just don’t enjoy, regardless of how “good” they apparently are. I have learned the hard way to just stay away from those wines, even if they get 90+++ scores from the Wine Advocate.
So does all this mean that wine critics are of any use? Well, I think they can be, as long as they think about it from the perspective of the consumer and the style of wine they like. If that’s how they give advice, then they can provide a very useful service in a world of increasingly expensive and – unfortunately – average wine.