In the world of wine writing and critiquing, nothing is more important than how you conduct yourself and what scoring system you use.
Occasionally, it's right and proper to step back, take a look at how you do something, then change as necessary. Thus, beginning in this issue, we've done our own version of a new year's resolution, tweaking how we rate wines.
Don't worry. It's still pretty simple.
Turn to Page 94, and you'll notice a new rating in our Recent Releases: "Excellent." Actually, we've used three ratings in our peer-group judgings for several years: "Outstanding," "Excellent" and "Recommended" (there's also that fourth rating for wines that don't make our cut and don't appear in the magazine). Now, we're extending them to our double-blind Recent Releases section to provide a little more clarity on how we feel about each wine.
In February at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers convention, I was on a panel about the "holy grail" of getting a 100-point wine, as Washington's Quilceda Creek Vintners did last year from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate. I guess I was there to provide perspective from a writer who doesn't use the 100-point scale. But heck, nobody uses a 100-point scale anymore. It's more like a 10- or 15-point scale. Read the big international magazines (Spectator, Enthusiast) or the smaller newsletters (Parker, Tanzer) and while they do score wines up to 100 points, they certainly don't start at zero. Rarely do you see scores lower than 80, and usually they don't go higher than 95.
In fact, the sweet spot for wineries is somewhere above 89. You see, that one little point between 89 and 90 doesn't seem so big on a scale of 100, but in the mind of winemakers, marketers and consumers, it's a chasm wider than the Columbia River and can make the difference between happiness and unbridled glee.
Most of you have a three-point system: You like it, you don't like it, or you will drink it if someone else paid for it.
Our system isn't quite that simple because while we sniff, sip and spit the wine, we'll argue, cajole and lobby over a wine we do or don't like. A wine's balance of aromas, flavors and structure plays a major role in our decision on how to recommend it. And because wine is an agricultural product, we'll also consider what kind of food it will go with.
The awards and numbers should mean even more depending on how they are judged. I can't tell you how others judge wine, only how we conduct ourselves: completely above board. Here's how it works at Wine Press Northwest.
Wines are submitted by wineries, usually after we send an e-mail blast seeking submissions either for specific wines or recently and soon-to-be-released bottlings. The wines are catalogued in a database and handed off to volunteer Hank Sauer, a retired educator who facilitates our tastings. Hank takes the wines off-site, stores them for at least two weeks so they can get over any travel shock, then puts them in flights and serves them to us. We never see the bottles until after our weekly judging of 32 wines is completed. This way, we do not know who made the wines, nor do we know the varieties or styles. We can't even try to guess based on bottle shapes. We just know if they're white or red.
For our peer-group judges - such as the red blends we looked at this issue - the judges will know the general style of wine but not the producer, thus it's single-blind instead of double-blind.
We also double-decant our wines, pouring them into a glass pitcher then back into the bottle. This gives the wines a bit of air and gets rid of any off odors related to bottling. Decanting is a fair bit of extra effort, but it also gives a wine the best opportunity to shine. In fact, we implore you to invest in a decent decanter (crystal decanters start around $25, but a glass beer pitcher also works just fine) and use it for all bottles you open. We think you'll find the wines will smell and taste just that much better.
This probably seems like an awful lot of trouble to go through just to review wine, but it's worth it to know we are not being influenced by a winery's reputation, advertising/marketing activities or the pretty (or ugly) label.
Simply put: We let each wine speak for itself.
At our request, most wineries send two bottles. If a wine is deemed unworthy of recognition by our panel or we simply want to give it another look because of corkiness or other flaws, the second bottle is pulled and put into the rotation. About 30 percent of the time, we put that second bottle to use, and approximately half of those ultimately get a good review.
Our judgings also are not held in a vacuum. Often, we will invite winemakers, growers or other industry types to join us for our weekly double-blind tastings. We always have at least one or two guest judges for our big tastings, too, and we are beginning to use separate consumer panels for the big tastings to make sure we're not overlooking wines. If you are interested in being a consumer panelist, it is open to subscribers of our Wine of the Week e-mail newsletter (www.winepressnw.com) who want to write a short essay on why they want to be a wine judge.
As always, if you have questions on how wines are judged and reviewed, I am happy to answer them.