Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be a wine critic? Of course you have, being the wine professional or aficionado that you are. On the surface it seems like a dream job to many of us with thoughts of thousands of wines to taste, high-end wine event and party invitations, and all the perks that go along with it. By appearances it’s all very glamorous but, as we know, things are not always what they seem. For over a year I was a wine critic (admittedly in the minor leagues) for the, now defunct, Better Wine Guide, which was an iPhone app aimed at the largest market segment: consumers that buy wines for less than $25 and account for more than 95% of the wine sold in the US.
The concept was developed around the buying habits of this impressively enormous group with research showing that most the people in this sector seldom buy wine beyond a self-imposed limit of, say, $10 per bottle or what ever that number might be. For Better Wine Guide it was my job to rate the 1000 or so top selling wines in America, based on the price categories of $5 and under, $5.01 – $10, $10.01 – $15, and so on. Logically speaking, if your cutoff point happened to be $10 for a bottle of wine, wouldn’t you want to find the best tasting wine at that price? I would.
Also the app focused on these wines because major critics rarely ventured much into the under $25 territory and with such a huge market share, why was there no information for wine consumers in this segment? The app had some excellent features including a bar code scanner that, once a bottle was scanned using the phone’s camera, tasting notes and a score would popup for that wine. It also had an intuitive and comprehensive search engine for its data (looking for the best New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc for under $10? – here are some selections), the ability for each user to keep track of what he or she had purchased, with a feature to write his/her own notes and scores, along with a host of other useful features. It failed to get traction. It turns out that ultimately most people that only buy wine for less than $25 don’t really care all that much about wine, although that could change over time. Maybe, but that’s another subject entirely.
My first fear about taking on project like this as a wine critic was that so much of my experience was with wine over $25 per bottle, mostly way over. What was I going to have to face tasting a large amount of relatively inexpensive wine? What attitude adjustments would be required for me to do a good job? I began by clearing my head about all preconceived notions and came to the understanding that I could not be biased about wine based on price. I knew I wasn’t going to be tasting vintage Latour or a vertical of Clos de Tart and adjusted my expectations accordingly. I also knew I would find a baseline of quality in each price category, and I did. User generated data was anonymously aggregated and pushed back to us (and shared with all other users), which created much needed feedback about how well my palate was measuring up with users of the app and, despite a few misses, most of my ratings were right on the mark or close to what end-users thought about each wine. Before we began getting data back though, I was flying in total darkness without instruments.
Because Better Wine Guide wanted to maintain its credibility, it purchased all the wines I rated as opposed to soliciting samples from the trade, which would have been difficult to accomplish for a startup anyhow. Once it was determined what specific wines to buy, I had to actually pick them up, sort (by price category), and store them. That’s a lot of work when you’re dealing with thousands of bottles. Also all wines were tasted blind lending credibility to the actual tasting process.
Clearly I didn’t have the resources available to me at the level of professionals like Robert Parker, or Wine Spectator, James Suckling, Stephen Tanzer, Antonio Galloni (the latter two critics recently joined forced at World Development Report 2002: Building Institutions for Markets ), Clive Coates MW, Oz Clarke, Allen Meadows, or Jancis Robinson, but I did hire a tasting assistant – invaluable. Deanna came every weekday and after I determined that day’s price category, (it could have been wines under $5 one day and, $20.01 to $25 the next) she assembled thirty bottles, into a lighter to heavier order; that is, whites and sparking first, light body to heavier, then reds from light bodied to heavy. Deanna then numbered all the bottles, poured each wine into a separate glass, and put them in the correct numbered bag. I would enter the room with thirty to thirty three glasses waiting for me because fairly often she would throw in a wine I had already tasted and I would later compare scores and notes between the two blind tastings to help ensure I was being consistent. Although not perfect, my notes and scores were quite reliable when it came to tasting the same wine on more than one occasion.
So here’s what it would be like for you to be a wine critic, along with some of my own experiences:
- Every tasting day you pay careful attention to what you eat because some things simply do not bode well later in a critical wine tasting environment; something as seemingly innocuous as a peanut butter sandwich, for example, will totally ruin your palate for the day
- You swirl, take in aromas, repeat, repeat (and maybe repeat again, and perhaps again), coat your entire mouth with the subject wine, swish it around in there, take in air over the palate to open up the retronasal passages to discover yet more depth, then spit it out into an opaque container you never, ever want to look into
- You write notes furiously into an Excel spreadsheet because you don’t want to lose that initial impression and descriptors of the wine that usually hit you like lightning, and after that, you finally score the wine. These scores were never changed once entered. Because of the caliber of wines being assessed (recall we’re talking about wine under $25 with Better Wine Guide), it was agreed that simple is better and rather than confuse app users with, ‘what’s the difference between a 92 point wine and 93 point wine?’ the app used a five star rating system, which was easier for me. Or was it? Actually, that limitation became more difficult for me and, because the database was never setup to accommodate any score but a whole number between 1 and 5 (stars), in numerous tasting notes I would ask the reader to add or subtract a half star to the score because I found very definitive qualitative differences could exist between, say, three stars and four, or two stars and three. Although it might seem pedantic, a five star or a five number system is not nearly enough, even for wine costing less than $25. I’m not kidding.
- It was my goal and intention to try writing usable tasting notes that are not meant for readers of the aforementioned pro critics, but still not dumbed down to the point of being condescending or insulting anyone’s intelligence. I figured at the very least, that a reader would have some understanding of what fruit, tannins, alcohol, and acidity mean in the context of wine and, if not, then our good friend Google is always available.
- After tasting thirty or more wines your mouth feels raw and thrashed (not trashed, but rather, beaten up a bit by over-exposure to the elements, so to speak) from acid and tannin buildup. Your natural teeth will look like you could be successfully cast in a bad Hollywood horror film; no makeup or special effects needed. If you’re sensitive to the elements of wine (or the slightest bit vain) this job will make you miserable. I used a palate-cleansing beverage between wines made by SanTásti, a great company with a highly recommended product (I bought many cases of it to get through this; you can find it online). This work is very rough on the physiology of one’s oral cavity, that’s for sure.
- A wine critic’s job demands that you fully understand how to identify wine flaws because you certainly do not want to trash a wine because of a flaw that possibly only exists in the single bottle you’re tasting. A common flaw I encountered was cooked wine – not surprising living in Austin. After that, corked wine (TCA) and an overabundance of brett, while not common, were also in attendance in the flaw arena. A few wines had sulfur issues resulting in the classic burnt match or garlic aromas and a few even went as far as producing mercaptans, that extreme and not-lovely aroma of raw sewage. Also, a few were oxidized prematurely (none from Burgundy, yay!). In the ‘what the hell were you thinking’ department, by far, the most common winemaking fault I found was wine simply being out of balance and how far out of balance would be factored into its score. If I tasted a flawed wine that was not related to the actual winemaking (i.e. corked, cooked), I made note of it and would re-taste the same wine in a later tasting, which resulted in being able to assess a non-flawed bottle. If a flaw was due to poor winemaking, that information would often make it into the tasting notes, which is probably as it should be (read: don’t let interns make wine for your company – hire professionals).
- I took zero pleasure in handing out poor scores because I’m sure someone at each of those wineries, even if it’s the guy that washes down equipment or moves barrels around for racking, but one or more persons, works very hard and takes pride in their job at a winery that produces bad wine, thus bad scores. What assuaged my guilt in handing out low scores was the fact that someone would make bad wine, even if that was not the intent, and sell it to an unsuspecting consumer, knowing its best use was probably as a Drano product. Without resorting to outright calumny, as a critic, it’s still part of the job to tell the truth as seen through the experience of the taster. Every day, when the bags came off (after all the notes were written and the wines were scored) there would be surprises, both good and disappointing.
- Despite the fact that you spit wine instead of swallowing it, after two hours or more of swishing, you will feel the effects of alcohol in the form of a slight buzz. There is no getting around the absorption of alcohol into the bloodstream via all the soft tissue of the mouth (that mouth thing being pretty close to the brain I might add). It doesn’t mean you get drunk, will have a hangover, or even be over the legal limit, but of course alcohol affects everyone differently and its absorption and retention in the body has a lot of variables so it would be important to be aware of this if you, Ms./Mr. Critic, have to drive afterwards. I was always at home and never had to worry about driving anywhere after a tasting. I had no life.
- As expected, nearly two thirds of the wine was of average quality, the remaining third being divided into truly great wines or very poor quality wines, or variations thereof. I quickly ran into the dilemma with which I believe other critics are faced: how do I say essentially the same thing over thousands of times without repeating myself. Other critics really go pretty far out, grasping for uniqueness while literally running out of words to describe what they were experiencing. Many walk down the path of the esoteric, for example: With fragrant notes of northwest Alaska honeysuckle and Nigerian alfalfa, a palate of blueberries and Bing cherries stewed at 315 degrees (F) for precisely four hours, three minutes, mixed with Aunt Jemima syrup reduction, Meyer lemon wedges crushed under the steely track of a Caterpillar D10T2 dozer, and a barely perceptible dash of pink pepper and cardamom sprinkled over volcanic rocks that were pulverized in an industrial blender, all came together seamlessly with a finish that lasted for one hour, thirty two minutes, and sixteen seconds. This is a joy to behold. 82 points. TYP (take your pick). As ridiculous as this seems, I really now have a deep appreciation for why, after decades, wine critics get to this point. Not wanting to alienate the end-users of the app, I took a different approach, which was to provide a reasonably basic description of the wine that, at times, was also accompanied by my thoughts about the wine’s relative value considering its price point or, something droll (funkier than James Brown but not as good, this wine . . .).
- After the tasting each night, I loaded up wines for my neighbors to pickup between 7:00 – 7:30 PM. I obviously had a lot of unconsumed wine every week (150 bottles +) and if I could give it away, then, all the better. I made each recipient sign a blanket waiver of liability because thinking about the numerous ways I could be sued for being a nice guy by giving wine away haunted me (someone picks up wine and later falls down a flight of stairs or, someone picks up six bottles every night and goes home and engages in spousal abuse, or drives to the store to pick up milk for the next day and gets into an accident; endless scenarios and the kind that lawyers love). One neighbor used to come over with her kid’s little red wagon (without the kid) and load up a dozen or more bottles each night (although she allegedly distributed to other neighbors; I’m pretty sure all of this could be construed as illegal somehow). Doesn’t matter a bit – I have a waiver of liability, but why am still I shaking like a leaf every evening?
- I had ordered a special insert for my dishwasher, which held 24 stems. I washed two loads of wine glasses each night on the sterilization mode of the dishwasher with no dishwasher soap or drying agent and hand dried each glass. Not so much fun but at least it was tedious.
- If you have a conscience at all, at the end of the day, you will be going over and over what you just scored and tasted, and asking yourself if you made the right call, were you too lenient, were your judgments too tough? And you will be enjoying a bourbon (or any other drink but wine) while you’re doing it.
- As a wine critic, you will be sometimes treated with inimical politeness, be dismissed as being meretricious, or flat-out loathed by the faction that has immoderately and popularly taken to ‘critic bashing’. Really, unless yours is a household name, at least in the wine world, you’re still pretty much no one to at least 95% of the US population of wine consumers. This is fine with me because I didn’t take on this role for acceptance, fame, or fortune but rather out of sheer learning and fascination with wine. I know there are so many other excellent wine critics out there that really do not get the coverage, recognition, or respect they deserve, including Neal Martin, Jeb Dunnick, Lisa Perotti-Brown MW, and many other extremely credible and competent people around the globe.
- Ampelography might be an easier career and actually produce more rewards than being a wine critic
In a year’s time, I figured that I had tasted through somewhere around 3000 wines, which might seem like a lot but other critics taste 5,000 to 8,000 wines per year routinely. Even with a full staff, it is a lot of bleeding work and an enormous responsibility that I’m sure these professionals take very seriously. I know I did. And as stated, I was barely in the minor leagues, if that.
Ultimately, a wine score and tasting note is only one person’s opinion and should be used as a guide, not the gospel truth. If a consumer’s palate happens to align with one or more wine critic’s palate then they’re in luck because there are very few of us that will ever have the time and financial resources to taste through so many wines in a year. Even if we did have the time and money, would we really want to critically taste that many wines? Not me. I’d much rather enjoy a great vintage Latour or Haut Brion, or a Musigny or Bonnes Mares every now and then without having to analyze everything, and simply enjoy the experience.
Such is my experience being a wine critic. Upsides and downsides notwithstanding, it was an amazing experience and I’d still do it all over again if I could!
Photo: my kitchen torn up for months