Wine Judges are Inconsistent? Say it ain’t so!
In a recent study it was found that there was very few wine judges that could give consistent ratings. Repeated blind tastings of the same wines produced different scores. Part of me wants to shrug and exclaim, “Well, DUH!” Another part of me wants some sort of unreasonable and unsustainable certification process for these judges. But then wouldn’t it have to apply to wine reviewers and then trickle down to bloggers too? Bad idea, I guess.
Tasting is subjective as hell to begin with. Even someone like Robert Parker who has demonstrated an uncanny ability to maintain consistent scoring still has personal preferences and preconceived notions of what is good and what is bad. If you have to add those types of variables into account with someone with such freakish ability, then how in the world can a mere mortal like myself be trusted when I review a wine?
I know for a fact that my palate is not consistent. When I find a wine I really like these days, I tend to buy quite a bit of it. After consuming a few bottles I think I get a pretty consistent impression of the wine, but I find quite noticeable differences during the individual tastings. This leads to some serious navel gazing on my part sometimes.
But the truth of the matter is that wine is not static. It is always changing in the bottle. It even continues to change in the glass. Drinking a glass of wine is really just sampling a snapshot in time of what the wine maker hath wrought.
So our perception of the wine is based on that moment in time when we tasted it. What if we could be sure that all reviews and scores were based upon tastings that occurred at exactly the very same moment in time?
How wine is treated as it is stored and transported can have a huge effect of the flavor of wine, both in negative and positive ways. For example too much variation in temperature can bring out prune-like flavors that may not be strong enough for someone to determine that it is a flaw and not part of the wine’s flavor profile. On the other hand, some experts suggest that some abuse to an age worthy wine helps get it ready to drink much more quickly. So, even if every bottle was sampled at exactly the same time, it would also need to have been treated exactly the same.
To do that would require that all of the reviewers sat in the same room and drank wine that was bottled, stored, and transported together. If that were to occur, and identical glasses, all treated exactly the same way, were filled from bottles opened in exactly the same manner at the same time, and the tasters all swirled, sniffed and sipped at the same time, then would we be able to trust in the reviews and scores?
No way. We all have varying numbers of taste buds, and the ability to taste changes over time. Depending on what our noses are exposed to in a day, our sense of smell may change. Then there are our perceptions. Our brains associate certain smells and tastes with experiences throughout our life. If your grandmother wore the scent of lavender when you were a child and you loved her very much, you are much more likely to associate lavender with wonderful things than a person who had a hated algebra teacher who wore the exact same scent.
Then there is the question of personal preference. I love huge, bold California style wines, as well as powerful, slightly funky European wines. However, I do not care as much for many weaker reds, and I have a slight distaste for a lot of Sauvignon Blancs. Try as I might, I will never enjoy a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or a white Bordeaux in the same manner that I am going to enjoy some big fruit bomb of a Syrah or a Zinfandel. I can strive for objectivity, and possible even get an acceptable modicum of it but if I am honest with myself, I know that to some degree I have failed to do the wine justice on some level. That also means that I have failed as a reviewer, and have failed my readers to some degree. How do I go on then, knowing that I am a sham and a humbug? I drink a lot.
Seriously, when reading reviews and ratings remember to consider the source. If you read this blog because you like Amy’s writing style, or you like it when I rant and rave about whatever got under my collar most recently, but you find that you do not care for the wines we write about, chalk it up to having different tastes and find someone else whose reviews more closely match what you like.
As for awards that wines win, take those with a lot of salt. Besides all of the variables that were discussed above, and we did not even get into how the flavors can be affected by foods eaten even hours and hours previously, some of these awards are given by committees of people with wildly varying abilities, experience and training. I have seen judging panels that were made up of highly qualified experts who have to work with the next door neighbor of the person putting on the event because they have been known to enjoy a glass of Franzia or 6 on the Friday night.
So seek out a multitude of sources that can help steer you towards the types of wines that you like. There are many fine blogs dedicated to tasting notes and reviews all over the web. Many of them are listed on our links page. Read Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast. Subscribe to Robert Parker. Read books. But most of all, drink a wide variety of wines whenever the opportunity arises. Find what pleases your palate, not someone else’s, and always be on the lookout for something new to try.
Wine producers should probably care that judges and reviewers are mostly incapable of unwavering consistency, but you and I don’t really have to be. We have the distinct pleasure of being able to find our own unique moments in time and savoring them while they last, and then move on to find another. Such is the transient beauty of wine.