Five Bottles: A New Old Way to Evaluate Wine Meg Houston Maker January 27, 2013 Columns, Features, Meg Houston Maker 34 Comments There is a small fraternity of bottles that have, over the years, ebbed and flowed as my family’s house wine. They’re mostly red—Côtes du Rhône, Vacqueyras, Barbera, Valpolicella—plus a little white and rosé. All are under $20, and even cheaper by the case. These are table wines, drunk with meals in the thrumming engine of daily life. But I still try to pay attention to them, to give each one its due after our “Cheers!” I swirl and smell, then taste. I drink. Over time, with repeated enjoyment, each wine blooms into my memory, becoming fixed and vivid. Its flavors are now as distinct as food memories from childhood, like a Pippin apple with its spicy flesh and cakey texture, or the way a Northern Spy snaps and spits when bitten. This Côtes du Rhône is peppery, the other is meaty. This Spanish red has terrific zing, but it’s supple like that Barbera we had last night. I like writing about wine partly because I like the riddle of describing the ineffable. And if I’m to write thoughtfully, sympathetically, and comprehendingly about a wine, I need to experience it within the vessel of my life. I need to drink it, and more than just once. This is not how most wines are professionally tasted. A preponderance of wine writing derives from a mere sip and spit. There’s no chance to see how the wine evolves with air, and no food in sight. The wine is treated as a specimen in an artificial circumstance. It’s an in vitro approach, literally “in the glass.” A wine’s broad features can be divined from a single taste, of course: it’s a little young, it has seen some oak, its dominant flavor is black berry fruits. It’s like noting the most striking characteristics of a new face: high cheekbones, raven hair, aquiline nose, pale lips. But next time we meet, the new face might be smiling, or might seem shy. It’s one thing to describe a person’s profile, and another to describe his personality. Sampling a full bottle of wine is better, because now there’s a chance of treating it as a beverage rather than a curiosity. The tasting can also take place within the living ecosystem of the taster’s life—in vivo, if you will. But if a sip’s not a trope for a bottle, a bottle’s not a trope for the wine. Palates vary, and even when my own palate’s fresh, my experience depends on whether I’m rested or tired, hungry or sated. My impression might likewise shift if I’m in a noisy bar, or the cathedral of my kitchen. Expectation also plays a role, and quantum mechanics provides a metaphor: the observer as part of the system being observed. Thea Dwelle recently wrote about her experience at a blind tasting at Ridge Winery in Cupertino, California. The final flight stumped the panel. The first bottle seemed juicy, with red berry fruit; the second was fuller, with spice and floral notes; the third one tasted of pomegranate. The reveal? Three bottles of exactly the same wine. Bottles do vary, though I expect Ridge staff had been vigilant about bottle variation in setting up the tasting. Still, anyone who’s purchased a case of wine and proceeded briskly through it knows that while most bottles are recognizably the same wine, one or two might seem off. Sometimes a bottle’s obviously flawed, spoiled by cork taint or oxidation. Here, ethics dictate a writer sample another bottle. Recently Steve Heimoff rightly called out a wine blogger who’d pilloried a wine, then conceded he knew the bottle was bad. Sometimes, though, a wine seems sound but muted. A week ago I opened a bottle of Bonny Doon Vineyard’s 2007 Le Cigare Volant, a wine whose contours I know with great filigree of detail, having befriended it when I worked in marketing for the winery. That particular bottle seemed numb and simple, as if it had retreated into a quiet corner. Perhaps the wine’s entering a dumb phase and needs more time. Had I not known Cigare well, I might have declared the wine ordinary. But it’s not an ordinary wine. I know what it tastes like, from repeated experience. And more than that, I know what Bonny Doon tastes like. Over two or three years, I have tasted, and committed to memory, the wild extravagance of the winery’s output. And knowing all of these wines lets me hold them in mind, reflect on them, and discern the filaments of similarity that weave throughout them. Here’s another example, more focused and penetrating. About two years ago, I toured Germany’s Mosel, Pfalz, and Rheingau regions, a guest of the Deutsches Weininstitut. Our small group of writers trooped gamely through five or six wineries a day, tasting flights of eight to ten wines at each, for over two hundred wines in four days. The constant in the equation: Riesling, in all its Prädikats. The variables: vineyard, winegrowing, winemaking, and, to a lesser extent, vintage. It was a kind of baptism by grape and brimstone, a quest for ur-Riesling. I’d sit down to a tasting at a new winery, a flight before me from dry to sweet, trocken to Trockenbeerenauslese, and think, So, what does this place taste like? Is it slatey or tropical, austere or creamy? What is the taste of the winery, its house style, the aesthetic? True, this was mostly an in vitro exercise, a swirl or two of each wine before sip, spit, and dump. But sensibly—relentlessly!—our hosts also served us Riesling at lunch and dinner, a wine with the cuisine that had evolved alongside it, fitting the wine into the framework of the culture. Which is, of course, how we have for centuries come to understand our wines: regionally, regularly, communally, in context. And so we have advanced to the precipitous edge over which wine writers peer daily. A critic can, through long exposure, develop an expansive palate memory. But the opportunities for this deep experience are as rare as they are precious, and the formal exercise of sip-and-spit remains the dominant paradigm, despite giving short shrift not only to the wine, but also to the winemaker, the vineyard, the region, its culture, and, ultimately, the reader. So here’s an idea, thoroughly impracticable (not to mention completely unaffordable), but one that could remake wine writing into a far more vital exercise: drink five bottles. I’d taste the first in my usual way, gathering information about the vineyard, winemaker, the wine’s stylistic aims, its native habitat. I’ll open the bottle and give it some air, if I think it needs it, then proceed through my standard evaluation, making notes on color, aromas, palate impressions, texture, flavor, and finish. I’ll taste it first without and then with food, and with any luck I’ll have devised a meal for us that will pair well. I’ll save some of the bottle for the next day, and repeat with what’s leftover. I’ll taste the second bottle with different meal, on a weeknight, a week or two later. This time I won’t obsess or fetishize. I’ll simply open the wine, swirl, sniff, sip, and drink it with my food and with my family. But again, I’ll jot some notes. The third bottle? I’ll try to get someone to serve it to me blind, but still with food. Before the unveiling, I’ll write up my thoughts, and afterward see how closely these matched my earlier observations. A few weeks later, I’ll open the fourth bottle, tasting it much the same way I’d tasted the first, giving this particular bottle of the wine its due assessment. Finally, I’ll taste the fifth as I had the second, viz., casually, with meals, with friends and family. By now a month or so has passed, and I will have experienced the wine twice under rigorous scrutiny and three times under more casual circumstances. I’ll have a sheaf of notes and a sense of how the wine has behaved with me, and I with it. I’ll be able to conjure its character the way I can remember the face of a friend. I’ll have become familiar with the wine not as part of a tasting exercise, but as part of my life. Wine incarnate. Wine made flesh. Maybe another writer would need only three bottles to attain this depth of understanding. Maybe another needs twenty. I don’t know. But I do know that wine writing would change dramatically if every writer drank through five bottles of a wine, in vivo, before passing final judgment. This will never happen. But it should. http://www.scalawine.com Tim Hall Thank you for a thought-provoking article. But there would be few wine writers if every wine involved drinking five bottles. They would die early and the trade would not send five samples even if they lived. The skill of a professional taster is to assess all the variables and contexts you say casnnot be done so briewfly. It can be and is by the best tasters, believe me. Of course it involves learning to concentrate, to scan with instant coverage the competitor wines on a global scale, make a prognosis about development and make judgements about quality http://www.sedimentblog.com The Sediment Blog Why on earth would the wine writers die early? “Finally, I’ll taste the fifth,” she writes. “By now, a month or so has passed.” If that’s a killer drinking schedule, we’re all doomed! The Sediment Blog http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker The dominant program of sip and spit isn’t going away anytime soon, and I myself strive to get better at it even as I note its limitations. http://pullthatcork.com Nancy Brazil What a great reminder that wine is alive and should be in your life. Elegant writing, as usual. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Nancy, thank you for the kind words. http://foodwineclick.com/ Jeff Burrows Bravo! 5 bottles, perhaps not for critics and writers, but a great reminder for us wine drinkers. 5 bottles of a wine I like, enjoyed over a short period of time. I’ll have a deeper understanding and a stronger connection to the wine and the people who made it. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Many thanks, Jeff. I agree there’s no substitute for time in this equation. http://wineharlots.com/ Wine Harlots Beautiful! I like that you used the word “fetishize” which seems to be what a lot of wine criticism turns into. Spending a time with a wine is really the optimal way. All the best, Nannette Eaton http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Cheers, Nannette. I think wine fetishism and food fetishism go hand in hand, and while they’re quite prevalent right now, both are fraught. They lead to objectification and a kind of distancing from one of the most vital, elemental aspects of life: eating, drinking, and sharing the experience with others. Winebanter For years I’ve been trying to explain to my beer drinking friends why I adore wine, now I know that it is the giddy expectation of imbibing the ineffable experience – ‘in vivo’. Thank you ……. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Prost! Wes Barton Wine writers such as Dan Berger have been emphasizing the difference between wines that taste well and wines that drink well. I guess that shows the difference between a wine columnist and a wine critic. The columnist is interested in advising consumers on how to enjoy wines, how to seek out wines they’ll enjoy. Critics are part of a machine that benefits from the illusion that wine appreciation is objective, and that they the critics are the best at judging quality. Now that we are fully into the information age, we are beginning to waken to the fact that a critic’s review is a subjective snapshot taken early in a wine’s life. An educated guess as to how the wine will age. We can now access opinions on how a wine is drinking now, as opposed to just that old snapshot from ten years ago. Btw, I was at that Ridge tasting. The third flight was confusing. With the first two flights I was confident they were all estate Cab. So, no surprise the first bottle showed in line with that. But the second bottle showed the meaty, floral and purple qualities typical of Monte Bello Petite Verdot, so it “had to” be at least PV heavy. Then the third wine was hard to discern from the first. (As in each wine differed from itself a few minutes later than they did from each other at the same moment in time.) I have a theory of what I call a wine’s mood, denoting a temporary variation. In a wine there’s a huge chaos of chemical activity, much of which involves bonding and unbonding. So there’s continuous variance and if you happen to catch a wine at an extreme point in that oscillation it will show abnormally. But if you caught that same wine at a different time it would likely show normal. Of course we know there are also permanent changes going on that lead a wine on its aging trajectory. A minor difference of what gets in the bottle, as well as variations in how a wine is handled and stored is what causes true bottle variation. Anyway, young wines can be particularly volatile in how they show one moment to the next, particularly in barrel. How a wine shows in barrel, compared to how it shows on release and over time don’t always have much to do with each other. Most wines go through weird phases in barrel on their own, as well as in reaction to things like an SO2 add. When critics barrel sample, it is the winemaker who chooses when and from which barrels to sample. That makes for a very weak data point. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Wes, thanks for this. Very thoughtful observations. Pingback: Terroirist: A Daily Wine Blog » Daily Wine News: Drink Five Bottles http://www.isaacjamesbaker.blogspot.com Isaac James Baker “I like writing about wine partly because I like the riddle of describing the ineffable.” Great quote, and it sums up why I too enjoy writing about wine. Awesome article! http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Isaac, I’m glad this connected, and it’s nice to meet another writer who values wine as much as writing. I’ll look forward to following your work. http://PANTHOS.com Jon Bjork I’m with you on taking time with a wine, more than sip and spit. For my notes I need 3 bottles. The first for a pretty intense dissection of aromas, flavors and structure. The second a few days later to capture the personality in a more relaxed way, and to double-check my earlier notes. The third to party with under no pressure. We’ll drink those bottles all evening! http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker I’ll be right over! http://www.originalverkorkt.de Christoph Raffelt What a good, thought-provoking article (again). Thanks. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Cheers, Christoph! http://girlwithaglass.com Alana Gentry (@girlwithaglass) Immensely logical, sensible, honest and ultimately helpful to wine enthusiasts Meg. In my opinion, much more helpful than tasting notes by many different people. Give me the winemaker’s impressions/intentions on the back of the bottle, a description of the terroir and then plenty of individual articles/posts about the story, place or pairings and leave me to enjoy my wine. (And yes, many bottles on many occasions.) PS: Those are my house reds too. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker I’m glad to hear you value this approach, too, Alana. I wish it were possible to treat every wine we write about this way. http://www.vineyardadventures.com Robbin Gheesling Thank you for this inspiration, Meg! I’m still struggling to find my voice for wine writing as I feel studying for the WSET Diploma has made me an adjective spewing, tasting machine. I very much like the idea of framing my “reviews” around the “vessel of my life.” http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker One of the lessons here is that the writer’s experience does matter, and does factor into the valuation of the wine. Randall Grahm, winemaker at Bonny Doon, noted after reading this post that it’s critical to step back and take a phenomenological view of the exercise of tasting, evaluating, and writing about wine. http://UncorkOntario.com Shawn McCormick Wonderfully written and thoughtful article Meg. I too find the sip & spit very different from how we usually “enjoy” wine and the company and food that accompanies the wine have a huge influence on our enjoyment. Wherever possible, I try to savour a bottle over the course of the evening, with and without food to see how I like it. http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Many thanks for your kind remarks, Shawn. Enjoyment matters. http://www.biggerthanyourhead.net Fredric Koeppel During an almost 29-year career writing about wine, I have been to countless “trade tastings” of every sort — yes, 100 Bordeaux from the 2000 vintage in three hours! –; I have been on those trade trips, once 500 wines in Australia in 10 days; I have stood in my kitchen going through the samples. My favorite way to experience a wine, though, is this: A glass while we’re cooking dinner and then two glasses during dinner and then a glass the next day. Such a method gives me time and space and context. No, the demands of the samples for review and the demands of posting to the blog three or four times a week (or, ideally, five) dictate that all the wiens cannot be tasted and evaluated in a leisurely manner, but I’ll tell you what, if I had my druthers — and the time, that most important element — I would post to the blog Monday through Friday with none of the Wine of the Week or Big Reds for Super Bowl Parties (coming up!) or such; I would write about one wine that I considered really worthwhile each time I posted and give that wine all the attention it deserved in terms of history, geography, personalities, context with food and a complete evaluation. But one must make a living, and it doesn’t, alas, involve writing about wine. Thanks, Meg, for a provocative essay… http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Thank you, Fredric, for reading and for your thoughtful remarks. Your approach to writing about wine—viz., really writing about it, as opposed simply to keeping a feature well full—is one I have long admired, and influenced my thinking for this essay. Thank you for being a guide, mentor, and role model. http://www.biggerthanyourhead.net Fredric Koeppel well, what can i say to those too kind remarks but thank you and a big smooch… http://www.docvino.com Doc Vino I like this concept. I feel the 100 point score ruins more great winemakers fortunes than it makes. Really it is only a 20 point scale anyway because wines under 80 are simply non existent! http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker No doubt you’ll find many who agree with you. A fine point: there are indeed wines scored at under 80 points, but for reasons of professional courtesy, these are rarely given any ink (or pixels). S.M. Thank you for your interesting and thought provoking article Ms. Maker, its true that these tastings where you rush through wines at breakneck speed with all of the swirling, sniffing, sipping and spitting don’t always give you a true picture of the quality of the wine. I have had this experience a few times myself when at the winery doing a wine tasting the wine tasted good and then getting home and drinking it by it’s self and/or with food it turned out rather different. Another example is week I bought a Tempranillo from Castile Y Leon, when I tasted it in a small plastic cup it seemed pretty alright. But then opening the whole bottle and having with dinner it was quite acidic and had an unpleasant bitter chocolate aftertaste. So as you said these tiny tastings don’t always really tell us what will happen when we have it with dinner and with friends. I also enjoyed Wes Barton’s comments on this article I think you have some insightful views on this topic. Once again thanks very much Ms. Maker and looking forward to reading more of your pieces. Cheers! Solomon Mengeu http://www.megmaker.com Meg Houston Maker Thank you for reading, Mr. Mengeu, and for sharing vivid examples of this phenomenon from your personal experience. http://community.kowned.net/index.php?members/maritza43.2596/ Rejuvenex review I’m not positive where you are getting your information, however great topic. I must spend a while finding out much more or understanding more. Thanks for fantastic info I was looking for this information for my mission.