It's a question that dogs all of us who review and rate wines for a living. Are the wines we taste the same ones you can buy?
After all, how easy would it be for an unscrupulous winery to keep a small lot of extra-specially good stuff to bottle up and submit to reviewers and wine competitions? Plenty easy, as a recent scandal in New Zealand proves.
Seems the New Zealand winery Wither Hills submitted its Sauvignon Blanc to several wine competitions and won medals for it. The wine that went to market was a different cuvée. The discrepancy only came to light when veteran New Zealand wine writer Michael Cooper, who was one of the judges, thought the wine he had in the competition tasted significantly better than the same-labeled wine in general circulation. Lab tests proved the wines were chemically different.
Two independent audits have cleared Wither Hills of doing this intentionally. But the very fact that it happened shows how it could play out if someone meant to cheat.
Do wineries really try to get away with something like this? I doubt it, becuse the chances are exponentially better today than ever that the miscreants would be caught. Everyone with a palate and an opinion seems to have a blog these days or posts frequently on online forums. Someone is likely to sniff out any hanky-panky sooner or later, and the bad publicity could sink a winery.
The easiest place for wineries to fudge is with barrel tastings. Every winemaker knows that some barrels taste better than others. When I was visiting Burgundy regularly, in the 1980s and 1990s, it amused me that the winemakers always seemed to know exactly which barrels to open up in the cellar and extract samples for me taste. That is why I use barrel samples only to get a general picture of the vintage or of a winery's direction and style. And I often ask the winemaker to take the sample from an older barrel, the better to taste the fruit instead of the spice of oak.
Selective barrel sampling comes under the heading of putting one's best foot forward rather than out-and-out cheating. I have seldom run across bottled samples that were not what they purported to be. Whenever I have checked on a wine that tasted different in the marketplace from what I had tasted before, it turned out to be a large-volume wine that had been bottled from more than one tank.
But as the New Zealand scandal proves, you can't take anything for granted.
Mr Andrew J Green — December 9, 2006 12:05pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 9, 2006 12:17pm ET
Michael Twelftree — Barossa, Australia — December 9, 2006 3:37pm ET
John Wilen — Texas — December 9, 2006 4:02pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 9, 2006 6:32pm ET
John Wilen — Texas — December 9, 2006 8:48pm ET
Robert Fukushima — California — December 10, 2006 12:32am ET
Scott Young — Richmond, Va — December 10, 2006 2:23am ET
Kirk R Grant — Ellsworth, ME — December 10, 2006 5:10pm ET
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