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harvey steiman at large

How to Find Finesse

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: May 2, 2008 11:42am ET

Some wine writers, mostly the ones that rail against the 100-point scale, would have their readers believe that tasters like me and my Wine Spectator colleagues wouldn't recognize a great, delicate wine or one that wasn't a fruit bomb if it jumped out of the glass at us. I'm tired of hearing that.

I know that I look for elegance and refinement when I taste the wines in the regions of my tasting beat, and that I reward it when I find it. My colleagues do, too. I am lucky that Oregon and Washington, two of my areas of tasting responsibility, do especially well in that regard. Half of the wines I taste are from Australia, and despite its reputation of making nothing but big fruit bombs, I find a fair percentage that do indeed display finesse. It's not as rare as you might think.

It's true that I for one am less tolerant of funky character in wine, but I don't demand that a wine be squeaky clean. It must have enough fruit and charm to make the funk a grace note rather than the main tune. If brettanomyces flavors predominate, I ding the wine, but I also recognize that some great wines have brett. It's a matter of balance, as always. A little volatile acidity (vinegar character) isn't necessarily bad, but a lot of it kills a wine for me.

So, just for ducks, I searched our database for six months' worth of ratings of 90 points or higher ("Outstanding" on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale). I looked for certain words, such as "elegant," "refined," "lively," and "delicate," and flavor descriptors such as "meaty," "minerally" and "earthy" and found lots of examples.

In my own tasting notes, I focused on Australia, because it would seem to be the biggest challenge. Just for a few examples, I found a 92-point Pinot Noir with "a strong mineral note" that "gains density with each sip, but not weight on the palate." And a "graceful, elegant" Chardonnay (91 points) pours out its flavors on a "polished, refined frame."

A 93-point Barossa Shiraz was "distinctive for the dark roux overtones that weave through the meaty cherry and licorice flavors," and called it "poised." Another Barossa Shiraz earned its 92-point rating for being "supple, graceful and refined."

Jim Laube awarded 93 points to a Chardonnay that "turns delicate and creamy on the palate" and to a Cabernet Sauvignon blend that he called "complex and savory," and noted spicy herb, mineral, sage and tar flavors in it. Jim Suckling's top-rated Barbarescos included one that was "tight and refined, very structured" and another that was "refined and classy." Both got 93 points.

How do you find these wines? Here's the dirty little secret that the 100-point-scale naysayers don't believe you're smart enough to know: Read the tasting note. If you prefer a lighter style of wine, look for words such as "light" and "delicate." If you like savory flavors in your wines, search for "savory" or "tar" or "mineral" and see what comes up. You might be surprised.

Although the online database search page won't let you do that per se, you can search for wines in a certain price range and rating range, and display them with their tasting notes. Then use your web browser's "find" function to search the page of results for these words. That's what I did.

Happy hunting.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  May 2, 2008 12:42pm ET
Well..i am "shocked"...you need the score AND the tasting note to determine whether or not you individually are likely to enjoy the wine or not. I agree with you completely, Harvey. In a perfect world, each bottle of wine would have a small, air tight spigot and you could go to the wine shop and have a little taste before purchasing it. Since that is not likely to happen anytime soon, your skills are quite handy in guiding me to wines that I enjoy..e.g.; maximizing my wine dollars. Thanks!
Steve Kirchner
Huntington —  May 2, 2008 1:38pm ET
if you think/know a wine has brett do you say so in the review?
Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  May 2, 2008 2:09pm ET
What fascinates me about this subject is that it seems that too many people look at nothing but the score and decide that if it scores higher than 90 points it has to be a wonderful wine. Too often I have been told about a wine scoring high on the point scale by either Wine Spectator or one of your competitors and finding that I did not enjoy it. Is it my fault that I didn't agree with one of the experts? Although we tend to focus on the scores, the bottom line is that wine is a matter of taste. That is why it is so important to read the tasting notes. Even then, one might not enjoy the wine that was highly rated.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 2, 2008 2:28pm ET
If a wine tastes like it's adversely affected by brett, I describe the actual character (gamy, horsey, animal, metallic) but I don't specifically say it has brett. Without sending out a wine for time-consuming chemical tests, it's not possible to be 100 percent certain that some other spoilage organism isn't the culprit.
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  May 2, 2008 3:47pm ET
Couldn't agree more on the importance of the tasting notes, points by themselves are no guarantee at all that one would like a certain wine. I'm glad to hear that the more delicate wines are not forgotten. Concentrated fruit bombs are nice show-wines and they can certainly provide a memorable experience but when it comes to pairing 'normal' food and wine they are not much of use.
Gregory Fleesler
ny, ny —  May 2, 2008 4:53pm ET
thanks harvey. i always enjoy your posts.i have a story and then a question prompted by your statement that you are "less tolerant of funky character in wine," particularly vis-a-vis your 71 and 73 point notes on the 2004 van duzer flagpole and dijon block pinots. i had purchased these wines prior, and sought to return them afterwards because your reviews indicated that they are tainted. the reputable wine shop from which i purchased them understood, however they advised that since your reviews they had been conducting blind tastings, the results of which uniformly disagreed with your notes. they asked me to try them, and if i didn't like them they would still accept the return, even for the opened bottles.i tried and enjoyed these admittedly funky wines, as did my wife, who's in the international style camp.i also subsequently learned of the very favorable iwc notes with 90 points for each wine.obviously, tastes differ, one needs to learn which reviewers' palates most closely align with one's own, and one needs to scrutinize the notes and not just the score. however, these reviews and scores indicate that the wines are undrinkable.what is the role of a reviewer if wines labeled "unpleasant" and "not recommended" are lauded and enjoyed by many in the wine community? how are readers to interpret such notes, and ws coverage of the pac-northwest and australia?thanks.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 2, 2008 7:33pm ET
That's a fair question, Gregory. First of all, the retailer did exactly the right thing by asking you to try the wines yourself and agreeing to take them back if you didn't like them. And you did the right thing by trying them and discovering that, even though you could tell they were indeed funky, you didn't find them bad enough to ask for your money back. Fair enough.

And you're right, tastes differ, as you discovered. What you know about me is that I am less tolerant of funk than you are. So if you see a wine that I give a middling rating because it's gamy or barnyardy, you can reasonably assume you're going to like it better.

As for critics that hate something the public and other critics may like, that happens all the time with movies, music, theater, books, restaurants ... why should wine be any different? I can only tell you how much I think of a wine, and try to detail the reasons why. If I regularly point enough people in the right direction, I get to keep my job.
Gregory Fleesler
ny, ny —  May 2, 2008 11:54pm ET
fair enough, harvey. thanks very much for your response. I appreciate your thoughts and insight.
Michael Dolinski
Tallahassee, —  May 3, 2008 12:07pm ET
Harvey, I find it curious that you admit that the website is not set up to search for keywords in the tasting notes. The annoyance that many of us (yes I'm often a point-score naysayer) find with scores is that although you give both a number and a note, most consumers, even many who consider themselves pretty sophisticated, focus entirely on the number. By giving search options that reinforce that, it seems that Wine Spectator is endorsing this approach, at least partially resulting in consumers who trust the number more than their own palate, and that, to me, is a shame. I am all for reviews, they help consumers through the dizzying array of options and put pressure on the wine industry to produce better wines. However, as a retailer, I'm sick of hearing "I only buy wines that are rated 90 points or better." Numbers seem very absolute and encourage blind faith. Kudos to the retailer who told the guy to actually try the wine.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 3, 2008 3:26pm ET
The online database was set up to allow you to search for a specific wine or wine type, price and quality range. That's pretty powerful, and the database allows you to display the results and read all the notes at once (up to 100 at a time). I really think you should read the entire note before deciding whether the wine seems like something you want to try, and I suggested some specific words to search for among the results when you are looking for finesse.
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  May 3, 2008 3:56pm ET
Very good point, Michael ! Harvey you point out that one should use the browser's search function, since the WS website wont let you search for specific flavours per se. I guess the point of this blog article is to gather enough votes for adding such search functionality to the WS website ? ;-)I vote: YES
John Wilen
Texas —  May 3, 2008 4:27pm ET
I am going to play devil's advocate here....

Give me the rating over the written review. Yeah, it's easy when someone writes barnyard, metallic, rustic, leathery, austere or any other number of trigger words that shout Stay Away. My problem is that wine reviews have become a game of I Spy --- let's see how many different flavors I think I can find. How many can you? As a preschooler might say, I spy, with my little eye, cassis! Well guess what, that doesn't tell me jack. For every high end CA cab I love that someone has found cassis (or currant or blackberry), there's another wine with largely the same review verbiage that I don't care for. Try this little test of two CA cabs recently reviewed by JL...

1. Offers an appealing mix of red plum and cherry fruit that's elegant and delicate, with a hint of sage and vanilla. Finishes with firm, crisp tannins. Decant. Best from 2007 through 2011. 19,000 cases made

2. Aromas of herb, currant and cedar are richer and fuller on the palate. Firms up, with dried currant, earth, vanilla bean and herbal sage notes. The tannins are tight. Decant. Drink now (2007) through 2011. 30,192 cases made.

Without the scores, I'd pass on both. Words like plum, herb and earth scare me a bit as do the high case productions. If forced to pick, I'd favor #1.

Turns out #1 is the 85-point 2003 Mount Veeder cabernet, a wine I've never liked. But #2 is the fabulous 2004 Caymus cabernet, underrated at 92 points. That's why I'll take the scores, warts and all...
John Wilen
Texas —  May 3, 2008 4:38pm ET
The annual I Spy award --- given to the wine critic or winemaker who can find (and correctly use in a sentence!) the most flavors in a single wine. Winner of this year's coveted award is:

A rich, fruit forward wine with the ripe berry characteristics of the 2003 and the balanced structure of the 2004. Aromatically it may be the most complex and evolved vintage at this stage. The nose of this delicious wine is sweet, ripe, quietly smoky and very attractively fruity, as hints of licorice root, black tea, vanilla and coffee toffee meld seamlessly with dark cherry, plum and blackberry scents in a forward and engaging mix. The wine is every bit as charming on the palate, where the creamy vanilla, toffee and black tea notes are reprised while the flavors shift toward pomegranate and red raspberry. The finish is lingering and never less than silky, and those savory tea/toast notes keep the wines fruitiness from overstating itself. With airing, a more Zin-like personality emerges and black pepper, red raspberry, plum and pomegranate take center stage.

Sound's like a dog's breakfast to me...
Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  May 3, 2008 6:02pm ET
John i think adding a simple search functionality within tasting notes wont hurt. Searching for cassis notes in a cab might not be precise enough.Eg: I like old fashioned reds from the Graves region. I might just look for the Graves appellation and add a word like '+earthy' and maybe something like '+tobacco'. That would yield the wines i am looking for.Eg: Looking for a Chablis: I would indicate the Chablis appellation and add the word '+mineral*' (the * allows for mineral, minerality, ... ), i might add something like '-oak*', '-toast*', indicating i dont want oak notes.One could imagine 2 search categories '+' and '-', the '+' indicating the notes one wants to include and the '-' indicating the flavours one wants to omit.
John Wilen
Texas —  May 3, 2008 6:16pm ET
In a response to the request that the WS library of online tasting notes be made keyword searchable, Dana Nigro, Managing Editor, Wine Spectator Online said, back on June 19, 2007:

Thanks for your suggestion. Yes, we have received that request before and it's been on our long list of site upgrade projects that we've been working through since last fall. We'll see if we can get that done very soon.
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  May 3, 2008 8:33pm ET
Harvey, I just had the 1996 Beaux Fr¿s Pinot Noir Beaux Fr¿s Vineyard last night and it was definately a "barnyard" scented wine....but I loved it. I've noticed these scents more as wines age. I've always attributed it to secondary flavors, am I wrong?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  May 5, 2008 12:42pm ET
Kirk, I don't think those flavors are secondary flavors. Often they are there from the beginning,but aren't as upfront as others flavors in the Pinot, such as dried cherry,currant etc. As those flavors start to round out and/or diminish with aging, the underlying earthy flavors show through more. If the flavor comes from Brett, it will definitely start to show more noticeably with aged wines.
Khourys Fine W & S
las vegas, nv —  May 5, 2008 1:06pm ET
As a retailer I would be lying if I said that the point system does not help sell more wine, but on one particular occasion it worked against me. A customer purchased a case of wine that he had tasted at one of our tasting events. A week or two later he returned the case of wine because he found out it did not get a good score. For the most part the points help guide people into trying new wines, but on occasion the point system makes people question their own taste. I always tell my customers that if you really like the way a wine tastes you should trust your own palate, and not care if the wine "only" got 85 points.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 5, 2008 7:17pm ET
"Only" 85 points is still "very good" by our definition.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  May 5, 2008 7:19pm ET
I've had the 1996 Beaux Fr¿s recently and my bottle wasn't what I would call barnyardy. There can be different levels of brett from one bottle to another, especially noticeable after some years in the bottle.

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