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Mop-Up Tasting Days Can Be Ugly

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Apr 2, 2009 9:24am ET

I’m finishing up my tastings for the Chardonnay report that will appear in the July issue of Wine Spectator. I’ll end up tasting some 550 Chardonnays since our last report. Most will be from 2007 and 2006, and there have been some sensational wines from both years.

As we finish our respective tastings for varietal reports each year, there is inevitably a "mop-up" day or two, during which many of the wines that needed a second tasting end up in a flight or two. We call them RTs, for retaste days.

RTs include wines that were corked, cooked, spoiled, unusually earthy, high in volatile acidity (with sweet-sour, balsamic and/or fingernail polish qualities) or showing a bretty character. In the case of the latter, it’s often hard to know whether the earthy, leathery flavors are due to brett or a bad cork. In either event, those wines are retasted.

We never know when RTs will happen, since those bottles are mixed with wines that have yet to be reviewed, along with some that have scored highly and are thrown in to see how consistent we are. Sometimes RT days are ugly, with lots of mediocre wines. You don't know whether it's just a bad day, or if many of the rejected wines have come due for their final assessment.

Our goal with these retastes is to ensure that every wine has a fair chance to show its true character. The second looks also emphasize how much a wine can change from bottle to bottle, a evidence that it's a living thing, not a manufactured object. Anyone who buys multiple bottles of wines can attest to this mutability. It can be frustrating, but every taste helps us understand the multi-faceted nature of wine.

Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  April 2, 2009 11:34am ET
Thanks for the blog. I for one am glad that these days do happen - wines, just like people, can have 'bad' days, and oftentimes deserve second looks.

How often, during these RT days, do the wines exhibit the same characteristics that pushed them into the RT day in the first place? Percentages?

And what happens when this happens? Do you ask for additional bottles to be sent by the winery? Or do you assume that the entire bottling is consistent with these two bottles?

Tom Glover
The Woodlands, TX —  April 2, 2009 2:25pm ET
Based upon corked rates of 3 to 8%, with 550 tastings, that would mean you could have 15 to 50 corked wines that you would need to retry!
Linda Schwartz
Fort Ross, CA —  April 2, 2009 2:40pm ET

We are grateful that RT days exist as our multi-faceted - and temperamental - wines can escape and arrive when they still deserve to be carded at the door...

Better security is advisable - but many a flower can be plucked before bloom - after it was carefully nurtured throughout childhood and adolescence - and showed such great promise...
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  April 2, 2009 3:59pm ET
Jim,I too am interested in how often your impression changes with these retastes. We see "tasted twice with consistent notes" often, but less often (or never) do we see "Retasted, and impression has changed significantly." I have seen "significant bottle to bottle variation." Does that mean that the second tasting was better, and do you give the score based on the better bottle or an average of the two?
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  April 2, 2009 7:39pm ET
This was a wonderful post, largely because of the insight you provide on tasting process. I'm even more impressed with the efforts WS goes through to ensure fairness and consistency (mixing in the RT with other bottles and throwing in some "reference" previously scored bottles). As with any good post, more questions arise.How often does your score change on a reference bottle by a significant amount.Have you ever tasted a wine 3 times with 2 poor bottles but 1 much better bottle?Do you ever find bad batchs if you buy/obtain the wines from the same place? On occasion, I've had consistent bad batches (e.g. 4 out of 4 of the Lehmann 05 Shiraz were thin and vegetal all from Costco over a 5 month span, which is highly unusual). E.g. you taste a wine later non-blind and are surprised as you had given it a low score.For wines that need bottle aging, how often do you get to try it at its best, which is what the WS score represents (and is a difficult score to predict)?
James T Vitelli
April 3, 2009 3:43pm ET
Since a wine's performance often depends on external variables, (e.g., aeration time and serving temperature), do you ever alter these variables for a RT? Chardonnays that show flabby or oaky can crisp right up with a quick chill, and muted wines can blossom with time or 20 minutes left out at room temperature. When the bag is lifted to reveal a wine that you think substantially underperformed compared to expectations, do you ever re-taste under different conditions?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 6, 2009 1:10pm ET
To all, the notes that say tasted twice with consistent notes are just that. Occasionally you'll see a reference along the lines, the best of two or more bottles.Most of the time the wines receive very close or identical ratings and very often the descriptors as well are similar. I think most of us give a wine the benefit of the doubt, that is, if one bottle was great, and two others were less so, the best review would run.We occasionally run into multiple bottles of corked wine from the same producer.We try to keep all the tastings as consistent as we can, that is, the same temperature, environment, etc. We retaste wines for many different reasons, including wines that under or over perform. My reviews are for the wine right now (not a guess as to what it might eventually be, though they're often related) and drink windows are my estimations of when the wine is best consumed and most likely to still reflect the descriptors. Wine reviews have shelf lives and with time some reviews are less useful than others, depending on how the wine ages and changes.
Thomas Matthews
April 6, 2009 2:24pm ET
We understand the interest in our tasting methodology. However, it's not always possible to give systematic responses to questions as detailed as, say, those posed by Russell, above. Different tasters may employ slightly different methods.Our fundamental goal is to give every wine a fair chance to show its best. That effort begins with proper conditioning before tasting, and continues with the construction of an appropriate tasting flight by the tasting coordinator, even before the taster pours the wine. (More detail is provided in the FAQ section of the site.)Tasting a second bottle, or re-tasting the first bottle under different circumstances (adjusting the temperature, decanting or giving it a few hours to develop), are other options in this process.The number of RT's vary from taster to taster (and wine type to wine type). Most often, a wine is marked for retaste before it is unbagged, because of obvious flaws. If the second (or, more rarely, the third) bottle is clean, that score and note are clearly "correct." Less often, a wine is marked for retaste after unbagging, because the taster wants to confirm the results (a score that was higher or lower than expected, for example). Generally, the RT confirms the original judgment (in which case the tasting note will contain the phrase "tasted twice with consistent notes). But if it doesn't, then the taster's judgment comes into play, often backed up by a second opinion from a different taster. These can be difficult situations but we do the best we can to be fair.Remember: reviewing wine combines objective criteria with subjective judgment, and requires both a skilled palate and deep experience. We think our methodology best serves our goals, but ultimately we have to depend on the integrity and expertise of our tasters. And in my opinion, Wine Spectator fields the best team in the business.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  April 6, 2009 9:03pm ET
James, when you come across a seriously tainted wine how do you go about getting the taste out of your mouth before trying the next wine in the lineup?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  April 7, 2009 10:50am ET
Troy, we always change glasses if a wine is corked and in the times when my nose fails me and I have a sip, I'll rinse with mineral water, perhaps a cracker, and short walk to shift gears.

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