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Second Chance Not Always For The Better

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Sep 10, 2008 5:17pm ET

As the tastings wind down for any given varietal, and the wines that need a second, or third, or even fourth review pass through the tasting room, sometimes things get ugly.

We re-taste wines for a variety of reasons. Wines with bad corks, spoiled wines or bottles that have been cooked during shipping are routinely tasted a second time. We also re-taste "off" wines from producers who typically make good wines. And of course we re-taste many great wines just for the experience. Most of the time the re-taste notes and scores are eerily close, hence the "tasted twice, consistent notes" reference you see in some wines' tasting notes.

Then there's a whole category of wines that simply show poorly. Most of the time, we think they deserve at least a second chance. These can be wines that are occasionally flawed, or borderline flawed, such as those with varying levels of brettanomyces or volatile acidity. One of the more common by-products of riper grapes and wines are brett and VA, with those that are overripe veering into balsamic flavors.

As the deadline for various tasting reports nears, the odds and ends of re-tastes collect, resulting in a day or two of re-tastes, which can be painful. We tasters don’t know when that day will arrive, since the tasting coordinators manage the schedule and deadlines and the wines are, of course, tasted blind. But once you begin a flight of wines and they all end up being rather ordinary, or dull, or weird, it slowly sinks in.

It's a re-taste day.

Chris Haag
September 10, 2008 7:00pm ET
James, do you always retaste with a new bottle or does that depend on why you are retasting (for the experience vs. an off bottle). What happens to all of the bottles you taste from. Ie: one of the perks of the job is you can take home what is not finished and enjoy with your dinner?Thanks,Chris
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  September 10, 2008 7:24pm ET
Ah yes, as my father would say, "Every dog has his day." With all those "ponies" running around your tasting room there's bound to be some "droppings."
Jason Anderson
long beach, ca —  September 10, 2008 8:13pm ET
Hello jim, - I am curious how you determine a given wine from "a producer who typically makes good wines" desrves a retaste in a blind tasting format. Do you retaste a wine after the bag comes off? If so how do you maintain the integrity of the blind tasting?
Don R Wagner
Illinois —  September 11, 2008 7:42am ET
Hi, I really sympathize with you regarding the re-tastes of the "bad" wines. Personally, as I learn more about tasting, my tolerance for poorly crafted or flawed wines is very short; regardless of cost - only so many miles on this engine! I also want to commend you on the timeliness of your reviews this season - I just finished checking on a new winery's cab and yours was the only "major" review out there! It's very clear that you did not take it easy this Spring and Summer! DRW -- PS; Yr review of the wine was extremely helpful in helping me decide to make the purchase. Had there been no review (i.e. taste descriptors), I probably would have "passed"!
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 11, 2008 9:22am ET
re: Troy,

Ha!, is that the barnyard notes you find in some wines?!
James T Vitelli
Connecticut —  September 11, 2008 11:17am ET
James: Wines often show very differently when certain variables, such as temperature or "air time" are changed. Sometimes a white will perform better if it is tasted at a slightly higher temperature than we might otherwise think optimal. And a red might "explode in the glass" after 4 hours, compared to its lifeless performance right out of the bottle. When you re-taste, do you ever alter these variables, or do you taste the second time under identical conditions to the first tasting?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 11, 2008 12:00pm ET
All re-tastes come from a new, fresh bottle, in the same blind format. Most of the wine (99 percent) tasted goes down the sink. The ones with the most structure often go home with different tasters, which is another way to look at a wine hours after it was opened and reviewed.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 11, 2008 12:06pm ET
Jason, most wineries have a track record which indicates the level of quality of wines they produce. So when a winery with a good track record has a wine that doesn't taste very good, a tasting coordinator will re-enter it into a new blind tasting, usually on a different day, without letting the taster know when that will be. All wines are reviewed (scored) before the bags are removed. Editors can taper the note after knowing what the wine is to reflect a perspective or insight.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 11, 2008 12:10pm ET
Thanx, Don, and you're right. The more you taste the more aware you are of off, or flawed, or inferior wines. When you match those wines with their prices, that's when our tolerance for mediocrity drops. The whole point of wine reviews is to be critical.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 11, 2008 12:14pm ET
James, as a practical matter, we try to give all wines the same chance, that is they are all opened and given some air (we figure about an hour or so, about what most consumers might allow) and then the editor has the option of letting that wine sit in a bag for several more hours before learning its identity. Syrah seems to need the most air. But we can't take the risk of opening wines a day before tasting them and then have something else come up that prevents the wines from being tasted.
Tyler Mcafee
Houston, TX —  September 11, 2008 12:42pm ET
No pain, no gain.
Ken Koonce
Dallas, Texas —  September 11, 2008 9:35pm ET
Since the ideal tasting temperature for red wine is about 60-65 degrees, do you taste at this temperature or at room temperature (say 75)? If the latter, doesn't this effect the review?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 12, 2008 11:40am ET
Ken, whites come straight from the cellar (55 degrees) sparkling wines from the refrigerator (cooler) and reds at room temperature, which in our office is about 68.
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  September 12, 2008 12:28pm ET
Ken, I can answer that. We keep it btwn 68-72 degrees here in the office year round (says the gal with the scarf tied around her neck). If the wines aren't in the process of being tasted, they're kept in our cellar which is kept at a standard 55 degree temperature. It's important for us that the wines are cared for and showing well--we want to make sure we're not missing anything.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  September 12, 2008 1:14pm ET
I've always wondered, but does the mustache get in the way? Like if you had a relatively oily lunch and the oils stick to the mustache and imparts other flavors that you wouldn't notice because your nose acclimated to the smells. It's sounds rather silly a question but one that I feel would alter an experience with wine.

I also wonder about prep before sitting down through a gauntlet of wines. Do you have a hearty breakfast? Or is it like rice cakes and water to bland the palate. Do you have a glass of sparkling water next to you? Is an early morning jog required to clean out the mind?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 12, 2008 5:11pm ET
Wiskers aside, I try to get a good night's rest before tasting, always work out in the morning, eat a mild breakfast and avoid any spicy or seasoned foods for lunch. You want to approach a tasting with a clear head and I always drink water, preferably mineral water.

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