A recent article about the influence and manipulation of wine consumers was brought to my attention, as apparently one of my tasting notes was printed in it.
The article claimed (among other things) that wine consumers are faced with “an impenetrable swamp of winespeak” before quoting the following note, penned by yours truly:
“Dark and rich, with lots of fig bread, mocha, ganache, prune and loam notes. Stays fine-grained on the finish, with lingering sage and toast hints.”
[For the record, the wine described was the Familia Zuccardi Zeta Mendoza 2004 (87, $45), a blend of 70 percent Malbec with Tempranillo.]
Normally I try to avoid any back and forth quibbling over the review process we use at Wine Spectator—the evaluation of wine is subjective, so debating one person’s method versus another’s is rather useless. But I took a little umbrage with this particular swipe for a couple of reasons. First, the author is also a critic who uses a fair amount of "winespeak" when writing his own tasting notes, and though he typically takes a contrarian view when dealing with wine, he's consistent in his views and worth a read. Second, I’ve always stressed to readers that the tasting note itself is even more important than the score attached to it, because a wine’s style and flavor profile are the ultimate determinant for whether someone will like the wine. Assuming the critic in question is consistent, then consumers can calibrate themselves to the critic’s palate and get a clear and consistent read on the wines the critic reviews.
The key questions that a wine critic is helping his or her readers to answer is, do they want a rich, figgy, loamy wine? Or perhaps a brighter, fresher, more floral version? And in describing two different-styled wines in those terms, is there anyone who would really be confused?
In this case, I think the wine in question is a fairly dark and rich style offering very good quality (scores in the 85-89 range are "very good" on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale) for its type. Read the note and I'm sure anyone, novice or connoiseur, would get a strong mental picture of the wine. Or am I being naive?
Yes, the wine lexicon can seem a bit lofty to beginners, but with one tasting, I’ve found all mystery is easily dispelled. When I taught beginner wine classes many moons ago, I would get attendees to play a game with wine descriptions—use movie stars, cars, fashion designers—whatever they were comfortable with, to describe the differences between wines. When there's a Pamela Anderson wine next to a Gwyneth Paltrow wine, suddenly the “fig and loam” versus “bright mineral and floral” clicks. It usually took about five minutes or less for folks to get comfortable with "winespeak," hardly what I would call an "impenetrable swamp."
The article also goes on about recent studies that showed how easily consumers were influenced by the price of a wine (a silly study quickly debunked by my colleague James Suckling), but the article doesn’t mention our magazine’s policy of tasting wines blind, and thus removing price from the equation: $45 isn’t cheap, and I suspect most people would expect more than just 87 points for such a wine. Heck, according to the study, at $45, most people would quickly pronounce it to be a great wine.
I guess had I tasted the wine knowing it’s price while also aiming to trim my swamp of winespeak, I probably would have come up with this: “91 points. Big wine. You'll like it.”
That might be easier for folks to understand, but would it be accurate or any less subjective?