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stirring the lees with james molesworth

You Think It's Fun Being A Wine Critic?

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Aug 4, 2006 1:51pm ET

Most days it is - other than being a touring golf pro, there's not much else I'd rather do in life. But some days it isn't.

Like today. The heat has finally broken in New York, and my mind is on the weekend. The sun is shining bright, and I'm dreaming about my golf game and what I'm going to drink this weekend.

But before I can get to that, I have some work to do. Unfortunately, I find myself in the midst of an atrocious flight of wines - Argentinean reds from a hodgepodge of grapes, including Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah and Bonarda. It's almost never this bad - 20 wines and more than half can't break 80 points. Half a dozen are fizzy and mean. Ugh.

Any critic can sit around and toss high scores at great wines. The hard work is finding the gems in the rubble. When you're tasting several bad wines in a row, it's easy to lose your focus and simply give up on the tasting. But you can't. It's important to forget the previous wine (or 2, or 3 or 4) , no matter how bad it was, and focus on the next wine that's in the glass. That's not easy when you've got a build-up of rough tannins, brett or other flaws to deal with. So you have to go even slower, take breaks, and concentrate harder.

That's the irony - the worse the wines, the more you have to work. Because if I miss a gem hidden in the rubble, I've done a disservice to both the winery and the readers. No, these tastings aren't the fun ones.

Luckily they don't happen all the time - otherwise I'd be out trying to get on the PGA tour, which wouldn't be any easier with my short game.

Robert Gott
Doral/Florida —  August 4, 2006 5:21pm ET
James, that's why you get paid the big bucks! Seriously, I appreciate the fact you taste so many wines, even if they happen to be terrible. It may be a difficult task for you at times but it sure benefits the readers. I personally look at every wine you review from Argentina so your work does not go unnoticed. I am always looking for those hidden gems as well so keep up the good work you do. In the meantime, keep working on that short game even if you don't make the tour!
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  August 4, 2006 5:33pm ET
James, I've often wondered about this sort of thing. How do you maintain a consistent standard of scores when you taste several funk wines and then you have a good-great wine immediately following?? Isn't there the tendency to give the good-great wine an inflated rating due to it being so much better than the previous ones?? Maybe this is why you are the WS taster and not me. I would be curious to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks, PM
Hoyt Hill Jr
Nashville, TN —  August 4, 2006 6:39pm ET
Your comment that you spend the most time on the worst wine is similar to my observation that people who buy the smallest bottles drink the most and people who buy the largest bottles drink the least!
Maryann Worobiec
Napa, CA —  August 4, 2006 8:38pm ET
Well said. I think that most people who hear how many wines we taste assume every wine is the most delicious, transcendent thing ever. In fact, there are many heartbreaking and difficult days. Days where we find very little to recommend. Not to mention how physically (and emotionally) draining tasting can be.
Apj Powers
Dallas, TX —  August 5, 2006 2:19am ET
Paul,I was invited to be a wine competition judge recently (I do not pretend to be anywhere near a wine pro like the WS guys). We tasted through about 25 flights in 2 days. (5-9 wines per flight). Several really were good but I did get the feeling we(the panel of judges) were at times lowering the bar to pick a "Gold" in each flight. James, have you ever had wines from American grapes?!? UUUggghhhh. Those were some difficult flights. I now understand the tasting term "foxy"
Rob Mackay
Santa Cruz —  August 5, 2006 11:22am ET
You'd rather be a golf pro? You should read "A Good Walk Spoiled" by John Feinstein. That'll fix the urge to be a golf pro right quicklike.
Chris Lavin
Long Beach, CA —  August 5, 2006 12:41pm ET
As a professional taster myself, I too get stuck tasting dreadful wines; of course, I do not have to assign a number to them, just a quick comment or grunt will suffice.

I agree with Apj about wine competitions lowering the bar to give an award, even when a wine is not deserving of it...that is why I do not pay attention to "Gold Ribbon" wine awards. I just trust my own palate when the wine is presented to me.
Maximiliano Morales
Santiago, Chile —  August 6, 2006 7:02pm ET
I totally understand James vision of this problem of tasting several bad wines from one country in particular at a time.I started tasting Argentinean Wines 4 years ago and every time I travelled to Mendoza or San Juan (new area north of Mendoza) I find new wines that surprises me in 2 ways: great and bad wines!...the 2 extremes that have an explanation based on winemaking techniques that usually are from the old times and new ones that bring fruity and full body wines. The last couple of years, Argentinean Wines have raised their exportations constantly, but unfortunately the proportion of bulk vs bottle wines are totally opposites. The argentinean bulk wine is rasing up in a dangerous way, affecting the image and business opportunities of bottle wines. Several wineries with old and news vines are producing great wines, but also, the average argentinean wines is not a great deal and being the only producer of Malbec or Bonarda put a great challenge for them to improve their quality, but they need also to produce commercial wines considering most of the consumers have never tried those new varieties from Argentina.Max Morales
James Molesworth
August 7, 2006 8:38am ET
Rob: Yes, I like his books. The one on the US Open at Bethpage is a fun read too...
James Molesworth
August 7, 2006 8:40am ET
Apj: Yes- I've had many wines made from non-vinifera grapes. I was given the enviable task of tasting wines from all over the US for a cover story a few years back. I'm still thanking Marvin for that one ;-)...
Dan Jaworek
Chicago —  August 7, 2006 8:42am ET
James, since you brought up tasting I have a question. How do you handle a wine that is closed? Is it really possible to give it a fair assessment? I've read in various notes in WS from time to time that a wine is good but closed now. When I come across one of these wines, they aren't giving up much in the way of flavor or aroma. Is it possible that a wine scored at a 90 but "closed" could really be a 93 or, worse an 85?Dan J
James Molesworth
August 7, 2006 8:46am ET
Paul: Great question. Actually, there are two things to avoid when you're in the midst of a flight of bad wines. One is to over score a good wine when you come to it, since it stands so much apart. The other is to spiral downward and miss the good wine, as all the bad ones put you in a bad mood.

That's why when we taste, we always have at least one ringer in the flight (a previously rated wine so that when we take the bags off we can gauge where we were palate-wise). We also always have a 'benchmark' wine on the table, unblind. That's a wine we've previously rated and use a warm up, and can go back to over and over through the flight for calibration.

Those tricks of the trade help keep us grounded, and experience helps too. Just remember, always focus on what's in the glass - not what you think it could be or should be. That's why you can't beat tasting blind.
James Molesworth
August 7, 2006 8:53am ET
Dan: Good question. When we rate the wines at WS, we give the score based on the wine's ultimate potential, taking into account any youthful tightness, etc. Taster experience is the key to understanding what a closed wine should/could develop into. It's part of the reason the editors focus on individual regions, so that they can build up that experience for the wines...
Phil Talamo
Bron, NY —  August 7, 2006 10:51am ET
James - sounds a lot like golf. You have to forget that 3-putt bogey or chilli-dipped wedge into a bunker when you get to the next tee...that's what makes it so hard.Having said that, I must (facetiously) say... "My heart bleeds for you"Hit 'em straight

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