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What Do I Drink Outside of the Office? You Might Be Surprised to Find Out

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 1, 2008 10:42am ET

One of the questions I’m often asked by folks is, do I only drink the wines I rate highly? (And they typically mean 90 points or better, if not 95-plus, when they ask this question.)

The answer often surprises them: No, I don’t. While obviously it would be nice to drink all the wines I’ve rated highly, the simple fact is I can’t afford them all. And there are plenty of wines that rate in the very good range (85 to 89 points) that I’m more than happy to drink.

In addition, I also don’t limit myself to wines that only I’ve rated—I still drink plenty of wines from regions that my colleagues cover, and I like comparing my impressions to theirs.

And, as part of the ultimate test in keeping an open mind, I also drink wines from the regions that I cover that I haven’t rated.

"Huh?" you ask?

No, I'm not keeping a few gems as secrets for just me. While all the editors here at Wine Spectator try to be as comprehensive as possible, it is impossible to taste each and every single wine from the regions we cover—the sheer volume of wine is too large. Besides, it wouldn't be useful for you. Not every wine merits a formal review, so based on a winery's track record, we may choose not to review a particular wine. We also filter out those that aren’t available in the U.S. market—it doesn't make much sense to you the readers for us to write about them (though, as always, there are exceptions).

And then there are the wines that don’t get submitted for review. This can happen for any number of reasons. Sometimes wineries elect not to send their wines in, others simply aren't aware we accept review samples. We do spend thousands of dollars every year to buy non-submitted wines that we think are important to review. But we can't track down everything. If you don't see a producer's wines reviewed here, it's not due to some secret ax grinding on our part; it's simply up to them to participate.

But as wine writers, we’re still responsible for trying to keep tabs on as many producers as we can, even if it is "unofficially." With that credo in the back of my head, I checked on two producers while dining out this past weekend, one from the Finger Lakes and one from the Rhône.

Nancy and I were a bit turkeyed-out by Saturday night, so we stopped in at Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, N.Y. The owners, Marcus and Jamie Guiliano (he’s the chef, she runs the front of the house), emphasize sustainable, organic growing practices in the ingredients they use. The food is eclectic, fresh and supergood. In addition, they’re wine crazy, with a scattershot but fun-loving approach to the grape that results in a 250-selection wine list that has everything from Albariños to Zind-Humbrecht. If you like good food and wine, you should give Aroma Thyme a try.

To start, I chose the 2006 Hermann J. Wiemer Riesling Finger Lakes Dry. Wiemer is one of the Finger Lakes’ most important producers, with a commitment to vinifera varieties that goes back over a generation. Their vine nursery provides vine material for many vineyards in the region and their wines are top notch. Alas, in recent vintages they have chosen not to send their wines in for my tastings, so I can’t include them in my official coverage of the region. But that doesn’t mean I turn a blind eye to them. The 2006 Riesling is pure and concentrated, with a depth of fruit and minerality that’s uncommon for the region in general. In a region that is still searching for a consistent, outstanding level of quality, Wiemer is right there knocking on the door. If you like Riesling, you should give it a try.

We followed that up with a half-bottle of the 2006 Roger Perrin Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes. This domaine has quietly been producing top-notch Châteauneuf-du-Pape for several years now, but for whatever reason, the domaine’s wines have never made their way into my tastings. Once again though, it’s still my job to keep track of it, and the '06 is sleek and racy, with a gorgeous beam of raspberry and dark cherry fruit laced with mouthwatering minerality. If you like Châteauneuf-du-Pape, you should try it.

My official wine reviews that are published both in the magazine and online, along with the tasting reports, are always (and only) generated from the results of my ongoing blind tastings here in the New York office. My door is always open to any producer who wants to submit their wines.

But my job doesn’t stop when I leave the office. There are always opportunities to try new wines, and to keep tabs on those wines that don't come through the tasting room on a regular basis. While I can’t review them officially unless they do, I won’t cut off my nose to spite my face—and sell you short in the process—by ignoring them altogether. If their wines are good, I’ll try and let you know one way or another. Being lucky enough to have this fantastic job, that's the least I can do.

Fred Brown
December 1, 2008 9:11pm ET
Yeah, most of us try to avoid taking our work home with us. Not a problem with your fantastic job!

Kidding aside, thanks for the explanation and the insights on what you rate and why.
Thomas Krestik
Phoenix, AZ —  December 1, 2008 10:01pm ET
Hi Jim,Love the blog and appreciate and respect the work you do. You mention WS buys some wines to review, however you reiterate a few times it is essentially up to the winery to submit the wines so they can be reviewed. If you find a wine you like on your own, can't you bring in a couple bottles to be added to a tasting flight (and expense it to WS)? Also, what about sending someone out to the large wine retail chains in NY or San Fran to buy interesting bottles on the shelves. These would also be the ones most likely found by the average wine consumer in the heartland.
Mark Mcgannon
Orangeburg SC  —  December 1, 2008 10:34pm ET
James - enjoyed your blog - The half bottle you ordered brought to mind the thought that it's a too rare delight to find a nice half bottle on a restaurant list. And like you and Nancy, my wife and I cannot finish two 750 ml bottles, even with a big meal - especially if there is any driving involved.
James Molesworth
December 2, 2008 9:29am ET
Thomas: Sure, as mentioned, we do buy samples throughout the year at notable expense to the magazine. It's up to the individual editors to determine if something is a 'must have' in that regard for their respective coverage.

We're always trying to balance our coverage of the best wines - often made in small quantities - with those that are also widely available.

Mark: Yes, I wish more restaurants offered half bottles...but wineries are often loathe to change their bottling line to accommodate the format. It's a missed opportunity IMO.
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  December 2, 2008 6:40pm ET
James, thanks so much for answering one of many questions few of the other WS editors rarely seems to answer. It seems blog entries from influential reviewers usually recount prestigious bottles at selective tastings, rather than the everyday habits. I'm quite interested in the choices of people with at the forefront of wine with non-infinite budgets, which every WS editor seems to indicate applies to them.

So here in shotgun fashion are a bunch of questions I wish all the WS editors would answer. If you had limited budget of say $420 / month for wine for you and your partner, what would you buy? (Fewer nicer bottles? Some sub $12 and some $20?)Same question but you have $600 / month.Tell me the last 30 bottles you drank that you purchased with your own money?Tell me the 15 bottlings you purchased (but may not have durnk) the most of in 2008 with your own money?Given two wines of similar varietal and style and ignoring price, are there ever occasions when you prefer (or enjoy) a lower rated wine over a higher rated one?What fraction of the wine that you drink (tastings not included) is rated 87 points or lower, 88-92 points, 93-96, and 96+ points?
Dennis D Bishop
Shelby Twp., MI, USA —  December 2, 2008 7:08pm ET
Thanks for the insight - and yes, I was a bit surprised! However, with you explanations, it all makes perfect sense. Keep up the great performance in your ratings and writings!
James Molesworth
December 2, 2008 7:17pm ET
Russell: Thanks for the questions...

Professional wine writers will always talk about the great bottles they had at prestigious tastings - it's par for the course. Though personally I don't attend such tastings, it's certainly acceptable for my colleagues to talk about the Cali Cabs, Bordeaux or Barolo they've tasted recently. Many consumers like to know about those wines because they have them in their own cellars and want to know how they are aging. It also serves to increase a writer's experience when it comes to the wines that they cover, paramount to understanding the wines when they are young. I also think my colleagues spend a fair amount of time covering the value end of things as well.

As for your next few questions, I'm not about to divulge my specific wine buying habits - this blog opens up enough of my personal life to the world. Yes, I do buy wine on a finite budget, and the vast majority of wines that I drink outside the office are purchased with my own money (both via retail and at restaurants). The only other scenario is when a group of friends get together and we all bring bottles to share ... otherwise I'm not taking any freebies, if that's what you're getting at.

In regard to some of the wines I focused on this past year, there were a few St.-Josephs that I bought by the case - it's an appellation where, for around $40 a bottle, you can get some superb Syrahs.

Preferring a lower-rated wine to a higher rated one? It happens all the time. That has to do with quality vs. style preference, and has been discussed here before. There are wines that I personally like, but those personal likes are subjugated in favor of focusing on quality first when it comes to the official review process. Case in point: the wines from Pegau and La Nerthe. Two totally different styles, but I rate both highly because qualitatively they are both superb.

As for the last question, even at the heights of my wine geekiness, I don't keep such stats. Sorry...
Alice Finn
December 2, 2008 7:27pm ET
Congratulations to James Molesworth on winning the 2008 Finn Wine Award in the category of Best Wine Critic. If you want to view what was said you can visit http://curtfinn.wordpress.com.
Carole Wurster
New York —  December 8, 2008 12:03pm ET
Dear James,Thank you for sharing your thoughts and restaurant experience with us. Allegretti restaurant on W.22nd Street in NYC has a good half bottle wine list. It allows the diner to select wine to comlpiment more than one course. Do any of your readers have restaurants offering good 1/2 bottle selections that they might like to recommend, too? Carole
James Molesworth
December 8, 2008 12:24pm ET
Carole: That's a good question to throw out in our forums, where you'll likely get more responses...
Carole Wurster
New York —  December 8, 2008 4:05pm ET
Good point. Thanks, James
Andrew Kiken
calistoga, ca  —  December 29, 2008 4:14pm ET
Half bottles while a good idea in theory are just not ordered at most restaurants. I help buy wines for a restaurant in sf,and it was our goal to have a great half bottle list. Not hard to do in finding decent producers, but half bottles take a long time to sell compared to by the glass or bottles. Hotels can sell half bottles at a much faster rate. It costs the winery about the same to bottle a half bottle as a 750 ml so from the winery point of view it does not make great economic sense.

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