Wednesday, August 12, 2015

How Crazy is Wine Criticism? How 4 Wine Critics Vary on One Wine - Ridge's 2011 Monte Bello

Wine criticism has come under fire for years. Mainly it's wineries who rage against it, feeling that their wines have been unfairly assessed. As someone who's compared hundreds of ratings from Galloni, Tanzer, Parker (and his associates), Wine Spectator, Decanter and Jancis Robinson, I can honestly say the "critics" baffle me.

While sites like and a handful of apps have democratized wine reviews, it's not yet true that they have the public's attention. Rather, they're often a place for a second opinion.

Better are the wine store staff comments on sites like At least they don't use the word "sexy" in a tasting note, unlike the big guns - Robert Parker, Antonio Galloni, Stephen Tanzer, etc.

In looking at the reviews for various organically grown wines over the last two years from these top paid content sources (not the crowd sourced ones), one can easily find not one single adjective in common in reviews of the same wine from the same vintage.

Scientists know that we taste differently.

A third of us are not very adept at tasting, a third of us are average, and a third of us excel.

Wineries know that tastes vary widely as well, and hope they'll offer something from their lineup that hits your particular palate in the tasting room. Tim Hanni's work on individual vinotypes helps people address their individual palate preferences.

A subset of the best tasters are called super tasters. Might you expect super tasters to taste similarly? Assuming only super tasters dare to go into wine writing, we might assume the critics are all super tasters. But, clearly, they have widely varying palates.

Let's take, for instance, a widely acknowledged, high profile world class Cabernet - the 2011 Ridge Monte Bello. It has a track record of more than 40 years of recognition and is a benchmark wine in the realm of America's finest Cabernets.

Cherchez the adjectives. (Follow the adjectives.)

Here's how Decanter described this wine, the only American entry in an elite Decanter-sponsored tasting of the best Cabernets in the world recently held in London:

"Provides a voluptuous nose of coffee, tobacco and primary black fruits. On the palate, more of the same, together with intense, juicy black cherries, damson and cassis. Great vivacity and freshness...all wrapped up in dense yet ripe and grainy tannins and beguilingly low alcohol - just 12.8%. The finish was long, savory and immensely satisfying."

The Decanter panel rated it 95 pts. (out of 100).

Back in the US of A, critics who reviewed this same wine varied widely.

Italian born Antonio Galloni, of Vinous might be thought to have a more continental palate than his American counterparts, though he was the Wine Advocate's Napa writer several years ago before spinning off his own Vinous brand and content site.

He rated the 2011 Monte Bello 93 pts., writing, "Silky, soft and accessible...sage, rosemary, lavender, licorice and menthol [note: not one of the adjectives was used in the Decanter review] add complexity to a core of dark plum and cherries..."

"Cherries" is the only word these two reviews have in common.

Further afield, we find reviews from James Laube in Wine Spectator and Robert Parker in the Wine Advocate.

Writes Laube, "Aromatically alluring, this presents a trim mix of cedar, dried herbs and berry notes, with loamy earthy and rocky scents."

His rating? 89 pts., the kiss of death. Anything below 90 is pretty much considered unworthy, especially for a $160 wine.

Parker's praise is even more faint. He writes, "red and blackcurrant and spicy oak notes...", rating it a mere 87 points.

Notice not one adjective is consistent between the four tasting notes. In fact, only one word - cherries - is used twice.

And of course - the ratings. They range from 87 on up.

We know that wineries are able, if inclined, to dial in a particular wine critic's palate, and craft the wine's profile to match the critic's. Read David Darlington's classic 2005 New York Times magazine story, The Chemistry of a 90+ Point Wine, on Leo McCloskey's company Enologix if you want to revisit the details. Darlington's followup book An Ideal Wine (highly recommended) goes even further.

Given the widespread ignorance of the wine buying public (wine tourists in particular), most wineries seek points to validate their wares. Points equal money.

Ratings were originally created to help the buyer, by screening out poorly made wines in a world when wines were often not well made. But are they serving that purpose today? Or simply paying a piper whose flute is out of tune?

The moral of this story? If you're reading the ratings, beware. Try to find the palate that matches your own. (I haven't been able to, though I tend to respect Decanter more than others. A tiny nit - Decanter often fails to pay attention to the case production of wine and can feature wines where only 100 cases were made).

Taste for yourself. Take a wine class. Go to tastings that offer side by side comparisons. Do blind tastings. It's more work, yes, but fun - and you'll develop your own palate, which, after all, is your arbiter of good taste.

And remember - tasting notes and scores are modern inventions. They didn't exist until the last 20-30 years. Most of the world just drinks what they like.


  1. FYI for clarification - "A third of us are not very adept at tasting, a third of us are average, and a third of us excel... A subset of the best tasters are called super tasters." This takes the science way out of context - no is a 'better' taster than anyone else, just different. And the term 'supertaster' is very misleading. AND thanks for the shoutout!

  2. Tim - Honored to have you weigh in and thanks for the reminder that no one's sense of taste is "better." Good to remember!