- Written by Rand Sealey
How I Evaluate Price and Quality in Wines
This can be considered the third of my series (I didn't plan it that way) on wine evaluation standards. The first, September 7, described the 20 Point System I use. The second, November 16 dealt with wine rating vis a vis the Wall Street Journal article, "A Taste of Illusion." Here, I will comment on how price and quality enter into my reviews.
First, I evaluate wines in terms of overall impressions, how balanced and complex they are, and award them scores based on their level of quality: 17+ points is very good, 18+ exceptional, 19+ outstanding (again, see September 7).
Then I ask myself if a given wine is worth the price. A $20 or less wine getting 18 points is exceptional value. If an 18 point wine is $40, it's not such a great value. Going further up the price scale, my thinking is that a wine costing $40-50 should be worth at least 18.5 points. A wine over $50 should merit at least 19 points. A wine with a stratospheric price of $100 or more should be 19.5 points. If a wine falls outside these parameters, I usually leave it out (and I have left many out). Occasionally, I will include a wine of particular merit and interest and leave it up to the reader to decide if the wine is worth the price. On the other hand, an omission of a particular wine does not necessarily indicate poor value. Space limitations preclude listing all wines that demonstrate good value; I can include only ones of particular value and interest.
Most winemakers have reasonable perspectives on their products' values. They know their peers and have a good idea of how they stack up. And they have a good knowledge of the price point standards in the industry. But there are always some vagaries. Some have inflated notions of their worth. Some deliver terrific bang for the buck. I am always on the lookout for wines in the latter category.
In sum, in reviewing wines, I always endeavor to convey a sense of what constitutes real value. My job, as I see it, is not just to report wine descriptions and ratings (as some reviewers do) but to review the wines that consumers should be considering.
- Written by Rand Sealey
For Thanksgiving, Serve Washington Wines
For their Thanksgiving wine recommendations most retailers - wine shops and supermarkets alike - suggest all kinds of wines, French (Beaujolais Nouveau!) Italian, South American or whatever. It seems they are simply pushing what they want to sell.
Thanksgiving is a distinctly American holiday. So why not have American wines for this holiday which gives thanks for our country's bounty and heritage? And in our case, it should be celebrated with Washington wines which are among the finest our country has to offer.
I have no specific suggestions. Just about any fine Washington wine will work: Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot, you name it. Most Washington wines are very versatile. If some family members or friends prefer white, make it Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Viognier or even Chardonnay. So for this Thanksgiving, just reach into your cellar or wine rack, or go to your supermarket or wine merchant and pick out your Washington favorites.
Would You Like to Give a Gift Subscription to the Review of Washington Wines?
Last summer, when we revamped our subscription system, we discovered a flaw in the gift subscription system. All gift orders went into limbo as the software failed to notify recipients and kept them in the orderers' names. It turned out to be too costly to fix, so we have gone to a manual system for entering gift subscriptions. Here's how to order a gift subscription:
List on a sheet of paper the recipients with their names, mailing addresses and email addresses and mail it to:
Review of Washington Wines
C/O Rand Sealey
8807 Fauntleroy Way SW
Seattle, WA 98136
Note: I will be in Walla Walla from December 3rd to 14th. All orders received during that time will not be entered until the 14th unless they are received at 415 E. Sumach St. Walla Walla 99362.
Enclose a check payable to Review of Washington Wines. A single [Full] subscription is $20 for 12 months (includes archive and blogs). Each additional [Full] subscription is $10.
When each order is received, I will enter each subscriber and email each recipient a notification that a gift subscription has been ordered, together with a user name and login password (which can be changed). Each recipient will be told who the giver is.
Note: Entering a subscription on-line in someone else's name and then paying for it with your credit card will not work. The subscriber and payer have to match for security reasons.
- Written by Rand Sealey
Comments on the Wall Street Journal "A Taste of Illusion" Article
The Wall Street Journal's Weekend Journal issue of Nov. 14-15 featured a front page article written by Leonard Mlodinow who teaches randomness at Caltech, entitled "A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion" about how "They pour, sip and with passion and snobbery, glorify and doom wines. But studies say the wine-rating system is badly flawed. How the experts fare against a coin toss." It is a very interesting article, and I agree with much of it, although it makes more assumptions than it should. Wine evaluation can be highly subjective, and results can vary significantly. But I do have a few comments to make.
My first comment is about the contention that "even flavor-trained professionals cannot reliably identify more than three or four components in a mixture, although wine critics regularly report tasting six or more." I agree that even the most seasoned taster cannot identify more than four components at one moment. But wine continually changes in the glass so that multiple components can be identified in repeated nosings and sips. In re-evaluating wines from samples purchased at tasting rooms, I generally will spend 10-20 minutes smelling, tasting and swirling to pick up the various components. Continued tasting can reveal more nuances or shortcomings as well. I also do believe that the more complex a wine is, the more components there are to be identified (so I'll just go on and keep providing detailed descriptions in my reviews).
I totally agree with the randomness of wine competitions. I have already addressed this in my blog of September 28 which concurs with the conclusions of Robert Hodgson that "winning a Gold medal is largely a matter of chance." This is the same study that the Wall Street Journal Article refers to.
My final comment is about the range of deviation among ratings of the same wine, even from the same reviewer. Robert Parker admits a possible deviation of 2-3 points on his 100 point scale. Given that the 100 point system is really a 20 point one since 80 points is the baseline for a good commercial wine, a deviation of 3 points is a 15% one. With the 20 point system I use (see my blog of September 7) there is a 16 points baseline which means that a deviation of a half point is one-eighth or 12.5%. With either system, there is at least that much subjectivity (probably more) involved. I readily admit my ratings can deviate by a half point or so, depending on when and how I tasted a particular wine.
In short, wine reviewers are not infallible. We all have our preferences and biases, and as one critic commented, "We're not robots." But at the same time, wine tasting is not necessarily an "Illusion," but rather a sensory experience that can convey differing impressions to different tasters. It is up to the consumer to decide what he or she likes best. Wine ratings can only be guidelines, not arbitrary pronouncements.
- Written by Rand Sealey
The Wine Economist - A Stimulating Blog
A few days ago, I got a new signup to my Review of Washington Wines. It was from Mike Veseth, Robert G. Albertson Professor of International Political Economy at the University of Puget Sound and publisher of The Wine Economist. The website describes the publication as "What do you get when you cross the Wine Spectator, America's best-selling wine magazine, with the Economist, the world's leading business weekly? The answer is this blog, The Wine Economist, which analyzes and interprets today's global wine markets. Why? Because when it comes to what's in your wineglass, supply and demand sometimes matters as much as climate and soil."
I checked out the website and found it to be provocative and stimulating. There are a myriad of articles about wine in terms of supply and demand, and as a global market. The latest posting, November 1, is about "Extreme Value Wine Goes Mainstream," and how supermarkets, and specifically Grocery Outlet, have been marketing wines at seemingly ridiculously low prices: $3.99, $4.99 and $5.99 a bottle, from all over the world. Excess winery inventory somehow seems to end up somewhere on grocery shelves. Other recent posts are: "Wine as a Liberal Art" about exposing students to wine; "Starbucks and the Coffee-Wine Paradox" which discusses the paradox of "why do the best wines cost so much more, in relative terms, than the best coffees;" and "Wine and the China Syndrome" about the dream and the reality of the China market.
The Wine Economist is highly recommended for anyone who wants to read about the wine market - premium or mass - and its globalization. To find out more, go to: www.wineeconomist.com.
Walla Walla Valley 2009 Crush Wraps Up
Over the past few days, I have been talking to winemakers and sampling wines from the 2009 vintage in the tank or barrel. It was an extraordinarily hectic harvest. Picking and crush were going along just fine from mid September to early October as well ripened, healthy grapes were bought in (mostly Merlot and Syrah). Then cold, wet, freezing weather set in beginning on October 12th. So then there was a big rush to bring in grapes before freezing produced mush. One winemaker told me his winery crushed 35 tons in two days. But the grapes I saw on the conveyer belt looked great. And I liked what I smelled and tasted from the tank and barrel: deep-colored, wonderfully aromatic wines, just awaiting malolactic fermentation.
Two November Review "Best Buys" on Sale at Esquin
In this month's Esquin Newsletter, I spotted these two "Best Buys" from the November issue of my Review of Washington Wines (just put on line).
2008 Renegade Wine Company Merlot, Walla Walla Valley ($14.99) 17.5+/20 points
2007 Beresan "The Buzz" Red, Walla Walla Valley ($17.99) 18/20 points
- Written by Rand Sealey
Wine and Cheese Pairings
Last week, I picked up some samples of new releases from Ashley Trout's Flying Trout Wines. On the fact sheet for her 2007 Old Vines Malbec (to be reviewed in the November issue of my Review) was the suggested Cheese Pairing: Manchego and Taleggio. Lynn and I tried this pairing. The creamy but firm sheep's milk Spanish Manchego and the rich, creamy cow's milk Taleggio from the foothills of the Italian Alps both went beautifully with the Malbec. This gave me the idea of suggesting other wine and cheese pairings that we have found to work well with Washington wines.
Merlot - This varietal goes well with slightly creamy cheeses: Wensleydale (cow's milk) and Ossau-Iraty (sheep's milk from the French Pyrenees). These also go well with Petit Verdot as a stand-alone varietal.
Cabernet Sauvignon - English cheddars such as Montgomery's and Neal's Yard go nicely with Cabernet Sauvignon, also with Cabernet Franc.
Syrah - This variety calls for fairly firm, flavorful cheeses such as Manchego, Garrotxa (sheep's milk from Spain) and Vella Dry Jack (Sonoma, Calif.).
Malbec - In addition to Manchego and Taleggio (see above) this wine goes well with Shropshire Blue and Brie. Malbec is one of the few red wines that can go with double or triple cream cheeses.
Chardonnay - Alpine cow's milk cheeses such as Gruyere and Alpenzeller go well with this. Also Morbier from Franche-Comte.
Viognier - Rich cheeses such as Cypress Grove Humbolt Fog (California goat milk) and Mt. Townsend Seastack (Washington, cow's milk) go well with this rich, aromatic variety.
Marsanne and/or Roussanne - These call for slightly creamy, flavorful cheeses. Garrotxa (see above) and Cypress Grove Midnight Moon (a wax rind goat cheese) go well with these full-bodied whites. The slightly tangy cow's milk Welsh Caerphilly also works nicely.
Avoid double and triple creams such as Brie and St. Andre except with sweetish whites such as Riesling. One exception is Malbec (see above)
TMSA Holdings Acquires madwine.com
A couple of days ago, I received a press release from Chuck Lefevre, the proprietor of TMSA Holdings, owner of Esquin, in my email box. Part of it states:
The purchase brings two great brands - MadWine and Esquin Wine Merchants - under one roof. For customers, this will mean unprecedented access to domestic and international wines.
"Pairing MadWine with Esquin is an incredible opportunity for us to expose the great wines of Washington state to the rest of the country," says Chuck Lefevre, owner of TMSA and Esquin Wine Merchants. "In fact, MadWine will offer more Washington wines than any other on-line retailer."
MadWine ships to all states that permit shipments from out of state. Go to www.madwine.com. For the Esquin website, go to www.esquin.com