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How Many Wines do Critics Taste per Day?

bloggers-at-ridgeThe wine critic has decided whether or not to taste blind and has selected glassware. How many wines will she taste in a day?

I frequently hear people suggest that wine critics' judgement is impaired because they taste 100 - 200 wines in a day. They don’t. If for no other reason, time just doesn’t allow it.

Wine competitions tend to have the highest tasting volumes. That’s a different type of evaluation than review tastings. When judging in competitions, you’re filling out a grid and jotting a score. There’s no need to write lengthy descriptions, or even the wine’s name, and you’re not asking questions. According to Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle, the Decanter competition in which he participates may do 70 - 80 wines per day. I know of competitions which do up to twice that.

But, if a critic is at a winery for review purposes, she’s tasting, writing detailed notes and also asking questions. That takes time. In a very well-orchestrated regional tasting Richard Jennings (RJonWine.com and Huffington Post) and I did in Santa Maria, all the wines and winemakers came to a single location. We didn’t have to waste time driving around. Aside from a lunch break, the only delays were for rotating winemakers and pouring new wines. Winery staff even did the pouring for us.

That tasting still took most of the day and we only did 40 wines. If we’d asked a lot fewer questions and run even longer hours, maybe we could have done 80. It is possible to do that, but it’s not at all common practice. I have not spoken to Robert Parker about this, but he doesn’t write or talk any faster than the rest of us.

[The photo above shows a typical tasting setup for a group of writers at a winery, Ridge in this case. There are four to five glasses for each writer, a dump bucket, water, a white paper to help in judging color, and then laptops or notepads.]

In terms of volume, the biggest regular editorial tastings are panel tastings wherein a publication brings in a few experts—sommeliers, winemakers, other writers—to taste along with the critic. [This is a great practice because everyone brings their own perspective with unique references, descriptors and thoughts on quality. The final decisions are those of the critic, but they may be influenced by the panel.]

Jon Bonné told me, “I generally have limited our panel tastings to 50 wines maximum, which I think is probably still high.” I taste in panels for Wine & Spirits Magazine which are essentially the same, though one editor may participate in two panels a day. But those are for preliminary, thumbs up or down judgements, deciding which wines go to an editor for official review. The final tastings wouldn’t include nearly as many.

When tasting at home, writers set an even more leisurely pace. There’s no staff at home for opening the bottles, pouring, dumping and clean up. And we can’t be tasting all day, every day. We have to save time for writing, editing, correspondence, etc.

Lisa Perotti-Brown of Wine Advocate told attendees of the Symposium for Professional Wine Writers that, when tasting at her home office, she tastes in flights of 10 or 12 wines and does two flights per day. Jon Bonné tastes in flights of four or five wines and might do a total of 20 or 25 evaluations. Joe Czerwinski of Wine Enthusiast tastes at the office and rarely does more than 30 wines per day. Virginie Boone, also of Wine Enthusiast but tasting at home, has been doing 10 - 15 daily. She expects to ramp that up to 20 for her new beat of Napa and Sonoma. I don’t usually do more than 24 wines in a day myself.

The common complaint that wine critics taste too many wines in a day to be able to evaluate them properly is based on an incorrect assumption. Trained critics can taste a lot of wines when need be. However, for a variety of practical reasons, the typical number they go through is from 15 to 40.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. All rights reserved.