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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.

Comments   

Bob Henry
#1 Bob Henry 2014-05-02 04:24
Citing a 1987 Los Angeles Times article titled "Wine Writers: Squeezing the Grape for News":

"Parker tastes as many as 100 different wines a day at times -- 7,500 to 10,000 a year . . ."

Citing a 1999 Los Angeles Times article titled "He Sips and Spits -- and the World Listens":

"Perhaps 40 or 50 times a year, he will taste more than 120 different wines a day; in a typical year, he will taste 10,000 to 15,000 . . ."

Citing a 2000 The Atlantic Monthly profile titled "The Million Dollar Nose":

"Parker samples 10,000 wines a year."

Citing a 2006 New York Times article titled "Decanting Robert Parker":

"[Parker conducts a] marathon tasting of 10,000 wines a year . . ."

If Parker takes one day off a week, and works the other six days, then 10,000 wines annually would average 32 wines a day.

But as I recall from another, uncited article, Parker usually tastes only three days a week. So 10,000 wines annually would average 64 wines a day.

Citing Wikipedia's profile of Parker referencing that 1999 Los Angeles Times article:

"Parker is considered an unusually fast taster, and during an initial assessment he may keep a wine in his mouth FOUR OR FIVE SECONDS before determining whether it is potentially a wine of 80 points or above, or below. Mediocre wines will then be dismissed while those with potential are tasted twice or three times in succession before the final score is determined."

[CAPITALIZATION added for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

If a wine professional is judging a state or county fair competition, the time constraint allows little more than jotting down one's overall quality and pleasure impressions/rat ing score. (I speak from personal experience.)

The finer nuances of a wine can be further assessed when the "top" wines are brought back for the judges to discuss, and assign gold, silver or bronze medals.

As a wine retailer, I have attended Terry Theise's German Rieslings trade tastings comprising upwards of 200 discrete bottlings for sampling -- arrayed in ascending order from Kabinett to Spatlese to Auslese to BA to TBA.

That's a three-plus hour hard slog for the fanatically dedicated taster.

(And at the conclusion, a refreshing glass of cold beer is welcomed.)
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Bob Henry
#2 Bob Henry 2014-05-07 19:24
Motivated by Fred Swan's blog, I sent an e-mail around the world querying leading wine writers on their tasting methology.

This reply came back from Charlie Olken . . .

"Quote early and often, and, as Tip O'Neill once famously said, 'Be sure to spell my name right.'. :-}"

. . . the “dean” of California wine reviewers and editor/publishe r of Connoisseurs’ Guide to California Wine, and a wine blog: www.cgcw.com/

(Backgrounder: steveheimoff.com/.../...)

(Aside: Dan Berger and I will speak on the phone, once he completes his duties coordinating the Riverside [California] International Wine Competition that runs May 6th - 8th.)

On average, how many wines do you taste each work session day?

At Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, our tasting regime has always consisted of twelve to sixteen wines per day depending on how many of a reasonably representative group we have in inventory. For example, yesterday, we tasted six Pinot Noir Rose's and eight Syrahs. Today we will taste eight Pinot Gris and eight Tempranillo.

What is your upper ceiling before fatigue sets in?

I used to do all those "Fair" judgings and felt that forty before lunch and forty after were doable. More than that is just a slog through the get finished and leaves us all bushed and ready for beer.

How much time to you allocate to each wine?

At CGCW, we take three hours for a typical tasting, which with a break in the middle between our two flights of six to eight wines, means that we devote about ten minutes to each wine.

How many times do you sample a wine?

Our tasting pattern is to nose each wine, then go back and taste each, and then to review before placing the wines in preference order. During the discussion of each wine, we will taste again when there is a reason to go back and confirm or question findings.

Finally, we routinely retaste about forty per cent of all wines from a second bottle in another blind tasting on another day. All wines that will be recommended highly (at our two-star level, equating to 90 points), all wines that seem somehow flawed or just so dreary as to be not recommendable and all wines that perform far from past expectations. Oh, and any wine on which the panel does not come to a reasonable conclusion about its character.

If you're not convinced you have "taken the measure" of the wine, do you go back and retaste the same bottle later in the day?

See above.

You did not ask, but I will volunteer that we do not ever review wines tasted at wineries or at trade tastings. We only review wines that are tasted blind on our tasting table alongside their peers. That is why we do not review wines like Littorai, Rochioli, Kistler, the super-cult Cabernets etc. They are available to us at the wineries, but are not available to be tasted blind, and so we do not review them.

People who review wine should not hide their methodology.

(signed)

Charlie
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