Letters from Lodi
An insightful and objective look at viticulture and winemaking from the Lodi
Appellation and the growers and vintners behind these crafts. Told from the
perspective of multi-award winning wine journalist, Randy Caparoso.
Filtering out the gobbledygook to create your own vinous memory
The Lodi Wine way
There are no absolutes when it comes to wine. That is the perception of the quality of any wine, plain or beautiful, cheap or expensive, rare or plentiful.
Take, for example, this Lodi Wine blog. If you've been following along, you have undoubtedly noticed that wines are never "rated" here. Instead, words are used to talk about wines and how they come about.
It's a blog about Lodi, so descriptions are couched in terms of Lodi's physical or geographical factors that have an impact on the wines discussed. Regional history and people are also usually part of the discussion. But if the matter of how a wine tastes comes up, it is done without passing judgment. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide whether or not a wine may be for you. Don't get me wrong. I'd never recommend a wine that isn't worth your while. Life's too short for lousy wine — for me, you, anyone.
If anything, for the Lodi Wine blog, words and phraseology used to describe sensory qualities are done in such a way that anyone can understand, from the most casual wine drinkers to the most serious connoisseurs, and even people who don't partake in wine at all but just like to read about it (I know many of our readers belong in the latter group because I've met more than a few of them!).
All the same, one thing I would also never do is insult anyone by keeping things "simple." As if you don't deserve to know the details or complexities. I think it's up to you to decide what you want to read about, and what you'd prefer to filter out. Life may be too short for wine-related gobbledygook, but that doesn't mean you don't deserve all pertinent information in order to make up your own mind.
How do you know a wine is good?
I've said it over and over again for nearly 11 years in this Lodi Wine space: When it comes to wines, you are the arbiter of your own taste or preferences.
Although I know, I know... a little help can't hurt! You walk into a typical wine store and you see little cards under the bottles that give scores applied on 100-point scales. One $25 bottle has a rating of 90 so that usually means it's a safe bet. Another bottle, priced $100 more, has a rating of 96. For sure, that's gotta be great. Another has a modest rating of 88, so it must be "average." No wonder it's just $12, although if it was just $8 it might qualify a "steal." So much guesswork... so many assumptions to make.
But here's the reality: As much as we want to believe them, or take advantage of their convenience, all of these scores reflect completely arbitrary opinions. Literally. Meaning, there are people out there who, in fact, taste a lot of wine (15 to 30 different bottles a day is the typical number for widely read wine critics, according to Swan, How Many Wines Does a Wine Critic Taste per Day?), and while they're doing their evaluations they are literally tossing around numbers in their heads based upon nothing but their personal taste, or how they happen to feel at that particular moment. I know this because I've seen more than my fair share of wine professionals at work, and this is exactly how they do it. There is absolutely no science, or anything resembling rigor, behind these decisions on whether a wine merits a "94," an "84" or anything.
What's wrong with that, you might ask, if these wine reviewers happen to be very good at what they do? The problems are fundamental.
First, if experts evaluate wines and award scores based on personal taste, scores are meaningful to you only if your taste happens to be exactly the same as those experts. The chances of that, however, are slim to none. The appreciation of wine, after all, is an elective, aesthetic activity just like any other — like reading a book, listening to music, watching a movie, selecting clothes to wear, or enjoying dinner at a fine restaurant. What are the chances of a random stranger liking exactly the same books, music, movies, and food as you? Slim to none.
Unless, of course, you are a true believer in romantic movies, where everyone finds a perfect partner. Yet, as everyone knows, even perfect partners usually do not have the exact same taste in everything. An occasional good laugh, a peck on the forehead, and peaceful coexistence are just about the best most people can ever ask from a partner. But boy, is it hard work!
Junk (or nonexistent) science
The other fundamental problem is that so-called experts are not nearly as accurate or consistent in their evaluations as you may think. Don't take my word for it. This widely circulated June 2013 article printed in The Guardian entitled Wine-tasting: it's junk science, reported on a study of professional wine judges at the California State Fair, the oldest and largest California wine competition of its kind. The data that led to this report was compiled by Robert Hodgson, a university professor, and also the owner of a small winery (Fieldbrook in Humboldt County) who used to wonder why, in some competitions, his wines merited a gold or silver while in other competitions the exact same wines garnered a bronze or no medal at all.
Hodgson had his suspicions but wanted to find out for sure. According to The Guardian, he started his 9-year-long study with a simple test of professional wine judges' accuracy:
Some wines would be presented to the panel three times, poured from the same bottle each time. The results would be compiled and analyzed to see whether wine testing really is scientific. The first experiment took place in 2005. The last was in Sacramento earlier this month [in 2013]. Hodgson's findings have stunned the wine industry. Over the years he has shown again and again that even trained, professional palates are terrible at judging wine.
"The results are disturbing," says Hodgson. "Only about 10% of judges are consistent and those judges who were consistent one year were ordinary the next year. Chance has a great deal to do with the awards that wines win."
These judges are not amateurs either. They read like a who's who of the American wine industry from winemakers, sommeliers, critics and buyers to wine consultants and academics. In Hodgson's tests, judges rated wines on a scale running from 50 to 100. In practice, most wines scored in the 70s, 80s, and low 90s.
Results from the first four years of the experiment, published in the Journal of Wine Economics, showed a typical judge's scores varied by plus or minus four points over the three blind tastings. A wine deemed to be a good 90 would be rated as an acceptable 86 by the same judge minutes later and then an excellent 94. Some of the judges were far worse, others better —with around one in 10 varying their scores by just plus or minus two. A few points may not sound much but it is enough to swing a contest — and gold medals are worth a significant amount in extra sales for wineries.
Hodgson went on to analyze the results of wine competitions across California and found that their medals were distributed at random. "I think there are individual expert tasters with exceptional abilities sitting alone who have a good sense, but when you sit 100 wines in front of them the task is beyond human ability," he says.
To be fair, it is not easy to be a professional wine judge. Circumstances are stacked against them. What may be more dismaying are the circumstances themselves. The typical wine competition, at least in California, involves as many as 5,000 wines to be evaluated (the prestigious San Francisco Wine Competition this past January 2021, for example, involved nearly 5,700 wines made by over 1,000 wineries). Budget and practicalities, however, dictate that only X number of wine judges can be hired. In California, professional wine judges are given honorariums ranging from $200 to $800 for two or three days' work, and they are lodged in very comfortable hotels as well as wined-and-dined every night (for many if not most professional wine judges, it's the camaraderie and parties that make these events worth their time). On top of that, judges coming in from out of state are also covered for their travel expenses. Wine judgings are pricey affairs.
Therefore, because there are usually a lot more wines than judges, judges in typical wine competitions are asked to evaluate anywhere from 80 to 120 wines a day. In his June 2019 column entitled It's Time to Rethink Wine Criticism, New York Times wine reviewer Eric Asimov wrote, "... wines are scored in mass tastings where very little time can be devoted to each bottle. The critics taste, spit so as to diminish the effects of alcohol, evaluate, maybe taste and spit once more, and move on to the next glass."
Asimov, however, politely avoids going into details as to why these circumstances are crushing. I've sat in on enough wine competitions over the past 30 years to know that making accurate assessments of each and every wine within the space of 10 or 15 seconds — which is about all the time you have, in order to get through your daily schedule of assigned wines — is, to put it mildly, an impossibility. No matter how good or experienced a professional wine taster you may be, accuracy is not in the cards. Fine wines are much too complicated, subtle, and/or nuanced to be reasonably evaluated in a fashion as hasty and haphazard as that.
Plus, in massive blind-tasting settings, you are essentially tasting wine in a vacuum. That is, completely out of context — no sense of a winemaker's artistry, the authenticity of an individual vineyard, the challenges of a region, the peculiarities of a vintage, the uniqueness of a grape or blend, any history of heroism or achievement... absolutely nothing that gives wine appreciation its usual meaning or value.
Ergo: It is sad but true — scores and medals awarded at wine competitions are random at best. It doesn't mean, mind you, that "winners" are not very good wines. It just means that they happened to be rated as such by one particular group of judges. Chances are gold, silver, "best of class" or "double-gold" awards are signs of very good wines indeed. There are many, many excellent wines worthy of a wine lover's attention, and each wine competition helps bring attention to another bundle of them.
This, as it were, is exactly why many wineries enter their products into as many wine competitions as possible. It's a cynical way of looking at it all, but the wineries that are most active on the competition circuit know that they are bound to reap higher awards in one event or another, no matter how poorly their wines fare in others.
Constructing your vinous memory
If ratings and wine judgings are so fraught with complications, what's a wine lover to do? Think, once again, of how you have come to know your favorite kinds of books or authors. The music and musicians you love best. The clothes that make you look, and feel, amazing. The movies, or even cars or hobbies, that turn you on. You find out about all of these things by simply experiencing them, based upon the vivid experiences stored away in your conscious memory. We remember best what we love most. And then when you read a review of a book or movie or catch just a snippet of a song or film, you are eventually able to predict the things you have not yet tried that will have the highest percentage chance of pleasing you. After a while, you become your own best judge of things.
It is the same for wine. It starts by being conscious of whether you prefer a red, a white, rosé or sparkler, or of wines that come from this place or that. Do you prefer these wines light or heavy, bone dry or slightly sweet, soft and fruity, or sharp and lean? Do you like the pungent vanillin/charred aroma of oak, or does that dull your senses? Do you like a wine with a touch of earthiness (suggesting loam, minerals, or even compost), or do you prefer wines of pure, fragrant fruit qualities? You may not start with a conscious set of preferences, but a devoted wine lover eventually does, just like you would anything.
The late, renowned British Master of Wine and Wine book author Michael Broadbent called this process the building of a "vinous memory." Wines, like any of the arts, are not so much physically experienced as they are remembered. You may be using your eyes, nose, and mouth to taste wine, but ultimately it's your brain that tells you what you like (or dislike), that helps you recall your past experiences, and then tells you what you need to store away for future reference. Believe it or not, it's the Hall of Fame baseball player Yogi Berra who probably put it best: "Baseball is 90 percent mental... the other half is physical."
Once your accumulation of wine experiences has begun to form a sufficient vinous memory, you can eventually find yourself capable of reading about wines — online, in magazines, or even going by those little descriptors on the store shelves — and drawing reasonable conclusions as to which bottles are most likely to be appealing, or (if you are looking for new experiences) what is bound to perk your intellectual curiosity. Really good wine, after all, is pleasing not just on a physical level, but also as much for its craftiness, its provenance, or the story or people behind it.
One thing you should never pay attention to, however, is numerical scores. Scores are mathematical and therefore have zero connection to actual sensory qualities found in bottles. A 95-point red wine from Bordeaux or Napa Valley, for instance, means absolutely nothing if it has the earthy smell (i.e., akin to a barnyard or piece of leather) typical of many red wines from Bordeaux, or is extremely oaky like most expensive, high scoring reds from Napa Valley —especially if you can't stand red wines that smell like a horse stable or have the bitter taste of charred wood. If instead, you prefer a 100% oak-free, stony-dry rosé, or a crisp, fruit-forward white wine, those are the wines you should be looking for, regardless of some stranger's immaterial scores.
Simply put, we don't drink numbers. Numerical ratings just don't cut it especially in today's wine world, populated by a nearly endless range of styles and expressions coming out of seemingly every corner of the globe. When standards don't exist, the only meaningful way to review wines is through thorough descriptions, like with book, music, or fashion reviews. Besides, as studies have shown if even the world's most respected wine professionals can seldom agree on the quality of any given wine, what are the chances that any of their assessments may agree with your own sense of quality? The same ol' answer, slim to none.
Finally, there is the factor of change or the fact that everything changes. The song that you once played 100 times in a row, for instance, may not be nearly as listenable today. So you watched Titanic or Gladiator 50 times — do you get the same pleasure out of them today? What are the chances that the dress or shirt that made you feel like a million bucks ten years ago can do the same for you today, even if you're in as good a shape as ever? Vinous memories, like any choices or experiences, are valid for only so long. Some people barely change at all, but most of us are constantly moving on to different things, and only we can decide what those things are.
The key, simply, is to keep exploring your evolving tastes and preferences. You should keep up on wines; but of course, filter out all the gobbledygook. Choose the wines that are most likely to make you happy because, as you well know, yours is the only taste that truly matters.