« The final word on the Dining@Large outing | Main | Flirting with the server »

January 27, 2010

A new way to judge wines



Is there another group of experts that annoy the people they are trying to help more than wine experts?

As expert tasters struggle to describe what they experience with phrases like "ripe, round finish" and "notes of cherry with undertones of leather," consumers roll their eyes and try to find wines in their price range that taste good to them.

This irritation at what is perceived to be wine snobbery isn't new. A Thurber cartoon, I think published in the New Yorker in the '40s, showed two men drinking at a table. One said to the other: "It's a naive domestic burgundy without any breeding, but I think you'll be amused by its presumption." ...

Anyway, finally someone has gotten around to deciding to do something about wine verbiage and how wines are tested, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal that Dan D brought to my attention. 

The story is about the first annual Consumer Wine Awards in Lodi, Calif.

The idea behind this and some other recent wine competitions is to judge wines the way consumers drink them -- without slurping, gurgling, spitting, taking notes, or conferring with other judges. (Of course, I'm a little worried that the Web site I linked to describes it as "our already paradigm-shifting tasting methodology," but I shouldn't get too picky here.)

One interesting thing that the WSJ article brings up, but is much too vague about, is "a study" that shows that ordinary wine drinkers tend not to like the wines experts prefer, raising the question of whether their opinions should even be of concern to amateur drinkers just looking for a nice bottle of wine to take home.

(Barbara Haddock Taylor/Sun photographer)
Posted by Elizabeth Large at 6:04 AM | | Comments (14)
Categories: Wine and Spirits


I can well believe that ordinary wine drinkers don't go for the same wines the experts prefer. Years ago we went to a lecture/wine tasting on Italian white wines. They told us something about each wine, but not the name or the price. The wine I found totally undrinkable turned out to be an "archeological" wine, produced to much fanfare, and the most expensive bottle in the room.

When I drink wine -- which I do with every meal except breakfast -- I don't taste cherries, rutabaga, hickory stumps or gaucamole. I taste wine. The Chardonnary and Pinot Grigio generally taste whitish while the Cabernet and Shiraz are sorta' red in flavor. Maybe that's because I drink vin ordinaire to keep up with other expenses (like food and shelter.) And if I sipped a tumbler of '83 Pommard, like the experts, I would recognize ripe blackberries, cedar, mustard seed and just a hint of halvah.

Part of the problem with consumers sipping and judging is that the act of swallowing a beverage releases endorphins. IE, our body is conditioned to derive pleasure from the act of drinking. So your opinion of a wine after sipping and swallowing will almost always be better than if you swirl and spit.

That said, I tend to think most experts over-analyze the flavors in wine. I have a terrible time finding specific flavors like bougainvillea or white pepper or grass. For me, characteristics like acid, tannin, sugar and alcohol levels are considerably more useful descriptors, especially when it comes to food pairing.

My question is how and why did wine tasting ever get to this point? Marketing? Egocentricism? I enjoy wine as much as the next person, but I just don't get why it has to be soooo complicated. At a vineyard tour in Napa, our little group was given this piece of advice to which I still subscribe: There are only four things you need to know about wine - there's red wine, there's white wine, there's wine you like and there is wine you don't like. 'Nuf said.

Like Michael A. Gray I drink wine with almost every meal and have enjoyed $170 bottles and $5.50 bottles. There is a difference but I wouldn't say I like the more expensive wine better than the cheap stuff. Right now (and for past couple of decades) wine experts have rated overripe, overoaked wines highly and more delicate, balanced wines poorly. The reason is they are tasting the wines side by side instead of enjoying them with food.

For me there is a wine for every occasion, in a pensive mood by myself, festive with friends, and then different ones for different food. I do respect experts who truly have an ultrasensitive sense of taste. My suspicion is for every one of them there are a hundred out there who are either just making things up or delusional about what they are tasting. And with enough alcohol in your system, that's not hard to be.

Hi Elizabeth - thanks for forwarding the information on our program. years of study and continuing research are all part of this initiative. FYI for those who find many wines way to high in alcohol, over-oaked, etc. I can bet you are a much more sensitive taster (see for more on that). We are discovering all sorts of really cool things - this is part of my 20 YEARS of passionate curiosity into why wine is so frequently divisive instead of bringing people together. People can have less than 500 tastebuds and others over 10,000! Does not make you a 'better' or 'worse' taster - we just often have vastly different experiences - wine and beyond.

As Diane Finlaysin (WYPR) once said after hearing an edition of Cellar Notes (and I paraphrase), Do I really want to taste wine with an essence of lead pencil?

Personally, I wonder what essence of lead pencil actually tastes like!

Captcha - live unafraid

There are only four things you need to know about wine - there's red wine, there's white wine, there's wine you like and there is wine you don't like. 'Nuf said.

I would like to nominate this for Comment of the Week.

Everyone already has a mental description of how most food tastes through our years of eating and enjoying it. An apple is clean and crisp, meat is chewy and tender, and mashed potatoes are soft and creamy.
How would you describe a potato and how it tastes to someone who's never had it before?
And that, unfortunately, is how our wine vocabulary is. Most of us don't start drinking wine until we're in our late twenties, early thirties, and without a prior experience to guide us, we drink blindly, starting with friendlier, sweeter wines then moving on to bolder, drier wines.
Each wine has certain characteristics and flavors, that if you open yourself up to, will pleasurably reveal themselves. And to those of us who enjoy and savor wine, we try to focus on all the nuances and textures the wine presents to us.

I'll make sure the next time someone comes into my liquor store and asks, "What does this wine taste like?"
Well, to not offend those without taste buds or a lack of intelligence, I'll just reply, "This wine tastes like a red wine, and that one tastes like a white wine."

Pretension and snobbery come from both ends of the wine drinker spectrum. How often have you heard people proclaiming 'I only drink red wine', 'I don't like Merlot', 'I don't drink sweet wine'? I am usually stumped when asked what kind of wine I like because honestly I like all different kinds.

Right on, Elizabeth! The quality of wine does relate to price. Fred Franzia, the fourth-largest winery in the US "believes that no wine should cost more than $10" (The New Yorker 5/18/09)., produced by volunteers, proves this by showing what medals and ratings have been awarded to 35,000 wines mostly under $20. Image and the winemaker's ego drive the high prices, not quality.

Dan D, I don't think it is snobbery to proclaim that I don't like merlot, I don't. I prefer petite syrah or sauvignon blanc and have found that they go with just about anything I am eating. I'm no snob, I just like what I like, there are chrads I like and cabs too, just not merlot, white zinfandel or boonesfarm tickle pink!

barkeep77, I don't doubt the fact that you don't like a lot of Merlot out there. However, the Merlot grapes can be made into wines of varying and very different styles. I for one will be hard pressed to pick some of them out from say a Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot is also used freely to blend with other grapes in Bordeaux. Ch. Petrus and other highly sought after wines in that region are made mostly from Merlot. Of course, none of these matters if you don't like them. I'm just trying to make a point that Merlot is not just a one-dimensional grape that a lot of people seem to think.

Post a comment

Verification (needed to reduce spam):

About this blog
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

Top Ten Tuesdays
Most Recent Comments
Baltimore Sun coverage
Restaurant news and reviews Recently reviewed
Browse photos and information of restaurants recently reviewed by The Baltimore Sun

Sign up for FREE text alerts
Get free Sun alerts sent to your mobile phone.*
Get free Baltimore Sun mobile alerts
Sign up for dining text alerts

Returning user? Update preferences.
Sign up for more Sun text alerts
*Standard message and data rates apply. Click here for Frequently Asked Questions.
  • Food & Drink newsletter
Need ideas for dinner tonight? A recommendation for the perfect red wine?'s Food & Drink newsletter is there to help.
See a sample | Sign up

Stay connected