You know the feeling: You walk into your local market or wine shop, turn down an aisle and it hits you -- hundreds, maybe even thousands of bottles on the shelves, some screaming for your attention with neon colored labels, some shouting a discounted price at you, some seemingly shy and retiring, hoping for a touch. What to do beyond grabbing a couple bottles of Old Faithful and heading home for another repeat performance?
No doubt you’ve been exposed to myriad opinions about what makes for the most trustworthy source for good information about a particular bottle of wine. Is it the solo critic, providing a tasting note and perhaps a score of one type or another? Is it a shelf talker perched below a bottle on a shelf, maybe written by the shop’s proprietor, or sourced from a popular publication, or even the producer? Is it crowd-sourcing of opinions from purchasers of that particular bottle? Is it a social media post by a friend that extols the virtues of the evening’s selection? Is it a medal from one of any number of judging events held annually around the world?
The time-pressured, busy times we live in seem to require some sort of validation from an outside party as to whether any particular product is worth a potential customer’s attention, and all of the methodologies above seek to fill that need. Is there a “best source?” Let’s dig in to each method in search of an answer.
First, the solo critic: How do they operate, and what are the potentialities? Methods can vary a bit from person to person, but in general, these individuals taste a lot of wine, have some training in how to identify flaws and faults in a wine, and have attained something of a flair for communicating what they perceive in the glass. There are a few that taste blind -- not knowing anything about the wine in question other than how it presents in the glass, but that’s relatively rare for a few reasons. The logistics for doing this are cumbersome, and virtually impossible without an assistant in another room assuring zero outside influence on the taster. Additionally, context acquired by not tasting blind usually helps this method, allowing the critic to give the reader a more thorough and likely more enticing take on the wine.
Some critics are focused on particular regions or varieties to deepen their expertise. Others taste “all comers,” allowing any wine from any source stand on its inherent merits, describing their impressions as a strict aroma and flavor exercise, possibly adding some context. As an active member of this club, I often encourage potential “followers” to try something that I recommend, and if they find it pleasing, to try another, and so on. If you try a few and your response is, “I don’t get any of what he described” then you may want to try another critic. And of course, if you simply don’t like what a critic recommends, then you won’t need my encouragement to change critics.
Crowd-sourcing from sites like Cellar Tracker or apps like Vivino, where consumer averages of points, or “stars” are given, can be a bit of a double-edged sword -- one edge seemingly slicing through the din of quantity right to the quality selections, and the other edge mercilessly carving away more obscure, small production wines that may have the potential to expand a consumer’s experience. In addition, these methods tend to skew more subjective than objective. If we’ve learned anything from the current state of politics in America, it’s that the peculiar crowd being sourced makes all the difference in the opinion offered. With wine the same holds true. Ratings from crowds like Cellar Tracker, where people care enough to be cataloging their holdings and sharing their experience will likely give a different set of recommendations than apps that can fire off a label shot and impression from a dining table. That’s not to say that one is clearly better than the other -- it’s just important to keep in mind the context of the crowd that you’re sourcing.
Wine competitions operate a bit differently and have some distinct advantages over other selection advice alternatives. The most obvious and important advantage is the blind nature of wine judging. Judging procedures vary somewhat, but wines are generally presented to judges in coded glasses out of view of the bottles and evaluated solely on their sensory merits.
Some competitions provide judges a measure of context based on one or more clues such as region of origin, vintage, grape variety or blend type, price category, etc., whereas others offer little or no information about the wines. It’s worth a little research into a particular competition’s procedures (by checking their websites) to learn whether the methods align with your notions of what would foster objectivity and accuracy.
What should you look for when running such a check? The capabilities of individual judges is clearly a crucial factor determining the validity of medal results, and most competitions include brief bios of judges on their websites. These help when assessing overall experience and stature within the wine world, but don’t indicate some subtle characteristics that can be quite important. For example, excellent judges can reward a wine that’s a well-made example of its type regardless of whether they personally enjoy drinking that type. I’ve learned the importance of this attribute during my many years of involvement in the competition world, though I acknowledge that even the most industrious consumer will have trouble figuring out which competitions enlist high percentages of judges who embody the virtue.
Additionally, it can be quite beneficial when competitions structure judging panels to mix younger tasters with more experienced ones, including both males and females and -- perhaps optimally -- judges drawn from different facets of the industry. One of the best competitions I’ve been involved with featured panels made up of a winemaker, a sommelier, a critic and a marketeer. These awards from panels such as this were particularly credible because they resulted from a consensus on a wine derived from four different occupational perspectives. I don’t want to oversell that advantage however, as some competitions produce compelling results by concentrating on a single source of expertise with judging rosters comprised entirely of winemakers, reviewers or sommeliers.
In sum, competition results based on carefully structured panels and a blind tasting format can yield compellingly trustworthy results. One interesting resource is the annual “batting average” of wines earning awards across several competitions published by The California Grapevine newsletter, which offers what is essentially a multi-panel endorsement. Still, this won’t help if you’d like an assessment of wines from other parts of the world. And more broadly, the unfortunate fact is that many wines are simply not entered in competitions by their producers or importers, so judgings have their blind spots…like all other forms of assessment.
Social media platforms are gaining traction every day, including everything from a post by a friend inducing label envy at dinnertime to expensively produced videos wrought by specialized wine marketing companies. Social media messaging varies extremely widely in its usefulness as well as its credibility. Again, a word to the wise here is to check the source of what you’re seeing with some care -- there’s lots of shiny stuff out there, and it’s good to keep in mind who is doing the shining and what their motivations are.
Finally, the on-premise help that’s available when you’re at the point of sale can be the best -- or potentially the worst -- assistance that you can use when purchasing. There’s no substitute for a shop owner or sommelier who is passionate not only wine but about taking the time to learn something about your tastes, particularly when you’re at the beginning of your wine journey. An association developed with such people can become a long term mutual-beneficial relationship. These folks make it their business to know what they have to offer and how it will best serve you, and often utilize facets of all of the other wine information resources discussed here. Absent an actual person in these situations, a good, hand-written shelf talker provides a quickly accessible vetting.
The bottom-line? More information isn’t always good information, though most information can be useful if you keep your guard up regarding levels of expertise and possible conflicts of interest. Looking for converging advice from multiple sources is probably the most reliable information of all for those who are relative novices. As you develop a sense of your own preferences and build a personal inventory of tasting experiences, your need for buying advice will decrease. However, it will never diminish to zero, as nobody can taste even 25% of all the wines released around the world each year, so even experts are constantly on the lookout for good advice from other experts….