wine ratings

How I Taste and Review Wines

by Tim Elliott on April 23, 2009

TEL AVIV, ISRAEL - MARCH 19:  Cabernet Sauvign...

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I’ve been thinking these past weeks about how to post a number of reviews I have in my Evernote tasting log. After experimenting with different formats I think I have arrived at a good starting point that will be refined as I go through your feedback and by just posting reviews. Since wineries have sampled more than they ever have over the past few months, many of these reviews will be disclosed as such and this got me thinking about a more formal disclosure about how I taste and review wines.

When I started 4 and a half years ago I bought all my wines at retail. I still buy a fair amount today and these wines are not labeled after the retail price I paid. Since I live in a State that likes to tax and control the sale of alcohol to the extreme, your retail price will most likely be lower. All samples provided for review are labeled after the winery suggested retail price with the “/sample” tag. For the rare case of wines tasted in tasting rooms, wine events or trade tastings I will be using a new tag, “/tasting”, to denote that I have tasted under these conditions. I usually do not post these reviews as I will be tasting a number of wines in the, “sniff, taste, spit,” routine. Wines I especially like will be tasted twice before I make notes. Most of the notes posted here with this tag will be in more controlled winery tasting room or barrel cellar conditions.

I think these disclosures are important to the reader as it shows how long I have spent with each wine before writing down my impressions. For all samples and wines bought at retail this is typically over the course of 2-3 days, in controlled conditions with and without food. After tasting, the bottles are topped with inert gas to prevent oxidation. Notes written at tastings are 2-3 minute snapshots of wines which tends to favor the most concentrated and aromatic wines which is why I typically don’t post those reviews. Usually I pick up bottles of the wines I like at tastings to taste later at home. Unless I make it clear in the review none of the wines are tasted blind. As samples accumulate from the same varietal, I will do more blind tastings and indicate this in my notes.

Photo by Ryan Opaz
Photo by Ryan Opaz

There are a smattering of scales used on reviews here over the years. I used a 20 point scale (1-10 with half point increments) for a while before converting to the 100-point scale (using Robert Parker’s method). Over the past several months I have exclusively used a 5-star scale I proposed for bloggers some time ago and plan to continue to use this scale going forward. I really don’t like putting a numerical rating on wines but it does provide the reader with some context even if highly subjective. I will also start posting all reviews on Snooth and linking back to each review here to help readers find these wines.

Finally, I have no formal wine education other than reading books and tasting wines on a nearly daily basis since 1982. While Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule might suggest I have reached some sort of expert status in evaluating wine I, like other tasters, still have a lot to learn. My intention is to continue to taste as many wines as I can exploring new varieties and regions and share what I like here. It’s really as simple as that.

Let me know if you have any questions and check out my code of ethics and samples policy posted elsewhere on the site.

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Reflections on 89 points

by Tim Elliott on July 28, 2008

Note: This is a cross-post from a new multi-author blog devoted to the discussion of 89 point wines. An interesting idea that I hope will generate some more conversation on the subject.

Like many people who review wine, I use the 100 point scale. It’s not because I think this is the best system — and I’ve proposed alternatives — it’s just the current industry standard. When I was invited to write here, my first thought was to just get my latest review from my blog and cross-post with some additional detail on why I rated the wine 89 and not 90. But in looking back, I see that 89 has become a more popular score for me so I wanted to reflect on why for my first post here at The 89 Project.

Let’s look at my pair of Rieslings from Wine Blogging Wednesday 45. Both earned 89. Why? Because I liked them both about the same. They were tasted side-by-side over a couple days and I couldn’t pick one over the other. But why not 88 or 87?

To answer that, I have to go back to the mechanics of how I score wine. When I somewhat reluctantly adopted the 100-point scale a few years ago, I looked at how Robert Parker did his reviews. He helpfully posts this on his website. So I follow this same process with each element rated on it’s own, then a total score tallied afterward. In a large tasting, this final score does not get calculated until after all wines have been tasted. In the case of the Rieslings, both wines scored the same amount of total points but the individual elements were different.

So is this a precise science? No, but I do try to keep my scores as consistent as possible when tasting a group of wines. But what makes a wine a 90 and not 89 is probably a more interesting question. And the answer is, “something extra.”

Let’s face it, there are more very good wines on the market today than at any time in history. Between modern winemaking and viticulture techniques there has been an equalization in quality across the world. Great wines are coming from the old and new world at almost every price point so no country has a lock on wine quality (branding, however, is another story). So with that as the backdrop, I interpret “something extra” as going beyond just well made, varietally correct, nicely balanced wines. It is definitely a subjective judgement but you know it when it’s encountered.

So I guess this is a long way of saying that the difference between an 89 and a 90 is not an objective calculation but a subjective judgment. But you probably already knew that…

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