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Laws, Sausage and Wine Reviews
Here's an addition to Otto Von Bismarck's adage about things you don't want to watch being made... laws, sausage, and wine reviews!

A few years ago, I took advantage of one of those offers that you just can't bring yourself to refuse. The Australia wine importer, Southern Starz, invited me to a "new release and reviewer tasting" they were holding in Washington DC at the Australian Embassy. They were bringing the winemaker and/or winery owners from all of their properties for the reviewers from Robert Parker's Wine Advocate and Stephen Tanzer's International Wine Cellar. So, never having been in an Embassy before, and further tempted by dinner at the embassy after the tasting, I bought a plane ticket.

The tasting was set up in an art gallery adjacent to the embassy lobby with two small conference rooms on either side reserved for Jay Miller from Wine Advocate and Josh Raynolds from Steven Tanzer. 22 wineries were represented with almost 100 wines available for tasting. The professional reviewers worked for 2 days and began tasting at 10 am and worked until 4 pm, while the invited retailers and distributors tasted through the wines in the gallery on the first day.

The real story here, however, was how the professional tasting (and the subsequent reviews that were assigned) happened. With Josh and Jay in small conference rooms behind frosted glass, you could only catch a glimpse of what was going on through the side lights or when the guard changed. One of the Southern Starz owners would appear in our midst every 30 to 40 minutes and tap a winemaker on the shoulder. The winemaker would gather his bottles and be ushered into the little conference room with a reviewer.

There, I was told, he would describe his wines and the production techniques, and then answer questions while the reviewer tasted and took notes. He would then be ushered out, and I am sure that scores were assigned before the next supplicant arrived. Returning to his table, other winemakers from nearby tables would question him on the reviewer's reaction. In Jay Miller's case, none of these winemakers would know the scores that would drive their sales until the October issue of the Wine Advocate arrived. I wonder how much sleep must be lost over noticing a random facial expression or an eye movement, here or there, when Jay tasted a wine.

How Jay and Josh taste hundreds of wines, even over two days, while taking voluminous notes and assigning scores, is almost impossible for me to comprehend. I have to think that to be judged on a swish and spit has to be excruciating for these winemakers.

When we give you our impressions of the wines under "What We Thought" in the reviews section every week Linda and I don't taste blind. We generally pair the wine with food and usually finish the bottle. We taste "Deck Wines" on the deck and with most reds, we always open the bottle before dinner, swirl, sip and write down our impressions. After dinner we go back and add any new impressions based upon how the wine changed over time or paired with food. We think this gives us a little different perspective on the wine than simply sniffing, tasting, spiting, taking notes and moving on to the next glass. It's a little like the difference between a first date and living together.

And here is where the "making sausage" comes in to play...because many times it is still all about personal taste. We use Wine Advocate to choose wines because their tastes tend to reflect mine and most of our customers. Steven Tanzer's publication tends to lean toward old world styles, in contrast to the Parker taster's new world palates. And here is a great example of what can happen...the Marquis Philips 2005 S2 Cabernet . Both Robert Parker's and Stephen Tanzer's publications reviewed it and here is what they thought.

Marquis Philips S2 Cabernet Blend 2005 McLaren Vale, Australia $34

Jay Miller, Wine Advocate 94 Points
Marquis Philips’ luxury cuvées includes the 2005 S2, boasting an inky/blue/purple color in addition to a sumptuous, toasty bouquet of grilled meats, blackberries, crème de cassis, licorice, and subtle herbs. With superb purity, richness, body, intensity, and length, it should drink well through 2016.

Josh Raynolds, Steven Tanzer's International Wine Cellar 87 Points
Ruby-red. Oak-dominated dark berry and kirsch aromas accented by dark chocolate and vanilla. Sweet blueberry and blackcurrant flavors show a liqueur-like aspect, with a strong vanillin oak quality gaining the upper hand on the back. Finishes slightly sticky and sweet, with toasty oak spice and roasted coffee lingering. I'd have guessed this to be a shiraz, or maybe a dessert wine such as Banyuls.

Wine is the most reviewed product on earth. Perhaps only the Broadway stage and fine restaurants are more dependent on reviews. And there is a reason... there's an ocean of wine out there and a finite amount of shelf space. You have to have something to help you choose what to put on those shelves and I still belive the ratings provide that qualification. Often I am forced to select direct import wines untasted and unseen, often hundreds of cases at a time. I have used Wine Advocate and Wine Spectator reviews for making my selections over the last 11 years, and I've never yet bet on a clunker based on those standards.

My bottom line is still buying by the numbers...yes, it's messy, it's applies the objective to the subjective, it quantifies art...but it still works. I really feel that it helps guarantee that my customers don't get many bottles of mediocre wine. But you just may not want to think too hard about the process.