Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
When you write about wine you read about wine. A lot.It starts with the blogs (vinography.com), the websites and the wine columns in the newspapers (San Francisco Chronicle, hopefully in perpetuity, and The New York Times, religiously). Next up the food chain are the monthly food magazines (Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Food & Wine). Then there are the heavy-hitters, the specialty wine magazines (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits), and, finally, there are all the books. The truth is that when you write about wine you likely spend more time reading about wine than drinking it. Not that I am complaining, mind you. I love to read about people who are passionate about making wine, about great places that are producing great wine and even about wine world news and gossip. But, as a rule, I am less than enamored with the over-the-top, fluid and floral descriptions of wine that are found in so many tasting notes. You know the kind I am talking about:This wine is rich in citrusy acids, it dazzles the palate with Mandarin oranges, pineapple-infused crme brule, mineral, buttered toast and cinnamon spices, writes one taster for a national wine magazine who gave 95 points to a Testarossa 2007 La Cruz Vineyard Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast.The same wine received a 91 from another publication whose taster raved, Rich and creamy, with intense, full-bodied pear, fig, citrus and melon fruit shaded by smoky, toasty vanilla notes that fan out nicely on the finish.Given that the two notes are written by talented tasters, and that both generally agree on a high score, I will seek it out. But I dont know whether my palate will be dazzled by the pear, fig, citrus, melon combination or the buttered toast and cinnamon spices flavors when I taste it. It may well be. Especially now that I have been primed, as it were, to look for the intense, full-bodied attributes that the writers have suggested are there. More likely my notes will be different from those of the magazines tasters. And while my mouth may experience something similar, my brain may not process the flavors the same way and I may not use the same extravagant vocabulary to describe what I have tasted. That doesnt mean that I dont get it when it comes to a Testarossa Chard. It just means that I have different receptors and priorities when I taste a wine from those who wrote the reviews.How a wine tastes is determined by a number of factors. The grape is, of course, first and foremost in any wine. Then there is where the grapes are grown and the things that are often referred to as terroir. The vintage of a wine has an effect as well. How was the weather the year the grapes were grown? Rainy? Hot? Cold? And finally, how does the winemaker make the wine? Grapes harvested from the same vineyards may taste markedly different based on the techniques used by different winemakers. All affect how a wine will ultimately taste. While wine reviews can be used as guides to help you get a general feel for a wine it is unfortunate that there is so much emphasis on the rating and the graphic descriptions found in the wine geek blogs and magazines. Yes, the intent is to inform folks about what is good and what is less so, but the net effect often is to intimidate consumers who cant differentiate or describe the difference between the taste of say a lemon or a lime flavor, or a cream custard or crme brule texture in a particular glass of Chardonnay.Personally, I prefer to read about where a wine is from (the Testarossa La Cruz is grown on the eastern edge of Sonoma Coast appellation near the cool Carneros region), who makes it (Bill Brosseau has been making wines at Testarossa since 2000) and how it was made (Brosseau ferments this Chardonnay in French Oak barrels to introduce toastiness and uses 100 percent malolactic fermentation to give it a more rounded feel in the mouth) than what some critic tasted when he sat down to write some wine notes.Reading about wine can be fun, but when it comes to rating one, rely on what you taste.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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