I have a simple rule for reviews of my wine; celebrate them when they are good, ignore them when they are bad and never put too much stock in either. Fortunately the wine press has been kind to us with some very good reviews and no bad reviews only a few mediocre ones. I continue to send wines in or sit down to taste with reviewers and along the way I have learned a thing or two.
Most reviewers have palates just like you. They have likes and dislikes based on their body chemistry and life experience. Most critics don’t taste wine blind in manageable flights comparing like vintages and regions. Most wine professionals can’t predict the future in spite of their assurances of when to drink the wine. Wine is not static and very few people can taste an Oregon Pinot Noir and see what will be there in two to five years. So make sure your wine is somewhat developed before you send it in for review. Many critics rate disparate regions and rate entirely too many wines. The good ones do have an advantage over you because they have been to the area they are reviewing, seen the lay of the land, talked to winemakers and tasted hundreds of wines making their context much broader than most of us. While that can make them more competent it doesn’t necessarily make them right. Most of all I have learned that with wine, like art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
So are reviewers still relevant and who are the good ones? Some are and I think it is important for winemakers to weigh in on who. You may think that is blasphemy because we are biased about our own wines. That is true but we also understand our wines and most of all our terroir better than anyone as we are around them on a daily basis. I think that when winemakers read a review we turn the tables and rate the critics or at least their descriptions of our wine. Perhaps we are just giving credit to the reviewers who’s perception of our wine matches our own. But like the reviewers who have context because they visit and know an area, who has better context about a wine that the person who made it?
Some of my best critics are regular customers and many have a better sense of my wine than the people who review it especially the arm chair critics that have popped up all over the internet. Anyone can right a blog and review a wine and finding relevance in them is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Of the bloggers who have reviewed my wine I will say there is one blogger who was more perceptive than most, Fredrick Koeppel who writes Bigger Than Your Head.
But in all the of the critical landscape there is one writer who’s reviews I could plagiarize and use in the descriptive section of my winemaker’s notes: Rusty Gaffney and his publication The Pinotfile. He picked out the terroir of my vineyard in the glass and few do on the first run through, especially from the cooler vintage. Rusty primarily focuses on American Pinot Noir and is also one of the few reviewers who often returns to an opened bottle of wine a day later which is essential to understanding a vintage like 2011. He isn’t reviewing loads of varieties other than Pinot Noir. His recent reviews of my 2011 Pinot Noir’s so fit my own perception that it was uncanny. But it wasn’t the first time I have felt that way reading his reviews even when I like one of my wines more than he did. If you are a fan of Pinot Noir you can’t ignore The Pinotfile. In addition to the reviews, The Pinotfile has some of the most informative articles out there on American Pinot Noir. A past issue had a cover article on the Coury clone that was the most in depth reference I have seen on the subject to date.
Perhaps finding a reviewer that you respect means finding one who’s palate is like your own. For a winemaker having a reviewer understand your wine is very satisfying, one who criticizes it not so much. I have tasted with two different reviewers for The Wine Advocate, Jay Miller and David Schildknecht. I had a really rewarding moment when on the third year Jay Miller visited a light went off and he totally got the soil driven, mocha aromatic which is a signature of my wines. David Schildknecht has had the unenviable task of rating two very cool Oregon vintages back to back. I still haven’t figured out if his palate will warm up to our terroir but he is a very smart reviewer who does his homework. Finally I met Harvey Steiman this year who has about as broad a knowledge base as anyone and as comfortable and down to earth reviewer as I have met. He was in Oregon getting a feel for the 2012 vintage and probably got more of a feel for the 2013 vintage than we would have liked; it was pouring rain as he left my tasting room.
Maybe someday science will be applied to reviewing wines. Would that be interesting or ruin the fun and would it even be possible? I think it could be but don’t expect it anytime soon as the wine world is so much more vast than when The Wine Spectator and The Wine Advocate started reviewing wines in the late 70’s. And how will Millennials get their wine information; will the normal channels still be relevant? I’m not so sure.
My advice is to keep an open mind and let reviews guide you to new wines. But in the end trust your palate. You are your own critic both of wines and the people who review them.