One of the trending topics is the GUIDES’ annual release which brings all sorts of legitimate questions about wine scoring methods. Please be kind enough to allow the European Grand Jury, who has over 15 years of experience in the field, to put forth a kind of ideal protocol which is ultimately not very different to the one we used during our first session at the St James in Paris in 1996.
First, I give you the principle (which is debatable, I must admit).
"A critic must give his/her opinion (according to his/her own tastes, of course, the opposite being against nature) about the content rather than the container."
If you want an opinion on the label, ask Joe Schmoe: it’ll cost you a lot less!
If we accept the fact that some of the points awarded to a wine are linked to its label, it opens the door to many uncertainties, which become even stronger if the wine is known historically. It’s easy to criticize Chateau Anywhere; it’s not so straightforward to criticize Latour. Everyone will agree to that. So goes the double standard. And it is simply unacceptable for yours truly.
So, with all the disadvantages that this entails, tasting the content only, i.e. blind tasting, is less misleading than a tasting with a visible label. I'm quick, I know. Let’s get on with it.
You will rightly respond that the major disadvantage of blind tasting is the difficulty to judge the wine’s potential. That means, as I understand it, that the information needed to judge said potential cannot be found in the content but rather on the label. Each one of you will give this modality the weight it deserves. For yours truly, it is close to zero.
Conclusion 1: blind tasting, though it has its weaknesses, will always be a way of working that is ethically superior to tasting with a label that’s visible.
Here’s the motto that accompanies my signature on the Parker/Squires forum:
"Whatever is said about the necessity to sometimes avoid blind tastings, most of the time the reasons behind it are simply to ‘protect’ our tiny confidence in our own capacity to judge a wine clearly and accept the results".
Yes, yes, I know, it’s a bit strenuous. Sorry.
Origin of the wines
To obtain wines directly from the estate, by paying them or not (which is ultimately a minor point), is to ensure that the bottles are kept in optimal conditions (oh my!), whereas if they are acquired from other outlets, the badly-scored producer may very well tell you that the wine was not stored properly. We experienced this several times.
The other drawback, which I did not believe at first but which seems to be increasingly the case in both France and Italy, is that some wines coming directly from the property are being "enhanced" and are not the same as those that are retailed. This is serious, and it justifies applying the golden rule for important tastings (such as Lascombes’ order at the European Grand Jury): buy the wine; and buy all the bottles from the same source if possible.*
All of them? What does this mean? Simply that, until further notice, scoring something is always more serious and thorough when it is done on a comparative basis. Of course, there must be consistency: choice of vintage, region, appellation, etc...
Secondary but potentially important points
1: Operations Control
To avoid any misunderstandings, it’s better to have a legal officer oversee the organization of the tasting. Let them decide the serving order at random. It’s then up to the organizer to make sure that the tasters start with the wine bearing the number of their table, with a half of them tasting clockwise and the other half counter-clockwise. A basic rule at the European Grand Jury.
2: Pure blind-tasting
If you can sometimes tell the tasters that they’re dealing with such and such vintage and / or a particular region, it may be worthwhile to organize a double-blind tasting with absolutely no information.
3: Number of wines
Experience has shown that beyond 34 wines per half-day, things become problematic. The palate experiences fatigue and the last wines may suffer as a consequence.
4: Individual or collective tasting?
There’s just no way around it: at one time or another, an individual will inevitably "miss" a vintage during a tasting. There’s no harm done for the taster, but for the producer it’s a year of work that goes out the window. That’s hard to accept. On the other hand, as we say at the European Grand Jury:
"Fifteen advanced tasters cannot go wrong at the same time over the same wine."
Add to that that a well-chosen international tasting group will offer a nice range of different sensibilities towards wine (Poussier does not always taste like Bettane or Bonobo), yielding interesting results. Obviously, when one follows a particular critic, "solo" tasting may understandably be preferred to "collective" ones.
We’re walking on eggshells for this one because nobody will ever have concrete proof of anything. To put it simply, let’s say that I don’t accept that such and such is tasting and even shows up at a blind tasting, whilst they’re keeping their notes to work on them or not in their office. In short, if the notes are not handed in before unveiling the labels, it's bullshit (as far as I’m concerned). During our blind debriefings at the European Grand Jury, it became obvious that comments would often have been a lot kinder if my good people had known who they were dealing with! Human nature is never far away.
It’s all very clear: all this is but a daydream. But establishing such a protocol is a way to tell GUIDES: do not play fortissimo with outraged honor seeing we all understand how you allow yourself a very wide margin to dodge the very principles which should be a basic rule.
* Many insiders know that a few Bordeaux owners once tricked (even now?) journalists by pouring the contents of a bottle in another bottle, just to test the partiality of their judgment. Take my advice: if in a particular chateau you are being served a wine which has already been decanted or from an opened bottle, ask nicely and politely if it could be opened in front of you and have the added Cistercian subtlety to say that you could then assess the progress of the content as of minute zero at T+.
If they refuse, offer a sweeping conclusion, a general opinion, with many question marks. It's also well looked upon.
Ok, I better stop right here because I’m becoming bitchy. I will be told off for this…