Some wine writers love to evaluate wine earlier than the rest of the pack. The act gets them some recognition: They get the first chance to tell the world about the quality of some expensive wines.
What's odd about this is that some of these writers think such an early look at the wines has real meaning. The closer a wine is to the fermentation tank, the closer it is to being grape juice and the less like wine it is. If anything, you'd expect wine writers to prefer to wait until a wine is released before trying to assess its quality. Instead, they'll do almost anything to try the wines before they are formally released — even to the point of tasting them from a single barrel.
At such an early stage of development, even before bottling, such wines are raw. Can anyone really state with accuracy, at that early stage, what a wine will be like in a year, two years or five?
Earlier this year, a wine magazine published an article that said a wine critic was allowed to evaluate the 2007 Brunello di Montalcino wines before they were officially unveiled. And the outcry was noisy. Some people treated this as if it were a violation of the Official Secrets Act.
The magazine said: "The latest outburst follows the lead of French wine critic Michel Bettane, who published an open letter to the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux in March 2011, describing as 'ridiculous' and 'disrespectful' the practice of allowing selected journalists to taste and publish wine scores before the official start" of a week in Bordeaux that's dedicated to trying the red wines of that district by a slew of writers.
All of whom are trying the wines before their official release!
Well, I'm shocked — shocked, I tell you — that such a horrific thing would be permitted. But wait. The critic Robert Parker has done this for years and the outcry from U.S. wine critics has been almost non-existent. You may wonder why the silence. I suspect it's because we all know that such "rush to judgment" reviews, even before the wines are bottled, are far less reliable than is the evaluation of wines that not only are already bottled, but have some time to recover from the shock of bottling.
Do we need to go over this once more? Wine evaluation is not a science. Many factors are at play here, such as the condition of each wine at the time of evaluation, the provenance of the samples, the lighting in the room, the glassware used, the style in which the wine is made, and at least 30 more parameters.
Assume one wine critic tries a pre-release barrel sample of wine from crystal glassware, sitting opposite the chateau owner with a series of delectable foods surrounding the table.
Assume another critic tastes the "same" wine from a bottle, after its release a year later, in the privacy of an office.
Is this really the same wine? How valid are the reviews?
In an ideal world, wine writers should tell their readers when and under what conditions wines were evaluated. Context is important. Moreover, some wines are best consumed when young and will be dead in a decade. Others are made to be aged, and consuming them young is a masochistic act. It's hard to judge the latter wines prior to release, yet many critics make a stab at it.
Read all of the PD's fire coverage here