Berger: How context affects wine judging

  • Judge Matt Parish tastes wine during the first North Coast Wine Challenge at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country Hotel in Santa Rosa, California on Wednesday, May 29, 2013. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

Judging wine isn’t as precise a process as you might imagine.

I’ve long written about how context plays such a vital role in how we all perceive wine. But it’s hard to imagine how it affects those who review wine for a living.

For one thing, in many blind tastings, the rules change depending on what sort of tasting it is.

Imagine being a judge who is asked to evaluate 90 syrahs and then 90 petite syrahs in six hours. I was asked to do this in 2006 and wasn’t thrilled.

As you might imagine, the results were anything but precise. The last wines tasted were worse than those I tasted with a fresh palate.

Here is a tale from 2005: I was at a famed house in Champagne. Candles illuminated a handsome dining room.

The new cuvée was presented in crystal glasses. The wine, at that moment, seemed near-perfect. The word “near” is operative.

I wrote glowing things about the wine, which then was about $100 a bottle. Weeks later, in the quiet of our home, we opened the first U.S. bottle of the stuff. It was very good.

But it wasn’t identical to the wine we had tasted in Champagne.

The fact that I do not use numbers to rate wine saved me. I didn’t have to fret over a score of 96 that should have been 93.

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