Berger: How context affects wine judging

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.

Yes, the wine remained as excellent as I’d originally thought, but I knew that the gloss factor, which attaches itself to wines served in special surroundings, was at play.

Another tale. I was asked to “judge” the wines entered in a San Francisco food show.

Only a handful of wines were at the show, and an organizer put them all in a group and asked the only wine “experts” in the hall (me and another guy) to determine which wines were best.

We tasted them. Most were pretty bad. One modest producer’s sauvignon blanc showed well; we both liked it a lot, so it was proclaimed the best white wine in the show.

Weeks later, in a blind tasting against much better wines, the food show winner seemed ordinary. Side by side with poor wine, it was good; by itself, it was nothing exceptional.

A terrible place to get tasting notes is at walk-around tastings, like those staged by wholesalers or PR companies.

Walking around with a glass and a notebook can be distracting and rarely results in the sort of critical analysis that is precise.

Think of all the aftershave, perfume and deodorant aromas that fill such venues.

Another reason walk-around events are a challenge is that some are staged outdoors and, though breezes are delightful, they can bring possibly distracting aromas.

And practicality enters the evaluation picture. The best way to evaluate any wine is over a period of time, to see how air affects it.

However, most reviewers don’t have the time for all that.

The faster the evaluation, the more often showy wines take the spotlight. As a result, subtlety rarely is rewarded in today’s wine-tasting world.

In rapid evaluations, showier wines are the stars and subtle wines often are discarded.

How sad.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at

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