By Dan Berger
A close friend had a slightly irritating experience with a wine that had been highly rated by a major wine magazine.
The publication gave the wine, a red Rhône, a score of 91, so my friend bought a bottle of it (it was about $12) and said, “I’d have had a hard time getting above the low 80s for this wine.”
As we chatted about it, he mentioned that the score had come from one of the magazine’s European correspondents.
“Well, I mused, “he tasted the wine over there and maybe it doesn’t travel well.”
Then reality hit and I asked myself: how meaningful is a rating for a wine that is generated thousands of miles away? Not to mention many months before?
Imagine the case of the Rhône wine. Chances are it was tasted on site or near where it was made. Thus it still had a good deal of fruit and was evocative of its region.
Soon thereafter, it was loaded onto a truck for the long trip to a shipping dock. (Air freighting wine is frightfully expensive.) The wine was loaded into a shipping container, most of which are equipped with refrigeration units, called reefers.
Here is the crucial information: Some reefers are not activated. It costs a couple of dollars to run a reefer for a weeks-long journey across the sea, and with hundreds of containers, very few wine companies want to spend the extra $500 or $1,000 needed to keep the wines cool.
I know of numerous instances where spoiled wine that came out of a non-functioning reefer was the target of a lawsuit — not to mention a prize for a salvage company. But in most cases, the recipient of the wine doesn’t know that high temperatures had likely lopped off a trace of the wine’s nuances.
While on this ship, the wine was undoubtedly subjected to heat on its journey to the West Coast. Even if it went only into the East Coast and then was trucked west, the wine still underwent more jostling and heat/cold extremes in the back of a truck. It finally arrived at a wholesale company warehouse.
Now, here’s the other nasty little secret: very few wholesale companies keep their wines in refrigerated, temperature-controlled conditions. In such warehouses, the ambient air temperature in summer is often 80° or more. So the wine is yet again subjected to a slight deterioration of its freshness.
Then the wine is ordered by a wine shop, so it is loaded onto yet another truck for the trip to the retailer. More movement, more temperature swings. Now, at last, the wine is resting quietly on its side in the comfort of a retail shop’s wine rack. The store is air-conditioned in summer down to 70 degrees, and heated in winter to 80 degrees. (Few shops have cool rooms in which to keep the wines.)
The result: every bottle of this wine has been subjected to tiny invasions of its privacy. Admittedly, not every bottle of wine is treated this way. Wines such as those from the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, super-premium Bordeaux and so forth surely get better treatment en route than do almost all $10 wines, on which margins are much skimpier.
In fact, the lower the price of the wine, the more you can expect bottle variation due to other factors as well. One is simply the volume of the wine.
One reason a wine is inexpensive is that there is a lot of it, and the more of a wine there is, the more likely there is to be more than one bottling of it, meaning that the second bottling may well be different from the first. And can an evaluator tell you which bottling he or she tasted? Probably not.
So look at all the variables:
-—One evaluator tastes a single bottle of wine in a blind tasting in a quiet room. Another taster tries the wine in the cellar of the chateau (which have smells all their own). Another tries the wine in a walk-around tasting.
How valid are the three scores such a wine gets?
-—The wine is shipped hither and yon under varying temperature conditions.
-— Not every bottle of the same wine gets the same treatment en route to the shop, meaning some wines will be in better shape than others.
So is it any wonder that a score you see that seems so immutable as a 91 really is little more to you than an 82 when you finally get the wine?
As I have often said, context is worth a lot when analyzing a score. So take all scores on all wines with a kilo of sodium chloride.