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Wines that travel

Where Was the Review Done?

By Dan Berger

We are all pretty familiar with the fact that most fine-quality wines are scored by “experts” (I use the word loosely) and we trust that they are skilled enough for the number they put on a wine to mean something.

Yet there are times when I am completely mystified by a score of 93 or so for a wine that I wouldn’t drink if you gave it to me. I have had so many experiences that are similar to the following:

–I taste a wine that was just released that I think is pretty ordinary.

–The review appeared two months ago.

–The wine is from France.

Take all three factors into account and you realize that it took perhaps a month for the reviewer to get his or her review into print, and still that review appeared a month before the wine was actually in the market.

Wines that travelSince it was from France, you have to assume that the wine was reviewed in France. And my first thought was, “Maybe it doesn’t travel well.”

My next thought: “How meaningful is a rating for a wine that is generated thousands of miles away? Perhaps many months before? Before shipping thousands of miles?

Was the wine’s score of 93 based, in part, on where it was evaluated? If so, how accurate is that 93?

Just imagine what a wine tasted at the chateau in France must go through soon after that evaluation.

–The wine is loaded onto a truck for the long trip to a cargo ship.

–The wine is then loaded into a shipping container, most of which are equipped with refrigeration units, called a reefer. Was the refrigeration unit in the reefer actually turned on to keep the wine cool?

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 can tell you 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, especially if it was shipped through the Panama Canal to the West Coast. But even if it went only into the East Coast and then was trucked west, the wine still underwent more jostling and heat/cold extremes. 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. How long was the truck on the road?

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.)

Transporting and reviewing winesThe 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. Can an evaluator tell you which bottling he or she tasted? Almost never.

 So look at other variables:

     —One evaluator tastes a wine in a blind tasting in a quiet room; another evaluator has the wine in a walk-around tasting with hundreds of people milling around (some with aftershave). How valid is the score of the second taster?

     —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?

It’s why I do not use scores when reviewing wines. Too many variables.


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