A Conversation With A Wine Newbie

Noob: So when these wine experts taste wines, it's not just a matter of whether they just like it I see. It looks like there are 100 different levels of quality.

Me: You mean the 100 Point system? Yes. Well, No. The 100 Point system is really a 50 point system because no wine is given 50 points. That's really the starting point.

Noob: So when a wine is rated 88 Points out of 100 points the wine has really only been given 38 points because the 50 points is automatic?

Me. That's righ….Wait. No. Not quite. The 100 Point rating system is just something we all think consumers can understand better than, say, a 50 point system or 20 point system. And sometimes a 10 point or 20 point system just doesn't provide enough source of differentiation in quality.

Noob. So wine experts can tell the difference between an 87 point wine and an 88 point wine.

Me. That's right. Plus, since we all probably got graded in school on the 100 point system, we all understand it.

Noob: Why not just go with F through A+?

Me: …………Well, it goes back the issue of differentiating the qua….You see, some wine…I don't know. Everyone just used the 100 point system.

Noob: So I guess everyone wants 100 points for the wines they make.

Me. Well, sure, but perfection is rare.

Noob: I guess so. So, what does a wine need to do to go from, say, 81 points to 82 points to 83 points and such when wine experts taste them?

Me: That's kind of hard to say. It's all fairly subjective.

Noob: Except when you are adding up the score?

Me. That's right.

Noob. I think I get it. But what I don't get is how the wine experts give a wine a higher score or a lower score.

Me: Well, that depends. Different experts are looking for different things. For example, This English wine magazine, Decanter, has experts who taste wine and score them in part on their typicity.

Noob: What's that?

Me: Well, it can mean different things. But basically, "Typicity" means how closely a wine's characteristics match the characteristics of wines made from the same grape or from grapes in a specific region.

Noob: (Silence…..)

Me: For example, Chardonnay from Napa should taste like the Chardonnay grape and should really taste like what Chardonnay tastes like when it is grown in Napa's climate and soils.

Noob: So wines get higher scores for tasting like every other wine?

Me: (Silence…..)

Noob: I mean, what if some guy makes a wine with Chardonnay grown here that tastes different than most Chardonnays grown here, but it's really really good…And, hey, wait, what if the expert hasn't really tasted many Chardonnays from Napa, but really loves the wine…Do they get to rate it?…Where can someone find out exactly what a Chardonnay from Napa is supposed to taste like…Does Napa Chardonnay really taste that much different from Sonoma Chardonnay?….So is a perfect Napa Chardonnay one that tastes perfectly like Napa Chardonnay?

Me: ….Um….there's more to it than that.

Noob: I guess so.

Me: You see, some wine exhibit more balance and purit…

Noob: And what exactly is "terror". I was at…

Me: You mean "TerrOIR"

Noob: Ok. "TerrOIR". I was at a winery today and the guy said their Chardonnay is meant to portray the "TerrOIR" of their own vineyards. That's good, right?

Me: That's very good. It means the wine tastes like the the place it was grown, and wasn't a manipulated concoction of the winemaker's desired style. Wine is a product of the earth and is really best when it reflects its geological and climatic origins.

Noob: So what's the difference between "Typicity" and "TerrOIR"?

Me: Each vineyard is unique and will deliver specific characteristics or "TerrOIR" characteristics to a wine. A grape, like Chardonnay, also delivers certain typical characteristics.

Noob: (….Silence)…..What about "Lubricosity"? I tasted this wine called "Lubricosity" they said they made from Syrah, Carignane, Mourvedre and Grenache. I loved it. But how is this wine going to have typicity if it's not one grape?

Me: Well, you would expect it to taste like a red blend made in Napa for it to have typicity.

Noob: But…But, how does a blend….how can a blend….Are all blends supposed to be…I don't. I don't get it.

Me: It takes a great deal of study and experience and lots of tasting. You'll get there if you keep tasting and studying and asking questions.

Noob: It gives me a headache. What if I just want to drink?

Me: You can do that too.



14 Responses

  1. Samantha Dugan - June 29, 2012

    And welcome to the world of retail…

  2. MyWineDeal - June 29, 2012

    This is great! Wine isn’t always easy to understand and we try really hard to make it seem less intimidating. And when it comes down to it, it is really just about drinking wines you enjoy.

  3. John Kelly - June 29, 2012

    Gawd I am so sick of that bullshit – and totally incorrect – explanation of terroir! STOP! TALKING!

  4. Tom Wark - June 29, 2012

    Won’t any explanation of “TerrOIR” due. Afterall, it’s just a newbie we are talking to.

  5. doug wilder - June 29, 2012

    I really expect more from you than the tired rehash of the 100 point scale (just adopted by Decanter, FWIW). Leave that to Heimoff who at least defends it :)As far as typicity, a certain region I just tasted through has several examples of a particular variety that were not impressive, whereas one producer clearly was superior. As a critic, my job is to identify the best examples I encounter.

  6. Tom Wark - June 29, 2012

    But Doug….It’s fun!!
    Seriously, how important is “typicity” in judging a wine? As for the 100 point scale. We know how important it is.

  7. Thomas Pellechia - June 29, 2012

    The question isn’t, “how important is “typicity” in judging a wine?”
    The question is: “how many of the judges are familiar with the typicity of the wines being judged?”
    “Typicity” barely has an agreed upon meaning to begin with. The word has no meaning at all to a wine judge without experience and training in identifying any particular so-called typicity.
    For instance, I recall an experience where a judge sitting next to me rated a wine so low that it was unbelievable, especially since the rest of the panel rated the same wine quite high. When asked about his low rating, the judge talked about the wine’s qualities that he did not like, which were exactly the qualities that the rest of us on the panel singled out for higher scoring–they were typical qualities of that grape having been produced as wine in that place.

  8. Julie Ann Kodmur - June 29, 2012

    What about those little barky dogs who are sometimes accidentally referenced when talking about terroir..?! Fun post, Tom!

  9. Chicago Pinot - June 30, 2012

    Tom, you (or your doppenganger) are asking the questions that millions of wine drinkers, both expert and non- are asking themselves everyday. And keeping to themselves for fear of sounding foolish.
    I just recently joined a tasting group. These folks are very cool people; smart, funny, very welcoming to a newbie like me.
    But when it comes to wine, they are beyond hardcore, they are 100% core. It’s funny just watching their body language and listening to their voice intonations between when we are gathering for our tasting evening, just settting stuff up, and when we jump into our first wine. They get All Business very quickly.
    I sort of get it. They work in the wine field professionally, and I don’t yet. They all dream of being accepted by the Supreme Court of All That is Good and Noble in Wine.
    I appreciate what I am learning and I AM having fun, but I did get into a very heated argument with two of them recently by suggesting (very tactlessly, I will admit), that the SCoATiGaNiW is just about reflecting dogma and parroting back to the 1% who are already members of the group.
    Honestly, I am still an agnostic about Terroir and the importance of the whole AOP concept (call me the Ron Paul of Wine, and I won’t object). How much of the terroir “shoulds” are based on hundreds of years of objective tasting, by wine lovers and haters of all types, and how much of it is based on marketing, politics and the type of groupthink my parents taught me from a very early age to hold in suspicion?

  10. Mike Duffy - July 1, 2012

    Jeez, it’s almost enough to make me stop drinking wine…
    I enjoy (a) figuring out what things I like in a wine, and (b) trying to figure out why other people rate some wines more highly than others. But it’s all for my own enjoyment. My livelihood isn’t affected one way or another.
    I’m glad there are people who can get paid for their opinions about wine, and I hope to gain some insight from reading them, but at the end of the day, it’s all pretty subjective. We’re dealing with humans, who have at least two orders of magnitude difference in their tasting ability. I’m probably deficient in my genetic tasting ability, so even with practice, I’ll never detect some differences.
    It’s all made up, so make up something you enjoy. The whole point of wine (IMHO) is enjoyment, however you may get your kicks.

  11. JohnLopresti - July 1, 2012

    Terroir is one word to explain what the vineyard grower sees and does.
    Another meaning of the term terroir is that it’s a hint at the secrets the winemaker is balancing when advising the vineyardist and planning how to match the next vintage’s label to the actual growing fruit.
    Terroir is also like earth day, a time when visitors go to a vineyard to contemplate imponderables.
    Folks at l’Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Agronomie, Montpellier, are learning and researching still, into the mysteries of this fun French word, terroir.

  12. Thomas Pellechia - July 2, 2012

    Far too many wine consumers forget that the product is exactly that: a product.
    To produce something that is not offensive and does not kill us takes a great degree of expertise and technical knowledge.
    Professional evaluators are there to gauge how well that expertise and knowledge made its way into the final product, and then try to communicate their assessment.
    What of the many evaluators that are neither professional nor able to effectively evaluate beyond their personal likes and dislikes?
    No matter how much power they gain, no matter how many followers they gain, and no matter how many producers kneel at their altars, they provide marginal service to the industry and questionable service to consumers.

  13. Andrea - July 2, 2012

    Is it wrong that I almost laughed out loud? I mean, the wine newbie had some excellent points.

  14. Tarah Dactyl - July 23, 2012

    Great work on the post. I was wondering about fermentation. I’m a wine newbie myself so this was really helpful. http://www.corkwine.ca

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