How happy is the felicitous life of a wine writer! To paraphrase the iconic rock band Dire Straits, it’s money for nothing and your wines for free. But, the reality is that the wines aren’t free. They’re samples to be opened, tasted under blind conditions and then disposed. Often wistfully so.
The truth is that wine writers are also wine consumers. We purchase the wines we want to share, cellar and drink. And like any consumer, we want value. We want to strike gold with every bottle.
Now, value wines are not always cheap, and cheap wines are not always good values. But you can avoid a lot of ordinary vino if you follow a few guidelines.
Beware of generic phrases like “Barrel Select,” or “Winemaker’s Selection.” While the wine may indeed be a special selection, more often, the winery is simply talking up juice that it didn’t pour down the drain. To get to the bottom of the wine’s breeding, ask why and how the “selection” was made. Same is true for “reserve” bottles, a label that is largely unregulated for New World wines and essentially meaningless unless supported by details.
How many bottles or cases were produced? Check the back label. Production of a few hundred cases or a low number of bottles indicates that the wine is truly limited, which means there’s a better chance that it’s indeed a cut above the regular bottling.
Gold medals? They’re a dime a dozen. Unless you know how the judging is conducted, or if this competition or organization has a reputation for finding excellent wines, such awards are no guarantee of quality. Too many medals can actually be a warning sign. Top wineries rarely enter such competitions. Those that do often pay a fee. Entrants know that these competitions typically seek to award as many medals as possible—bronze, silver, gold, double gold, platinum, best in category, best in show and on they go.
What about scores? Scores can be helpful, which we certainly hope is the case for our own Wine Enthusiast ratings and reviews. But you have to pay close attention and trust your source. You want to see a proven track record, credentialed reviewers and well-defined methodologies. Consider if a reviewer’s recommendations often line up with your own tastes. There’s little value in scores derived from crowd-sourced notes, blogs or, worse yet, wine sellers themselves. And beware of sneaky marketers or retailers—always make sure that a promoted score and/or review are for the exact same wine and vintage you purchase.
Lastly, to be a socially conscious consumer, be sure to check back labels for other information. Regulated credentials, like certifications from Ecocert, Demeter, SIP, LIVE and Salmon-Safe, indicate that extra care was taken in the vineyard.
Look for accurate, vintage-specific technical information, not just vague notes about using “the best” grapes or someone’s “passion for winemaking.” Forget made-up stories about happy campers and little black dresses. You want details about vineyard sources, grape blends and fermentation practices.
I’d love to hear about what gems you find. Use the hashtag #WEtaste and share your vinous discoveries with me and all other thirsty consumers out there.
Three Smart Buys from Oregon
Trisaetum 2017 Ribbon Ridge Estate Dry Riesling (Ribbon Ridge); $32, 93 points. This dry, detailed, estate-grown wine shows less richness than the extravagant 2016 bottling, but remains tight and delicious on its own terms. Apple, fennel and white-radish flavors penetrate deeply into the finish, which lingers in a clean crisp peppery resolve. Editors’ Choice.
King Estate 2016 Paradox Pinot Gris (Willamette Valley); $35, 92 points. The Paradox label has the King Estate name intentionally printed upside down, a nod to the unique barrel-aged style. Here, the barrel influence is an asset, cloaking the ripe fruit flavors in light toast. The tannins are smooth and the barrel time has softened the mouthfeel.
River’s Edge 2015 Elkton Cuvée Pinot Noir (Elkton Oregon); $20, 90 points. This is a delicious and beautifully-proportioned wine that delivers exceptional value. Concentrated cranberry and blueberry fruit takes the middle ground, and the raw-wood aromas suggest that further bottle age will soften the flavors on the finish. Editors’ Choice.