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Go behind the scenes as some of the wine industry's leading voices pull back the curtain.

Jonathan Cristaldi
September 11, 2018

If you're looking to learn how to "taste wine like a pro," you'll find no shortage of articles out there to help you "train your palate" and even make it "seem like you know what you're doing." But when it comes to the methodology that the pros actually use—what wine writers and critics really think about when they pick up a glass of wine to assess it—well, that remains more elusive. 

So, I decided to approach the pros I know personally to hear—in their own words—how they approach reviewing a bottle.

As a wine buyer, I'm always looking for as many details as possible, particularly if I haven’t sampled the wine first. As a writer, each glass presents a challenge to write the truest description of the wine possible, so that anyone looking to buy it knows just what to expect. Though taste varies greatly from person to person, the power of words and suggestions is quite real.

I’ve often been told to try and align myself with a particular writer or critic—to pay attention to their likes and dislikes because I will eventually realize similar taste preferences. Others have suggested it’s best simply to track recommendations, and not get caught up in the methods of evaluation.

But with so much riding on the persuasive power of a tasting note, and so many self-professed wine experts in the world today, I, for one, wanted to know the method behind the madness. Here's what seven of the wine industry’s leading professional writers and critics had to tell me.

Ray Isle
Executive Wine Editor, Food & Wine

Wine & Spirits Editor, Travel + Leisure & Departures

Courtesy

Isle, who was a Wallace Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford before turning full-time to wine, was freelance writing and working as a supplier rep for Dow’s and Graham's before he joined the editorial team at Wine & Spirits in 1998. He came to Food & Wine as a senior editor in 2005, and has been the magazine's executive wine editor since 2009.

How do you approach a glass of wine for review?

Ray Isle: First, I mostly do not taste blind, since we don’t rate wines with a point system at F&W (wine tasting I do goes towards feature stories, my regular column, pairing notes, online stories, general research, and sometimes seminars and/or media appearances). Consequently, the first thing that goes through my mind is, broadly, “What is this wine? Where is it from, what do I know about it (if anything), what do I know about the region, the variety, the soil, the climate, the producer, all that." The second thing—after I actually bring it to my nose—is, "Is the wine flawed?" Assuming not, what I look for are the answers to a combination of specific questions—How do I describe it? Is there oak? No oak? If there is, is it too much? How tannic is it? How acidic?—and general ones, such as whether it’s representative of its region or cru or what have you, whether it’s unusual or generic, whether it’s good.

Essentially, the process is a combination of sensory analysis and esthetic judgment, the latter part being based on a further combination of experience and personal opinion (which is why any score is always to some degree subjective). I do have a personal numerical rating system that follows a sort of a bell curve between god awful and stunningly brilliant, with most wines falling into that broad middle range of “ok, not flawed, fine.” You look for the ones at the high end of the bell curve, of course, as it thins out to that appealing infinity point of perfection. Though, you never quite get there.

How long does it take you to arrive at an overall impression, review, or rating?

RI: That depends. If the wine is actively bad, or just characterlessly generic, not very long at all. If it’s great—or simply seems shut down for some reason—I often come back to it again several times during the day, or even the next day, because it’s always useful to see what happens over time as it’s exposed to oxygen.

Do you have a quick trick for deciding whether or not a wine hits certain marks immediately?

RI: I don’t currently score wines for publication, so it’s sort of a moot question for me. But if my internal reaction is something like “holy crap that’s good”—especially if the wine in question is not absurdly expensive—then I almost always find some way to use it in print.

Antonio Galloni
Founder, Vinous

Vinous Media

In his early days as a critic, Italian wine was Galloni’s primary focus. In 2004, he founded the Piedmont Report, which caught the eye of Robert Parker, who brought him on to review wines from California, Italy, Burgundy and Champagne. In 2013, he launched Vinous, “a contemporary wine media platform,” and  in2016, he purchased of the popular Delectable wine app.

How do you approach a glass of wine for review?

Antonio Galloni: The process of reviewing a wine starts quite a bit before actually picking up the glass. I spend about six months of each year on the road visiting vineyards and speaking with winemakers in order to understand the essence of what is in the glass. Usually I will have tasted multiple vintages of a wine, and, in many cases, will have tasted the wine from barrel before tasting the bottled wine for review. This means that when I pick up that glass I have in mind the fullest context possible about what I am tasting. As I taste a wine, I mostly look for the positives, while remaining mindful of any flaws or defects. Some of the key attributes I look for are an expression of grape, vintage and place, complexity, persistence and, in the world’s top regions, the ability of wines to develop with age.

How long does it take you to arrive at an overall impression, review, or rating?

AG: I start by writing the tasting note, which describes a wine’s essential characteristics and style. A well-composed note naturally leads into the numerical score. The note from which the score emerges might take a few minutes to write though, importantly, it is also a product of thousands of hours of contextual work. Notes for reference-point wines naturally take a little longer to write than notes for everyday wines, as there are many more factors to take into consideration, such as the optimal drinking window for ageworthy, collectible wines.

Do you have a quick trick for deciding whether or not a wine hits certain marks immediately?

AG: I don’t use a “quick trick,” per se. Ultimately, it is my many years of experience tasting all over the world and across a wide range of styles that allows me to place each wine in its context. That context then forms the basis for an in-depth critical evaluation that is expressed in a tasting note, score and drinking window.

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Editor in Chief, Robert Parker Wine Advocate

Robert Parker, Wine Advocate

In 2008, Perrotti-Brown became a Master of Wine—one of just 369 in the world today. In 2013, after five years as a columnist for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, she was named the publication’s editor-in-chief. In 2015, she published her first book Taste Like a Wine Critic: A Guide to Understanding Wine Quality.

What's your approach? 

Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW: I approach all wines with an open mind, even if I’m not tasting blind. Greatness is not linked to any particular wine style. I honestly don’t have any favorite wines or wineries and pay absolutely no heed to whatever regional classification level it may hold. At Robert Parker Wine Advocate, we do not accept any advertising from wineries, so we have no financial agendas when we review. Everything about the review starts and ends with what is in the glass.

Tasting wine can be considered a two-part process. The first part is linked to natural ability: your ability to detect aroma and flavor compounds using your nose and tongue. In this regard, each individual is totally unique. We all have different noses with varying olfactory receptors, sensitivities to particular aromas and aroma detection thresholds. And we all have different tongues, which is where women can have an advantage, because they tend to have more taste buds. I hasten to add, most of what we detect in a wine is done so by smell rather than taste, so this is, in fact, a minor advantage. The second part of the process is equally important to “natural ability” when assessing a wine’s quality: memory recall. This is the ability to compare a wine that is being tasted to a mental library of many, many, many other wines of its peer group. For this, the taster must have accrued a significant mental wine library by tasting thousands of wines, usually over a period of many years.

How long do you spend?

LPB: Assigning a score usually only takes a few minutes, like putting an item on a scale and weighing it. It takes a minute or so to assess the nose and a few more minutes to taste the wine. This said, if a wine is very young and not showing much, I like to give it every opportunity to shine, and will sometimes come back to it later, perhaps even the next day, to understand it a little better one it has had a chance to breathe.

As I smell and taste, I am mentally measuring the wine up against the thousands of its peers I have tasted in the past, to decide where it sits qualitatively and to ensure that I am assigning reviews with consistency. When I consider its relative quality, I consider a wide range of factors: fruit ripeness (especially tannin and flavor ripeness), mid-palate intensity, balance, complexity (on the nose, palate and finish) and the nature and persistence of finish. Another key factor is the wine’s ability to age and develop in bottle over time.Greatness is not linked to any particular wine style. So, the most concentrated, powerful, high-octane wine does not necessarily get the highest score. Or vice versa.

Do you have a quick trick?

LPB: No quick trick, no. But, of course, obvious wine faults such as volatile acidity, TCA (corked wine) or overt brettanomyces will immediately lower the score significantly.

What’s the biggest misconception about wine tasting?

LPB: One of the most common rookie mistakes when it comes to assessing wine quality is thinking that the biggest, most powerful and concentrated wine must be the best. But, when it comes to wine, bigger isn’t necessarily better. Everyone craves a little hedonism every now and then. A rich, bold, opulent wine can be just the thing to satisfy that thirst, but only when all the elements within that wine exist in harmony with one another. Think about a glass of lemonade that is too sweet or too tart, or chips that are too salty or a cup of tea that is too tannic because it has been steeped for too long. When all the components of wine—such as acids, tannins, sweetness, alcohol and flavor compounds—complement one another so that no single aspect negatively dominates on the palate, this attribute, known as “balance,” ultimately trumps “power” on the palate for delivering a truly satisfying wine drinking experience.

Jim Gordon
Editor at Large, Wines & Vines
Contributing Editor, Wine Enthusiast

Courtesy of Jim Gordon

Gordon has spent an impressive 30 plus years as a wine editor and reporter for Wine Spectator, Wine Country Living, and most recently for Wines & Vines. He also serves as a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast and was a director of the annual Symposium for Professional Wine Writers at Meadowood Napa Valley. Gordon has edited two books: Opus Vino and 1000 Great Everyday Wines.

What's your approach?  

Jim Gordon: I always taste blind when I am reviewing. My assistant sets up 6 or 8 or 12 wines at a time and I don’t know the brands, the exact vintage or AVA, only the varietal or type. First I take a good look at the whole lineup and make notes about any unusually good or bad appearance including color. When I pick up the glass I tell myself to concentrate because I am going to analyze the wine by smell, taste, mouthfeel and finish, and write a good, readable review aimed at consumers according to the Wine Enthusiast guidelines and it will be basically ready to publish before I move on to the next wine.

How long do you spend?

JG: I spend about four minutes per wine

Do you have a quick trick?

JG: The first quick sensory check is for flaws, like TCA, oxidation or too much volatile acidity. But big immediate question is whether the wine is engaging and gives pleasure by the time I spit the first sip.

What’s your favorite wine of all time?

JG: Not to brag, but I got to drink, not just taste, the First Growth Bordeaux, 1945 Mouton Rothschild, on two separate occasions back in the day. One time was during a dinner at the château in Pauillac and one time at a small dinner in San Francisco. It had such an exotic bottle bouquet, was still fresh and alive, and brought so much history along with it—the end of WWII, the Nazi’s retreating from Bordeaux, the Picasso label art—that it was unforgettable.

Virginie Boone
Contributing Editor, Wine Enthusiast

Ashley Teplin

Boone started out writing for Lonely Planet travel guides and for the New York Times—work that eventually brought her to California wine country. She’s been a contributing editor of Wine Enthusiast since 2010, and also writes for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and Sonoma Magazine. Boone is the author of “Napa Valley and Sonoma: Heart of California Wine Country.”

What's your approach?

Virginie Boone: At Wine Enthusiast, we taste single-blind, so I have an assistant who can put a flight into black numbered bags for me so I don’t know the producer or vintage. Covering Napa and Sonoma, most of the time it’s current vintage, so that’s not such a big deal, and I will know the variety unless it’s a blend. I won’t know, for example with Pinots, if they’re Napa OR Sonoma, same with Cab, etc. I like that we do this. I usually like to taste a flight of 12 wines at a time, rarely more than two flights a day, leaving time for writing tasting notes, visiting producers and writing stories. When I pick up a glass I’m searching first of course for aroma, something I feel is super important. I don’t worry too much about color in reds unless a wine is particularly inky or light in color, which gives me insight into body weight. I look for flaws, but then it’s all about figuring out the texture and body weight of the wine from looking at it in the glass, then tasting and doing the same.

How long do you spend?

VB: How long depends. You knew that was coming. I almost always have an initial score, but I do also write down a range if wine is tightly wound and not showing much yet and I want to go back to it, still blind, and see if it’s opened up after a while. Then the score could end up at the lower end of the range or the higher. There’s usually not a big shift. This all can take from 10 minutes to an hour. If a bottle’s not tasting right and I decide to taste its second, it can take several more hours.

Do you have a quick trick?

VB: I don’t have a trick, certainly not a quick one. My only trick when I’m not officially reviewing is to try and spend as much time tasting wines with winemakers and visiting vineyards to best understand what they’re going for, what sites they’re working with and if they’ve had any changes in terms of logistics (new winery, new vineyard sourcing, new vision). I guess my only other trick is that I do taste every wine in the flight twice as I go. The best of them remain consistent from first to second tastes.

What’s your current obsession?

VB: Good wine in cans! I think it’s going to be really hard to muddle through to the ones made with serious quality in mind once the coming tsunami of canned wines hits us once and for all, but they’re out there. I really admire what Napa/Sonoma-based Brick & Mortar, Sans Wine Co., Essentially Geared, Paper Planes (with Flight School) and West & Wilder are doing, to name a few.

Jeb Dunnuck
Founder and wine critic, JebDunnuck.com

Courtesy of JebDunnuck.com

A farm boy from rural Indiana, Dunnuck is fast becoming the darling critic of winemakers, importers, and distributors. While writing “image processing software” for NASA, he founded The Rhône Report. It caught the eye of Robert Parker, who pegged him to review wines for The Wine Advocate, which he did from 2013-2017 before launching his own site. Longtime critic Steve Heimoff once described him as looking “kind of like a young Parker, with a little Russell Crowe for good measure.”

What's your approach?

Jeb Dunnuck: There’s no magic, and I taste just like everyone else. I look for wines that offer pleasure (both hedonistic and intellectual), possess intensity without weight, and have singular characters. [Author’s note: Jeb’s site explains: “The scoring system I use is roughly based on the High School Grading System most U.S. students grew up with, beginning at 50 points and ending at 100 points,” and breaks down those scores from the high-end “as good as it gets” to the low end of wines that are “quaffable to undrinkable.”]

How long do you spend?

JD: About five seconds.

Do you have a quick trick?

JD: Nope.

James Suckling
CEO/Editor of JameSuckling.com

Courtesy of JamesSuckling.com

Is there anything James Suckling doesn’t do? He’s turned wine criticism into an impressive body of work, hosting wine tasting events around the world, screenings of movies he’s produced and hosted (“Cannubi: A Vineyard Kissed by God”), and edits a bevy of magazines, although his primary focus is his own website. Over a 30-year span, Suckling worked as the senior editor and European bureau chief of Wine Spectator, and as European editor of Cigar Aficionado.

What's your approach?

James Suckling: Technically, I use 15 points for color, 25 for aromas, 25 for body and structure, and 35 for overall impressions. So I work that through in my mind. Sometimes I'll write it down particularly after tasting a lot of wines, just to bring that into focus. Of course, there are things everyone agrees on. With red wines, you're looking for relationships between alcohol, fruit, tannin, and acidity, and white wines obviously less on phenolics but more on the balance of fruit and acidity—and that's basically how I do it."

How long do you spend?

JS: When you have a great wine, you know right away. It's like falling in love, and 100-point wines or highly scored wines—you smell it and you think it’s going to be amazing, and then you taste it and it’s true. Other wines you have to spend time tasting, some you have to see how they open with air. Generally, if I’m tasting a lot, I’ll taste, write a note, taste again and move on, but sometimes I go back to try to confirm my impressions, and if a wine didn’t show well, or is flawed, I’ll taste another bottle. I try to give every wine its best shot.

Do you have a quick trick?

JS: It may sound really simple, but, if you taste the wine and you want to finish the glass it's 90 [points] and above. If I want to finish the bottle myself it's 95 [points] and above. But all this other stuff of trying to work it out ... I think that tasting wine is so personal you really have to go with how you feel and what you believe in.

Favorite wine of all time?

JS: My favorite wine of all time is a bottle of 1865 Bouchard La Romanée that I drank in 1988 with the then owner Claude Bouchard and the priest who owned the vineyard. We were in Bouchard’s dining room. It was a magical moment and the wine was phenomenal with ultrafine tannins that melted in your mouth.

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