Here's another installment on the situation with wine marketing and the leading source for sales -- and disasters -- that drive our business: points. I should note that I have fallen into the camp of limited wine-writer submissions due to our stylistic leanings. In the SF Chronicle last week, W. Blake Gray wrote a great piece on the subject of points that you can find here: Chronicle article. Also, in response to a slight mis-quote, Vinography picked up the story with some great reader comments, as well.
I wasn't going to focus on points specifically here but one of the key reasons that wine reviews are often fraught with errors regardless of expertise. The companion issue is that wine is not dissimilar from fresh produce in that care, storage, temperature, even climate, can effect the quality. Wine is very much a perishable, that is, it's, basically, ALIVE. A great bottle of wine has a life-cycle (but no printed expiration date). The frustrating realities connected to this fact are only subdued by technology. On the other end are producers like ourselves that bottle wine unfined and unfiltered in an effort to present a very natural and un-manipulated product. Purist? Mostly. But, for me, I just think that unadulterated connection between a plant in the ground and a beautiful glass of wine is one of the coolest things in the universe. Many wine aficionados share this view but still rail at the fact that a wine just might be out of sync with their expectations at a particular time.
As you can imagine, the more natural the connection, the more that the life of the wine would change over time. The changes a wine goes through between the barrel and the bottle can be dramatic. Then, dreaded "bottle shock" comes into play where the wine just seems dead, angular and alcoholic. Now that the first few months have passed and the wine then starts to shift into it's true state that can be described, judged, bought, sold, traded and speculated upon... until the first "Dumb Phase." Aaaargh!!
Oh, yea, if you ship the wine, look out for another dumb phase. If you store and drink the wine over time, you'll probably encounter another dumb phase or 2. What the hell is happening here? As a UC Davis Enology grad, I can only say, uh, er, what does Michael Broadbent say? He should know, right? Peynaud? Singleton? Every description that I have read about the subject of bottle shock, the dumb phase and why magnums and half-bottles mature at different rates is like the conjecture filling magazines about raising children. No one really knows and if there's good science to describe it, I sure haven't seen any. It seems that everyone agrees about these foibles as reality. Why, then, would we accept a wine writers opinion as cast in stone? It's a moving target and only experience with a wine's history can reveal any lasting truths. I know that I have been burned by hasty wine writing on a wine that was going through a dumb phase. It has taken a great many years to get a sense for when that MIGHT be, no guarantees.
A couple of things that I have observed: one is that, I believe, a wine goes through a stair step pattern in it's life with consistent stages in-between. In other words, bottle shock is the first step, then calm, then another big step after about a year in bottle where the wine enters it's "mature" phase. Then, maybe 3 to 4 years out, it gains it's true bouquet, the mark of a great wine made for ageing. This is also when the fruit complexes and evolves or dies, based on the quality and varietal. The next step is, uh, later, when it demonstrates if it's something amazing or in that class of "old red wine," not so great.
One other interesting thing that I'm watching is how the new, elevated alcohol wines "age." I use quotes because I'm seeing that higher alcohol can have a strong preserving effect and may be keeping wines in a more static place. In addition to being forward, impressive and knocking you sideways (hic), the alcohol may also be flattening out those steps and making the ageing process a little more moot. The "modern" style hasn't been around long enough to know for sure. The next question to ask is if you care and buy accordingly.