I am always fascinated by how we make choices regarding the wines we choose to purchase and drink. Whether for every day consumption or for special occasions, we can all agree that quality wines that offer great value are worth seeking out.
So how do we determine what is not only an acceptable wine, but one that is also exceptional?
Of course, the easy answer is that wine, like art, food or any other aesthetic thing, is evaluated subjectively so that judgments on quality must be evaluated in a quantitative context before they can be accepted.
In other words, if I claim that “Uncle Rupert’s Rustic Rose” is a superior wine and 500 others (or at least a reputable wine critic) rate it as something akin to witch hazel, then the majority or the critic’s views would logically prevail.
Many of us depend on rating systems such as the 100- point scale used by The Wine Spectator or by wine critics such as Robert Parker or Steven Tanzer to guide us through the purple maze, while others will purchase wine from exceptional vintages or from acclaimed regions like Bordeaux or Burgundy.
Still others focus their choice on wineries that consistently produce excellent wine. And unfortunately, a large number of folks with too much money to spend think there is a direct correlation between quality and very expensive wine.
In my opinion, the best way to judge a wine’s quality is to taste them blind. Be assured this has nothing to do with using blindfolds or drinking to excess. A blind tasting involves obscuring the wine label by having another person place the bottle in a bag before you taste. This will eliminate any possible price or winery bias so that you can truly judge the product on its quality.
Blind tastings are something I do regularly so I can objectively evaluate the aroma, taste and visual qualitative elements that are the basis for whether I recommend a wine or not.
While all these evaluation methods have merit (except for basing your selection solely on price), there is one consideration we often overlook that can sometimes cloud our judgment. I’ll call it context.
Here is an example of what I mean.
On a beautiful early fall evening, my wife and I were dining al fresco at a small restaurant overlooking Lake Garda in northern Italy. The food was simple, but delicious. And the wine? It was made by the family that owned the restaurant and I swear – at that time and place – it was among the best wines I had ever tasted.
That entire multi-course meal with wine did not exceed $45, but this was one of the best wine and food experiences of my life. Why, you ask? Well, simply put, it was the context under which I had the experience, and I believe it is one of the most important, and underrated, elements of food and wine appreciation.
You cannot underestimate how the setting or context of your wine tasting affects your perception of its quality. Why? Well sometimes it has to do with whom I am forced to consume the stuff, the location of the tasting or even my mood.
Business dinners, where tensions are high and where the food and wine are secondary to accomplishing some corporate objective, are, for me, among the most difficult times to enjoy and objectively evaluate wine. At such dinners, I am tempted to order a wine that I actually dislike so that it will pair well with the sometimes distasteful subjects under discussion – but, of course, I don’t.
So the next time you ‘re using your critical wine appreciation skills to determine the quality of a specific bottle, think about the external influences that just might cloud your judgment.
Try these two –context-neutral- but excellent wines for your sipping pleasure.
2013 Raptor Ridge Pinot Gris ($20) – From Oregon’s Willamette Valley, this round and refreshing pinot gris is full of citrus and melon flavors and finishes with nice acidity. Sip it on the porch before dinner or pair it with grilled chicken thighs with a lemon, rosemary and honey glaze.
2013 Sierra Cruz Carmenere ($9) – This medium -bodied cabernet franc from Chile is a black cherry, fruit forward wine that finishes fairly dry. Chill it for 20 minutes and then drink it with grilled flank steak that has been rubbed with coarsely ground black pepper and marinated in soy, olive oil, and garlic with a dash or two of red wine vinegar.