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This FREE Wine Education Course Includes: Why Wine? | Wine & Health | Social History | Sensory User's Manual | Grape Growing | Wine Making | Varietal Profiles | Sparkling Wine Wine Information on Reading Labels, Selecting and Buying Wine, Serving and Storing, etc. Taste includes the compiled wine tasting notes from our monthly panel, as well as reports on public tasting events, wherever we attend them, and notices of recurring wine events in Central California. There is also a Food & Wine section with a few wine-friendly recipes. In Aftertaste, see if you agree with our opinions and editorials in Wrath, find our Reading List and pages of Links in Bacchanalia, to discover additional sources of wine information. Contact and sponsor information, short bios of the PfW tasting panel and the stories of PfW's formation and the web site genesis. Return to the starting point.
SELECTING ... use relationships and references to find quality and value wines ...

Without some reference or guidance, shopping for wine can be an overwhelming experience. Thousands of labels from hundreds of different appellations throughout the world can present a confusing maze. Few humans have the time, money, and constitution necessary to taste or sample the array. Fortunately for the average consumer, there are many ready reference sources available.

THE WINE MERCHANT
The handiest source is the wine shop. Find one that stores the wine properly, away from sources of direct light, that maintains the shop at even temperature year-round and that turns over the inventory at a regular pace. Developing a relationship with a wine merchant that cares about both her inventory and her clientele will allow you to keep up on the latest releases and have wines recommended to your personal taste.

Be prepared to give feedback on your purchases and respond to suggestions; the more the merchant learns about your personal taste, the more accurately they can recommend wines you are sure to enjoy. Accept the responsibility to remember the labels you purchase. (Women who shop for wine should definitely read Marlene Rossman's article, "Where are the Women?")

Big Wine Sale, France, 1936.

 

 

 

Photo courtesy of Fleet Irvine Photomurals, a viewable collection of wine and other theme photos that may also be purchased.

Big Sale (historical photograph).

PUBLISHED REVIEWS
Good sources of published information on wine collectively form "the wine press." Books about wine are good for background information, but are not timely enough to keep up with the scores of wines released to the market each month. The best sources for current recommendations include articles in the daily paper and "food and entertaining" magazines, as well as magazines, newsletters and sites (such as this one!) on the World Wine Web devoted primarily to the wine theme.

NEWSPAPERS
Most city newspapers have one particular weekday (often Wednesday) with a food section, containing recipes, articles about food and wine, restaurant reviews and usually a wine column. Except for large newspapers which may employ their own columnist, most articles and columns are syndicated. Editors generally give wine articles low priority and find wine reviews expendable when they are trying to save space, so articles are often truncated or the number of wines reviewed minimal. The writers themselves usually live in major cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or New York and frequently review wines that may be hard to find in the local shops away from these metropolitan areas. Some of these large newspapers have web sites.

E-ZINES
Web Sites devoted to wine abound. Loaded with information, although sometimes loaded with advertising, their content runs the gamut from excellent up-to-date news and reviews to ill-informed, wrong-headed opinion and antiquated dogma boldly masquerading as fact (see Wine Myths). Most are good sources, with tasting notes by professionals or dedicated amateurs updated weekly or monthly. Epinions.com has a different twist: reviews of wines by consumers. Anyone who signs up can post a review. Some are quite good and often very entertaining. There are thousands, but some of my personal favorites are "Oldest Living Wine Idiot Tells All", "It VOSS Meant to be", and "Of Dreams and Things".

MAGAZINES
Food and entertaining magazines, such as
Food & Wine, Gourmet and Bon Appetit (this pair shares a Web presence on Epicurious), and others contain some wine articles and occasional reviews, subject to some of the same editing limitations as newspapers. Magazines depend on advertising as their main source of revenue, although most claim this has no influence or effect on their editorial policy. Magazines with a wine-only theme may find this even more difficult to enforce and many have softened their wine focus and broadened coverage to include articles on beer, spirits, food and travel.

Decanter magazine cover.Decanter is an excellent publication from England with thoughtful articles. Especially strong in its coverage of Bordeaux and Port, its main drawback is limited reviewing and reporting on New World wines generally and California wines in particular, although coverage is slowly improving.

The Wine Enthusiast began as a retail catalog of wine accessories and has expanded into wine reviews and wine-related articles (the only way to the e-zine is through their catalog page). All the aforementioned publications depend on advertising from the wineries whose products they review.

The Wine Spectator has changed its format several times, evolving from a newspaper-style to an oversize magazine-style publication. It offers news articles and regular columns about wine, wineries, wine-growing areas, collectors, auctions, restaurants, and wine-related events with many reviews of specific wines in each issue. It is the most current and complete source for wine information and has the largest circulation of any wine publication in the world. Issues are available by subscription or from wine shops or newsstands; published biweekly, except in December, when a double-size issue is printed mid-month. Its wine reviews are based on the 100 point scale, with descriptions. The Wine Spectator is the "MicroSoft" of wine-in-print; in that savvy marketing has propelled its influence well beyond product value. The major flaws are: potential influence of advertisers; most tasting notes are by a single, often unidentified reviewer, rarely do more than a few taste any one particular wine, and; not all tasting is conducted "blind."

Wine & Spirits magazine cover.Wine & Spirits limits its publishing of complete tasting notes to include only positive or complimentary reviews and simply lists all the other wines as tasted without comment; articles seem not quite as polished and authoritative as the Spectator.

SUBSCRIPTION NEWSLETTERS
Newsletters, lacking advertisements, depend on a large number of paid subscribers for income. This factor alone, that their constituents are buyers rather than sellers, lends them greater credibility in reviewing and recommending wines. Published monthly or bimonthly, each issue may review hundreds of individual wines. Most include tasting notes, a proprietary ranking system, average retail prices, number of cases produced, food matches and ageability estimates. This list is not all inclusive and there are other regionally-based newsletters, but these are some of the most well-known and trusted.

The Wine Advocate is written by Robert Parker, an attorney turned full-time wine critic. He is an extremely prolific taster and writer, with hundreds of wines reviewed in each bimonthly issue, grouped by some shared criteria of region, delimited appellation, vintage, varietal, producer, or the all-encompassing "New Releases". Parker invented the 100-point scale, tastes from all wine producing countries and regions.

Photograph of Robert Parker.Photo: Jean-Luc Chapin |
33000 Bordeaux |
Tel: (+33) 5.56.44.35.32 |

Many subscribers swear by his reviews. Written in an extremely authoritative tone, he can be prosecutor as well as advocate, sometimes even boldly (and quite often correctly) suggesting how a winemaker could make better wine. His influence is second only to The Wine Spectator and his scoring of a wine at "90" or above can cause a wine-shop-stampede, while anything less than "70" can lead to brand shunning! It is, after all, only one man's opinion, although very entertaining. Parker's credibility is higher than any because of his insistence to pay his own way and refusal to accept perks or free samples. A December, 2000, four-part Atlantic Monthly online feature, titled "The Million Dollar Nose" by William Langewiesche, analyzes Parker's influence and provides an engaging biography. Wine Advocate's annual six issues are supplemented with an end-of-year "Pocket Buying Guide" and occasional guide to restaurants of a particular wine region. Parker also had a hand producing the Wine Advisor & Cellar Manager software to track tasting notes and collections. A subscription web site, Robert Parker Online, is now also available (US$99 annually). A "Free Trial" area allows limited access to the offerings of articles and tasting notes.

Connoisseur's Guide to California Wine began publishing in 1974, making it one of the oldest subscription wineletters dealing primarily with California wines. (There's a special subscription offer on the website.) Published monthly, CGCW's format is to review from ten to fifty examples each of two to four varietals per issue. A short essay dealing with general overall trends of consumers, winemakers, growers, or some other interesting aspect prefaces individual reviews of the particular variety. The wines are listed alphabetically by brand. Each wine review includes the usual description of color, aromas and flavors, along with several icons that refer to the general score (3 "puffs" is tops), type of food match and a suggestion for drinkability or ageability. Good Values are also noted. Connoisseurs’ Guide logo.These notes are written primarily by editor-publishers Charles Olken and Earl Singer. They have consultation in tasting the wines from a floating panel of winery owners, winemakers, merchants, collectors, etc. All tasting is conducted and discussed blind and preceding a meal where the wines are re-tasted with food and the discussion continued. The notes are reasonably consistent, if frequently turgid. Occasionally they award a wine a good rating with somewhat contradictory, relatively hypercritical notes, possibly indicating controversy among the contributors. Several tasting sessions of a dozen-or-so wines are needed to assemble the extensive lists reviewed. There is no reference to indicate which wines were actually compared, head-to-head, in the same sessions.

California Grapevine is a bimonthly newsletter with yet a different format. Like CGCW, they have consultant-tasters to help evaluate the wines. In this case, it seems to be a large, somewhat static group from which a panel of eight to twenty participates in each tasting. The tastings compare from six to a dozen or more examples of one varietal, usually all from a particular recent vintage. Published as consensus notes from each particular tasting, in ranking order of preference, they include the 20-point-scale score (with 100-pt equivalent), number of first-, second- and third-place votes and statistical significance of the rankings. Editor Nick Ponomareff takes special care to maintain an accurate and consistent prose style in the tasting notes, which can also make for dull reading if one tries to absorb all the reviews in one sitting. There are also features such as regular columns from Dan Berger, ruminating on wine appreciation factors, and from Bob Foster, reviewing wine books, as well as a progressive compilation of results from important annual U.S. wine competitions. The back page is devoted to listing the best-reviewed wines by varietal as "Grapevine Recommendations." An annual supplement is the final "Wine Competition Results." Professional Friends of Wine's own conduct of tastings and results reporting is modeled somewhat after this publication's panels.

Restaurant Wine logo. Restaurant Wine specializes in reviewing wines specifically for the restaurant trade. The effort of Ronn Weigand, who holds both Master Sommelier and Master of Wine titles, it is the only publication by a credentialed critic. On his web site he makes several good arguments on behalf of his tasting and rating methods. Restaurant Wine also includes articles about staff training, wine list creating, merchandising ideas, etc.; very interesting, but probably a little more specialized than would appeal to the average wine consumer.

Robert Finigan's Private Guide to Wines, was one of the first and best newsletters in the late 60s and early 70s. He took a hiatus, filling in with Wine Discoveries, which specializes in low-price wines and seems generally a little less discriminating than most forums. Finigan tried to make a comeback in the mid-80's, but the involvement seemed to wane.

DIVERSITY INCREASES SUCCESS

What's the best scheme for assembling wine buying advice? Using several of these sources is much more reliable than depending on a single "guru." Establish a good relationship with a wine merchant. Read the food and wine section of the daily paper. Surf the World Wine Web. Subscribe to one magazine and one newsletter, have a friend subscribe to a different one of each, then share and compare. Finally, cross-reference the individual wine reviews from each of these sources to separate the "controversies" from the "crowd-pleasers," make a list and take a wine shopping trip.

Jim LaMar


RELATED LINKS

A Critical Survey of Major Wine Review Publications by Steve Pitcher is a thoroughly researched and excellently-written article, with samples of covers, circulation and publication data, scope and quantity of reviews, explanations of tasting methods and scoring systems, analysis of writing quality and marketplace influence. Includes California Grapevine, Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine, The Wine Advocate, Wine & Spirits, Wine News, and The Wine Spectator (interestingly enough, only 2 of these publications had an online presence when this article was written).

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Page updated February 11, 2003; Links checked and repaired September 23, 2011
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