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

By Jonathan Cristaldi
September 11, 2018
Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

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, mkgalleryamp; 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 mkgalleryamp; 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