It’s Oscar time in the wine world with Wine Spectator Magazine rolling out its “Top 100 Wines of 2014” list, starting with the top ten countdown, which began yesterday.
As the wines' names are released, a few each day this week, retailers and collectors scramble to find bottles of the top ten, as well as try to predict which wine will be listed in the coveted number one position and named Wine of the Year. It’s a big deal when you think about it: the coveted Wine of the Year will likely quadruple in value as of 8 a.m. this Friday morning.
The editors and tasters at Wine Spectator rated 18,000 bottles of wine between their New York and Napa offices this past year, and of those, only 5,000 wines earned scores of 90 or above. As the magazine continues to announce the names on its highly anticipated list, we spoke with Senior Editor and Tasting Director Bruce Sanderson about how he and his staff set up tastings and decide on the Top 100.
Squid Ink: How many wines does an editor taste in a day?
Bruce Sanderson: It varies. I would say on average 20-25. We’re not tasting everyday — we have a number of staff who set up tastings throughout the week — and there’s maybe a situation where an editor will taste once or twice a week, and it’s [also] possible an editor will taste Monday through Friday.
Are all the wines being tasted in succession one after another, or are they broken up into groups?
They’re broken up into flights. Of a 20-wine flight, if it’s burgundy for example, I may have half of them from one appellation and half from another appellation, but they would most likely be from the same vintage. We don’t know the producer and we don’t know the price.
With that many wines being tasted in a day, is palate fatigue ever a concern or consideration?
Well, it’s a concern, and that’s why we generally don’t taste more than that. As professional tasters we can easily taste through 20 wines without palate fatigue. If you feel tired, then you can take a five-minute break and have a cracker or a glass of water.
Biodynamic tasting calendars place days into four categories: root, leaf, flower and fruit. The idea is that, according to the position of the moon, a wine will taste more floral or fruit driven on a flower or fruit day, than it would on a root or leaf day. Do you believe in biodynamic tasting and is it considered a factor when tasting wines and applying a score?
We don’t have the luxury all the time of following, whether it be a fruit day or flower day, verses a root day or leaf day, [however] we do pay attention to that from time to time. For example: if I’m tasting through some wines and nothing is really grabbing me or the wines aren’t showing a lot of fruit or complexity or pleasure, then I sometimes look at a calendar and say 'It must be a root day.' And sometimes it is.
If it is a root day and find that the fruit or floral notes aren’t coming through, do you postpone the tasting or do you push through the tasting and trust your palate?
The wines are open, so I always finish my tasting, but I’ll often re-taste a number of wines the following day, or maybe re-taste them on another occasion.
What factors are used to assess a wine and apply a score?
For me, and I think it’s for most of the editors; it’s the same factors that you would use to evaluate quality in any wine. We look at color, to see if that would be typical for that wine. We smell the wine [to] get various characteristics out of the aroma that we use to describe. It could be fruit characteristics, it could be herbaceous characteristics, it could be mineral characteristics, or it could be new oak. Also, we’re looking for any flaws in the wines. We taste the wine, we look at those individual components and we consider whether they’re in balance or not; the intensity of those components on the palate, and length on the finish. And when you put all those things together it gives you an evaluation of the wine and we apply a score to it.
So where does the number come from? Is it a gut instinct or is do you have an actual number you give to each portion: the aroma, the color, the balance of acid verses alcohol and fruit?
Different editors do it in different ways. I can say I have an idea of where the wine is – where it fits in — in a score range, so it could be good, very good, outstanding. And then over two or three tastes I’ll fine-tune that. Let’s say it’s outstanding, which would be 90 – 94 points, I decide if it’s just outstanding, or if it could be what we call a classic wine, which would be 95 -100 points.
What qualities do you look for in a wine that scores 98 – 100 points?
It has to be pretty special. I think all the factors I described in evaluation the quality of a wine – it would have to have those at a very high level. And it would have to be a wine that moves you as a taster – that you find some excitement with that wine within its flight, as well as on its own. A lot of it boils down to experience.
What is the formula of a top-ten candidate? What’s the score, price and production quantity one can watch for all year long while collecting wines in hopes of grabbing one of the top ten?
There’s no numerical formula. We look at four different factors. We look at the quality of the wine based on score. We look at the value of the wine based on price. And we look at the availability based on either cases made or cases imported into the U.S. And the fourth factor is what we call the X factor. How much did that wine move you? In other words it could be a new wine — new to the region or new to the taster. It could be property where there’s a change in winemaking due to generation change or a new winemaker and the quality elevated. It could be the fact that it’s just a great vintage to that area. So those are the intangible things that are a little more difficult to measure but are just as important as the numerical factors. And obviously, if a wine is very expensive and it’s 95 points, verses a wine that’s $50 and 95 has that combination of value and quality that we think our readers look for.
Are the top-100 wines nominated by the editors? If so, how do they remember them?
Every year I ask the editors to give me a short list of wines [10-20] they’re excited about from that year. It’s a short list that helps us to whittle it down from 5,000 wines to a more manageable number and eventually that top 100. As I’m tasting over the year there are certain wines that do stand out, and if they’re not too expensive or made in such tiny quantities, that would be the sort of wine that would end up on my short list.
How much influence does an editor have when lobbying for his or her wine of choice?
Everyone has equal influence. Some may feel more conviction about a particular wine. And, also what we do in terms of the top ten, we pull together and for about a dozen or fifteen wines we feel are serious candidates and we all sit down and taste them together. One wine will just stick out and will be fantastic. We taste through everything, but what we’re ideally we’re looking for is that one wine that will really stand out and convince us all that it should be the wine of the year.
Once the number-one wine is picked, how are the other nine wines given their positions in the top-ten lineup since they’re often different wines from different parts of the world?
We look at the original score given by the editor, and then we look at the score of the particular wine in our small 12 or 15-flight tasting and then it comes down to availability and price. A wine that’s $50 and 95 points with 5000 cases made would have an advantage over a wine that has 95 points and $100 with 2000 cases made.
Being in the top-ten can be a tremendous boost for a small winery. And while being selected number one can change the status of that winery forever, the wine collector benefits from this list as well. What advice would you give to the wine collectors trying to buy wine that will go up in value, and what advice would you give to wine enthusiasts who can’t afford collections but would love to try one of those number-one wines while they’re still affordable?
I would recommend to people to always buy wine that they enjoy, because if they don’t go up in value, at least you’ll have fun drinking them. Essentially, all these wines have been rated throughout the year, so my advice would be for readers or would-be collectors to jump on some of these wines early when the reviews first come out. For example, if you go to Wine Spectator online, each Wednesday we come out with The Insider. This is kind of a heads up on some of the top wines we’ve tasted in the past few weeks. It gives people a chance to go out and find theses wines, because a lot of them are limited production.