The art of wine reviewing is a very tricky business. Why? You ask. Just try the wine and write about it, right? It is not that easy. Wine changes and evolves over time. Let me repeat that: wine changes and evolves over time. A wine review is like a balance sheet in that it is a snapshot in time. It is a tool to be used as the predictor of future results. But as with any future prediction, lots of things can happen along the way to change or alter the prediction.
Here is the good news. Somewhere between 80 to 95% of all wine is intended to be consumed in the first 5 years of its life. The predictability of these wines is easier for the wine reviewer to foresee as it has a relatively short shelf life. However, as you will certainly see below, even the best of us can be fooled.
Let’s start with a positive scenario. In the fall of 2005, I reviewed a 2003 Sebastiani Alexander Valley Cabernet as "Very Good." I was a little disappointed since its predecessor had been deemed by me to be much better than that. In September 2006, the KensWineGuide.com tasting panel had our Cabernet tasting where we review wines "blindly" (i.e. the bottles and labels are covered). A sample failed to show up so I was scrambling to find a replacement. I added the Sebastiani for fun as it was popular at many of my past tastings. In the end, when the bottles were unveiled this wine came in second place. When all the scores were tallied, this wine’s average score was "Excellent." This bottle came from the same case as the one from the previous fall which was only "Very Good.". What changed? The wine changed and it changed for the better. My initial review of the wine was accurate for the fall of 2005, but incorrect for the fall of 2006. My guess is you would have all written similar reviews.
Things can also go the other way. At last year’s Boston Wine Expo, I got fooled by a particular Pinot Noir. I loved this wine on that day and I highly touted it. However, on 2 future occasions including our Pinot Noir tasting in July 2006, I had the opportunity to try the wine again and it proved to be very disappointing. What happened? The wine changed. This time the wine changed for the worse and I had to de-list it.
My final note is on storing wine for an extended period of time. Be careful and plan accordingly. Last year I was disappointed when one of my cellar wines that I had great expectations for came out very flat. The wine was the 1997 Ridge Lytton Springs. This wine had scores of 93 from Wine Enthusiast, 89 from Wine Spectator, and 92 from Robert Parker. I had had this wine before. It was everything you would want from a very good Zin. It had great fruit up front; it was smooth, well balanced, and finished quite well. However, in 2006 the wine was smooth, but had turned flat. It was good, but disappointing. It was not the same wine that was apparently peaking and at its best in 2000 or 2001 when the reviews were probably written. Why was it not the same wine? Wine changes over time. In my opinion, I have since observed that Zins do not generally improve with time. They are best in the first couple of years after release. I feel a little time helps take the edge off, but still allows the fruit to remain a prominent part of the wine. Some wines do improve with time, but most do not. So plan accordingly.
I will close with a phrase that I read in Karen MacNeil’s Wine Calendar a few years ago. I use this one all the time when people ask me about aging wine. Remember this "myth" about cellaring wine. "Laying a bottle of wine down for 10 years does not always make it a better wine. Just like if you put a Hyundai in the garage for 10 years, it does not turn into a Mercedes." Very few wines have good aging potential. Generally you have to start with a Mercedes to finish with a vintage Mercedes 10 years later. The reason is that wine changes over time, which makes handicapping wine a very tricky business.