For this installment of comic relief Friday, we bring you the coffee critic wheel. You’re probably well aware of the coffee flavor wheel, which borrowed heavily from the wine aroma wheel in the wine tasting world. However, you might not be aware of wine vintner Janet Trefethen’s (of Trefethen Family Vineyards) Standardized System of Wine Critic Terminology, which became a somewhat infamous joke among winemakers a decade ago: Wine critics’ rating system gets mixed reviews – SFGate.
This wheel divides reviewers into two camps: those who “gave us good review” and those who “gave us bad review.” Because the act of critically evaluating wine is so subjective, from there the wheel gets into descriptors such as the celebrated “Gifted Palate / Brilliant” to the less flattering “Acerbic / Half-Witty” to the absurd “Wordy / Sesquipedalian”. The great thing about this wheel is that you can merely replace the word “wine” with “coffee,” and the wheel stills suits any of us foolish enough to judge the merits of a given coffee.
The tyranny of the critic’s flavor palate
We were recently reminded of this wheel by one of our favorite California winemakers, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe Vineyards. A former school teacher, Wes takes a highly academic approach to his very low profile, small-estate wine growing operations in the Santa Rita Hills of Santa Barbara County. (He gives a killer vineyard tour if you’re ever in the area.)
Wes also appreciates a flavor profile in his wine similar to what we appreciate in coffee: less of an overbearing emphasis on bold fruit and sharp tannin flavors (think Sightglass, Stumptown‘s Hairbender, etc.), and a greater appreciation for subtlety and more secondary characteristics that lurk beneath the surface (think maybe 49th Parallel). Given his appreciation for the poetic, Wes likens this philosophy to what makes a beautiful woman. Some are of the supermodel variety: absolutely stunning on the surface, but vapid on the inside (and given few social reasons to develop otherwise). Whereas a perhaps less outrageously stunning woman with charm, wit, culture, and heart can ultimately outshine the supermodel lot.
Although not entirely accurate, the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker, is sometimes characterized as something of a connoisseur of “supermodels.” His palate is so influential that his scores have been known to make or break wineries. So much so that many winemakers and wine lovers have often complained about the Parkerification of wines — i.e., the monotonous tailoring of wines specifically to Robert Parker’s palate in the hopes of earning a higher score from him.
Because Mr. Hagen emphasizes more secondary characteristics in his estate wines, it had been several years since he submitted a vintage for review to Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate newsletter — namely because Mr. Parker’s palate just didn’t “get” what his wines were about. But with a new, highly respected reviewer at The Wine Advocate who might appreciate his wines (Antonio Galloni), Wes submitted his most recent vintage and scored exceptionally well. This inspired his recirculation of the wine critic terminology wheel.
The lesson here is that no palate is right or wrong; it’s about calibrating your own tastes to the known preferences of others. For example, we have some readers of CoffeeRatings.com who will scout out coffeeshops we haven’t yet reviewed and they often guess what we would later rate it — typically coming within 0.2 rating points of accuracy from what we would later rate it. That kind of consistency is perhaps the best we can hope to achieve here.
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