One of the famed wine writers in the Pacific Northwest, Sean P. Sullivan is a contributing editor at Wine Enthusiast covering Washington and Idaho. He is also the founder of Washington Wine Report, an on-line publication dedicated to the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest. The site is a four-time finalist for ‘Best Single Subject Wine Blog’ from the Wine Blog Awards, winning the honor twice. Sullivan also writes regularly for Seattle Metropolitan and Washington Tasting Room. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Sean over the past several years. Sean is analytical, conscientious and committed to producing great wine writing and wine reviews. He’s a downright awesome guy to chat wine with. Sean talks about his background and discusses his commitment to blind tasting. I think you will enjoy hearing more about his story in wine that mirrors mine in many ways. Here is my exclusive interview with Sean P. Sullivan, Washington Wine Reviewer for Wine Enthusiast Magazine.
WWB: How did you first start writing about wine and what made you decide to start Washington Wine Report?
SS: I honestly started writing about wine entirely by accident. I always took notes when tasting wine and also had developed a home-grown five-point rating system to keep track of what I liked and what I didn’t. In 2005, I travelled out to Yakima Valley with a friend and visited a number of wineries. Afterwards, my friend asked if I could send along my notes as he hadn’t taken any. I dutifully typed them up and sent them along. His friends subsequently asked where we had gone and what we had liked. He forwarded them my notes. I was completely mortified frankly. But what I discovered was that there was an interest. At this time, in the mid-2000s, there was an explosion of new wineries in Washington and not necessarily a lot of information about them. People were hungry to learn more about these wineries.
Inspired, later that year, I started sending .PDF reviews and write-ups to an email list of friends and family who would then share them with their friends. These started out short and informal but soon became 50+ page tomes. You can still find them on my site. They are pretty hilarious to look back at, at times well done and at times a bit embarrassing. I used the name Washington Wine Report because that was what it was – a report on Washington wine. Two years later, in 2007, I started the blog with the same name. If my friend hadn’t asked me to send him my notes way back when, I doubt any of this would have ever happened, and I wouldn’t be doing what I am today.
WWB: You have a scientific background, previously enrolled in an MD/PhD program. How does your background in science make you a better wine writer?
SS: I think the biggest impact my science background has is the way that I approach evaluating wine. I try to do so in a systematic manner. For me, that means controlling and tracking as many variables as I can. Of course, there is always a subjective aspect to wine tasting, but I want the approach I take to be both as objective as possible and as repeatable as possible. This has made me regimented about the temperature that I taste wines, the stemware that I use, the time of day I taste, and the setting. It’s also made me track a lot of information. For example, for each wine I review, I can tell you what the temperature of the wine was within the range I taste at, what time it was tasted, what the ambient temperature was in the room and even whether this temperature was achieved naturally or via heating or air conditioning. Now some of these things might turn out to be superfluous, but I track them in case they do matter so I can refer back to them.
I’ll give you an example of one of these variables and when it did matter. A long time back I tasted a white wine at a winery and found it to be quite disappointing. I asked the winemaker if I could take the bottle home as I wanted to confirm my impression. I tasted it several hours later when the wine had warmed up and found it to be beautiful. I was quite surprised.
I put the bottle in the fridge to get it back to a normal serving temperature. When I tasted it again at that temperature, my impression was the same as it was when I had first tasted it at the winery when the wine was chilled. I had two very different opinions of the wine, and the only thing that had changed was the temperature. Since that point, I’ve made sure to evaluate wine within a very tight temperature range. I always tell people, if you disagree with my take on a wine, try chilling it down or warming it up. Most people drink their wines way too warm in terms of red wines and way too cold in terms of whites in my opinion. Certainly, having a science background influences my writing as well. Way back when, I was writing research articles for journals, which requires a certain approach to writing as well as a somewhat detached voice of the author. Both still inform my writing style today, although I would argue that that is my voice.
WWB: You’ve been a strong proponent in tasting each wine that you review blind. Can you talk about the pros and cons for evaluating wines this way?
SS: The biggest benefit of blind tasting is that it removes potential producer bias. For example, you expect if you are tasting a bottle of wine from a highly regarded producer, that it should be a high quality bottle of wine. This expectation can permeate your thinking and bias your review. Blind tasting removes this bias. I also think it’s important to evaluate wines in a consistent manner. When I was reviewing wines for Washington Wine Report, I tasted wines non-blind. I did a mixture of tasting and reviewing at wineries and at home. I did this really out of necessity. Now that I’m at Wine Enthusiast, I still visit wineries and taste wines with winemakers, and I keep notes and score wines as I go. However, all my Wine Enthusiast scores and reviews are from wines sampled blind at home.
What I’ve noticed comparing my scores at wineries and my scores at home is that there is, as you might expect, a ‘winery effect.’ When tasting at a winery, scores tend to go up compared to when they are tasted at home. In my experience, they go up a point or two on average but occasionally more. This just makes sense. Winemakers are excited about their wines and they are trying to get you excited about them and guess what? It works. Now this might not be the worst thing if you are tasting all of your wines at wineries because at least everyone is getting the same shot even if their salesmanship skills will no doubt be different. But if you’re doing what I used to do at Washington Wine Report and what a number of reviewers at other publications still do, which is tasting some wines at wineries and others at home and still others at mass tastings, some wines are potentially getting a leg up by being tasted in front of the producer whereas others are not.
Additionally, if you’re doing mass tastings, is the first wine you’re tasting really getting the same shot as the 100th? Doubtful. Moreover, when you taste at home, you can taste and re-taste a wine as many times as you like. You can even pair it with food if you want. Obviously you can’t do any of these things for wines tasted at wineries. When tasting in an inconsistent setting, you also don’t have control over wine temperature or stemware or the other variables I’ve mentioned. This sets up a situation where the scores for an individual reviewer are not comparable to each other. You might think they are but they are not, and if you compare scores across settings, this becomes obvious. If that’s the case, how valid really are the scores? Bottom line, for me it’s imperative to taste wines in a consistent setting and also to remove potential biases. Blind tasting allows you to do both. This is not to say, however, that blind tasting is perfect. It is not. I can tell you for certain Washington wineries, I have tasted every single wine they have ever made. I know how they open up after a few hours or days and I know how they evolve as the years go by.
Unfortunately, all of that information is out the window when tasting the wines blind. That is the drawback. However, in my opinion, this is a small price to pay for removing the bias inherent in tasting in an inconsistent setting and tasting non-blind. I also think blind tasting helps reduce score inflation, which has become a pretty significant issue. You’re not giving out dozens and dozens of 95 to 100 point scores each year if you’re blind tasting, at least that’s been my experience. Personally, I think some non-blind scores tend to be reputation based because I taste the same wines blind, and my impressions are quite different. That said, of course no two palates are the same.
WWB: You’ve been writing about wine for a long time. What are some of the biggest trends in the Washington wine industry that you’ve noticed? What are some of the biggest positives and negatives as this industry moves forward?
SS: Certainly the biggest trend in Washington has been the overall growth of the industry. When I first moved to Washington in 2000, there were less than 200 wineries. Today there are over 940. Of course, where those wineries are located and where their vineyard sources are have evolved as well. Growers and winemakers are constantly seeking out new areas and new varieties. It’s part of what makes Washington such an exciting region to cover. Recently there has been a lot of experimentation with different types of fermentation vessels. It started with winemakers using less new oak and then using larger format barrels for their wines. From there it’s evolved to concrete tanks and oak uprights and, much more recently, amphorae. Winemakers are looking for ways to still have controlled oxygen exposure to assist with development while minimizing overall oak impact on the wines. I think that’s a very positive thing, as you want the focus to be on the fruit. Certainly, if you look at Washington Syrah now compared to 10 or 15 years ago, qualitatively, it’s like night and day. The wines are, overall, much, much better. Part of the reason for that is people being more judicious with oak usage. I would say that, along with a diversification of styles and the elevation in quality that we’ve seen over the last decade have been the biggest positives.
On the negative side, the industry remains bottom heavy with a large number of small producers, with a few large producers and very few medium-sized producers. The example I always give is L’Ecole. They make about 50,000 cases per year, which is not a lot really, but it makes them one of the larger producers in the state! The relative lack of medium-sized producers making higher volumes of wine across a range of price points makes it very difficult to get moderately priced wines, say $25 and under, into distribution nationally and internationally. This creates a bottleneck in growth of the Washington wine industry. For example, if you ask me to recommend a great $30+ bottle of Washington wine, I can give you scads of them. But it’s unlikely you’re going to find many of them on the retail shelves outside of the Pacific Northwest and maybe not even here because the productions are so low and the price is relatively high. If you ask me to recommend a great $20-$25 bottle of Washington wine that people can find all around the country, the list gets much smaller because there just aren’t as many large and medium-sized producers.
To me, to get people across the country and around the world excited about Washington wine, you have to be able to march them up the price ladder. You start out by getting them excited about wines that are, say, $10. From there, you say, well if you liked that, try this at $20. Then this at $30 and so on. Right now, that’s a bit difficult to do. It’s a real problem for the industry if you need to start people out at a $30+ bottle of wine, because first, it’s a lot more money than some people are willing to spend on any bottle of wine, let alone an unknown one. Second, due to lower production, they probably aren’t going to be able to find the wine in the first place unless they order it from the winery. Few people are going to do that.
To me, if the Washington wine industry is going to continue to grow its reputation nationally and internationally, we need more medium-sized producers making, say, 60 or 100,000 cases of wine that consumers can find. Don’t get me wrong. Small wineries will always be the lifeblood of this industry, but we need a better balance of medium-sized and larger production wineries to get Washington wines into more people’s hands. As long as most of what we’re offering, outside of a few large companies that are currently doing a lot of heavy lifting, is $30+ bottles where 200 cases were made, it’s going to stunt the growth of the industry.