wine tasting with blinders on: what’s the point?

by Stevie on June 14, 2010

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The other day, the latest edition of Wine Spectator arrived in the mail. The one with Manfred Krankl of Sine Qua Non grinning all the way to the bank on the cover. I’m a huge fan of this magazine (Thanks for turning me onto it, Whit!) As usual, I was delighted with Matt Kramer’s column, this time on wines from Argentina: “Why Just Drinking Isn’t Enough.” It’s cool that he likes Colomé, too. I’m a huge fan of Kramer’s work, especially his books on Italian and Californian wine.

do you think the poor sap knows that he's tasting water?

Are you ever going to update and re-issue your volumes on French wine, Matt? You’re the reason that I can understand Italian wine labels now! I’m sure that you could help me a lot with Burgundian ones. I didn’t realize that you and your wife actually moved to Buenos Aires for a few months. That sounds amazing! I know that you lived in Italy for a stretch as well. Aaah, that’s the life!

Really, though, I totally understand your point that drinking wine in the place that it’s from makes a meaningful difference. (Actually, I’ve heard that’s the only way to really enjoy proseco. Though I’m sure that’s all just vicious lies.) I feel that way touring wineries in Northern California. Cline and Lambert Bridge are incredible at home or in a restaurant. But nothing beats drinking them at the winery on a sunny afternoon without a care in the world. I’ve gone wine tasting in Mendoza, too, and I know that that’s the bomb!

I’ve recently become enchanted by this really well-written and easy-to-use (That’s my highest complement for a blog) blog based in Washington State. I’m sure that I’m not alone in my fandom. It’s incredibly informative especially about Washington State wines, though not at all provincial. They even have a complex rating scale for wines that they’ve tasted. Not only does it take into account the experience of the taste, but also the price is somehow factored in to arrive at a total numerical score. It’s complex, but if the comments of the WP readers mean anything, folks are really into it.

Periodically, the WP’s will have these really fun sounding parties where they’ll feature six bottles of wine based upon a particular varietal, theme or region. They all meet at someone’s house. The host makes a huge meal and then they will blind taste the wines right at dinner, sipping them from identical stemware and scoring and chatting as they go. Afterward, they clean up and write up the whole thing with their tasting notes and scores. The procedure’s described in some detail on the blog. It looks and sounds really fun! I’d love to go to one of these parties, at least on a night they serve red wine with fish.

I can tell you from trying it ourselves, that wine tasting parties are a blast. We had a syrah/shiraz potluck that was amazing and B-WC (before-WC, or before this blog) we went to a port tasting party at some good friends’ home that was extremely enjoyable and informative. Though neither of these events offered blind tasting.

Did you read on Dr. Vino’s blog the fascinating story of blind tasting 2005 Bordeaux with Robert Parker?

I did and it really got me thinking about going blind. Dr. V seems to gently tease RP over the difficulties the Taste-Maker had with correctly identifying the famous and slightly less famous red Bordeaux offered at this expensive and oh-so-chic tasting party. Basically, RP couldn’t match the taste to the wine house and he ranked them differently from how they had been published in his newsletter. But that shouldn’t come as any surprise to anyone, should it?

Part of what makes wine so fascinating is that it evolves with age; that the taste changes depending on with what food you pair it or with what wine you taste before it; your tastes gradually change anyway as you mature and learn, and finally; that by it’s very nature, taste in wine is subjective.

That’s why we always encourage our readers to get out there and taste wines themselves. Not to say that reading about wine or wine scoring is completely meaningless. Far from it! That’s a great way to learn and reduce the field as it where to a more manageable size. Could you imagine having to pick every bottle yourself without ever getting guidance from anyone? Horrible! You’d probably only end up with overpriced grape juice.

That said, I don’t understand the whole idea behind “blind tasting.” What’s the advantage, really? For most of us who do not work at Wine Spectator, and other than Robert Parker, when we’re “blind tasting” wine, it’s a wine that’s new to us. Even if we’re familiar with the varietal, the region or the style; we’re already blind because we’ve never had wine from this vintner. Further “blinding” doesn’t really seem necessary. We’re not talking life-and-death here. And, just like Matt Kramer seems to argue about Argentine wines, you lose something essential to the wine when you rob it of its specific place of origin: its terroir, if you believe in that.

All of us at the syrah/shiraz potluck were able to narrow the field of about twenty bottles down to two or three that we liked best with our un-blinded taste-any-way-you-want home wine tasting. Selecting “the best” of the top three seems silly. They’re all good, so what’s the difference?

Wine tasting and, better, yet, wine drinking, is supposed to be fun. And though I’m the first to admit that the blind-wine-tasting-dinner-party concept seems to have real merit from a socialization point of view, it’s a lot of unnecessary extra work. And frankly I don’t have enough room at my dining table for that much glassware all at once, anyway.

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