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Blind Tasting: Fool’s Teflon

Posted on  | April 6, 2012   Bookmark and Share
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As wine judgement goes, this technique is overrated and unrealistic.

Read the other day that a wine critic was going to taste at Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate in Napa, but that he would be scoring either “since they chose not to let me blind taste.” Huh? I was not sure whether to laugh or cry.Since when is not knowing what’s in the glass a prerequisite for officially assessing quality? For now, let’s focus just on the notion that putting on a wine-tasting blindfold is the equivalent of, if not Superman’s cape, at least a shield of Teflon.

In my experience, blind tasting is inescapably circumstantial. Its value should be couched in the context in which the wine was sampled, especially when presented in a “flight.” I was reminded of this recently when Casa Lapostolle staged a blind tasting of “luxury” Cabernets. My favorite (and the media group’s) was the Lapostolle 2008 Cuvée Alexandre (SRP $25).

But I am hesitant to believe that one such tasting is definitive. It is what it was. Indeed it raised my assessment of Casa Lapostolle, but I am not going to write it off as vintage-schizophrenic, nor am I dumping Chateau Montelena (one of my lesser favorites) off my list of Napa classics. Most of all, it served to reinforce the fact that any wine is so much more than its impression in one glass on one day in one situation. Wine is a package deal: its origin, production details, price and, yes, its packaging all matter.

Tool for Discovery

My take is that blind tasting is most valuable when it is conducted extremely casually—as in a mystery bottle amid a sampling of known wines, yielding a fun “aha!” moment, shared by a group of people—or when it is conducted extremely rigorously. I witnessed the effectiveness of the latter context recently as a spectator during the Ultimate Spirits Challenge (see page 58). Quite simply, the combination of expert judges, airtight secrecy and a multi-panel, multiround format that ensures checks-andbalances yields results that stand reliably above single-critic reviews.

The basic flaw inherent in most wine critics’ blind tastings is the fact that people + wine is a recipe for imprecision, no matter how experienced the taster. Even Robert Parker, who at least has the courage to occasionally taste blind in public, has demonstrated that he cannot reproduce his impressions with statistical reliability. Plus, wine itself does not stand pat; it changes, both in the bottle over the long term and in the glass for the short term. And, oh, there’s that little thing called food, which is ultimately part of almost every wine’s final destination (at the table).

Sure, there is a place in the world for blind tasting. It is a tool for discovery. But making it a requirement for judgment is unrealistic, and deeming its results sacrosanct is just foolish. So why does the wine industry vest so much clout in blind-rated reviews conducted by middle-aged men sampling 20+ wines at a pop without a crumb to eat? The only logical answer is that the “blindness” built into their evaluation process theoretically yields objectivity, whereas knowing what’s in the glass unleashes bias.

Me? I’ll trust the judgment of an eyes-open taster any day of the week.
It takes relatively little effort to plow through a blind flight of wine. It takes a lot more conviction to be a real-world judge—selecting wines, labels and all—and then standing behind them to re-sell at specific prices. Retailers and restaurant wine pros make the tough decisions, paring down a universe of options to a finite set of wines, and for that they deserve more credit than any wine critic hiding behind the Teflon of a tasting blindfold.


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