The topic of a recent discussion that I had with Michael Mondavi was wine tasting, specifically sensory evaluation and objective analysis. It had been a long time, Mondavi admitted, since the late 1960s when he had attended the University of California at Davis as a part-time student, yet the lessons that he learned there about the proper way to taste remained crystal clear.
The most important is to taste wines blind whenever possible. "Your mind overrides your palate and your sensory perceptions when you don't taste blind," said Mondavi, whose company has wine interests in California, Italy, France, Australia and Chile.
Mondavi's mentor at Davis was none other than the late Professor Maynard Amerine, one of America's leading experts on the subject. Amerine co-authored one of the essential wine-tasting classics, Wines: Their Sensory Evaluation, in 1976. In the book, he warned of pitfalls for consumers (and critics) who don't taste blind. It's far too easy to be fooled by "Madison Avenue hucksters" and their claims of "superlative quality" wines, Amerine wrote.
Moreover, he cautioned, you couldn't be a good judge of a wine's quality if you relied on "Old or New World romance, price, region, producer [or] vintage." Eventually every vineyard, vintage and producer has its failures, Amerine said. The simplest way to remove any and all of those prejudices is to taste blind, that is, without knowledge of the wine's identity.
As for winemakers, Amerine advised them that it was important to know competitors' wines as well as or better than they knew their own. "Professor Amerine used to say that you should taste more of your competition's wines than your own so you won't develop a house palate," Mondavi said.
I'm surprised by how few wineries even conduct comprehensive competitive tastings. Mondavi doesn't taste as many wines as he used to, but he understands the importance of impartial analysis, coupled with experience. When he and his father, Robert, were starting their winery in 1966, they were fanatical about tasting as many wines from around the world as they could. It helped them broaden their knowledge of wines and gave them new perspectives.
Unfortunately, many if not most of the winemakers with whom I have talked in recent years are too busy even to taste verticals of their own wines on a regular basis, much less pour through blind tastings of hundreds of their competitors' wines.
The result is that winemakers too often use their own wine as a reference point for the broader market, and doing so can be misleading. Winemakers (or winery owners) who drink only their own or their colleagues' bottlings may develop an appreciation for a small group of wines, but that hardly amounts to unbiased research.
Even the most experienced tasters have a hard time overcoming their biases and critiquing a wine objectively if they look at the label or if the bottle has a price tag. Wine critics who insist a wine label does not sway them should therefore have no trouble tasting blind, since the label isn't a factor. But some critics eschew blind tastings, and some winemakers will only let critics taste their wines in their presence at their winery in nonblind situations (one reason you don't see reviews of certain wines in this magazine). Ever heard the expression "It tasted better at the winery?"
Tasting nonblind has one huge built-in safety-net/advantage: It's easy to praise the wine if you know you're tasting a $300 bottle of Lafite or Yquem. Expensive wines always taste good. Similarly, it's easy to denigrate a $3.99 wine with a cheesy label. Tasting blind removes preconceptions and forces you to draw on your own experience and evaluate the wine on its own merit.
It almost goes without saying that vintners who don't taste blind and who routinely focus on their own wines run the risk of developing something akin to "kennel blindness" -- an inability to see the defects, flaws, shortcomings or exaggerations in their own products. They also have a much narrower view of the market than is healthy for such a highly competitive business.
Tasting blind is often a humbling experience. That's the point. No one wants to miss the great bottle, and rank it last, or give a glowing review to the least expensive wine. But if you want to be a better taster, do yourself a favor. Taste often, taste as many wines as you can and, above all, taste blind.
James Laube, Wine Spectator's Napa Valley-based senior editor, has been with the magazine since 1983.