At Wine Spectator, all new-release wines are reviewed in blind tastings. It’s the best way to judge wine, avoiding the bias that’s unavoidable when you know a wine’s label or price.
It’s also the most humbling way to judge wine. At the 2007 Wine Experience, the magazine’s senior editors put themselves under the spotlight, participating in a tasting where each chose a wine that was served blind to the whole panel and to the audience. Editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken moderated that tasting, during which some editors incorrectly identified wines, and, in some cases, failed to recognize their own wines.
So this year, “when I asked for volunteers among the senior editors to come forward,” Shanken told the audience, “only one agreed to—reluctantly. His reputation is on the line.” Never afraid to rib his employees for the crowd, Shanken summoned senior editor James Molesworth to the stage. With the rest of the editors declining, Shanken hired replacements. Chef Emeril Lagasse, known for his restaurants around the country, including Wine Spectator Grand Award winners in New Orleans and Las Vegas, is known for his passion for wine. Looking for a wild card, Shanken asked John Salley, a former NBA power forward and owner of four championship rings, to come on stage. Salley, who stands 6’11” (but who Shanken claimed was 8’11”) and has a new wine project called Vegan Vine Wines, picked the publisher up in a bear hug on taking the stage. “John is very shy,” observed Shanken.
The last member of the panel was the audience. Everyone had a remote control in front of them, so as four wines were served, panelists and audience members could vote on the color, whether the wine was “New World” or “Old World,” its country of origin and grape variety.
After the first wine was tasted, Molesworth shared his strategy. He believed the wine, a rich white, was a New World Chardonnay. “But then I made the classic blind tasting mistake. I started to think too much about what they might be pouring. When you taste blind, you need to just focus on what’s in the glass,” he said. “First instinct is usually right.”
Good advice that he should have listened to. Molesworth guessed wine one was an Australian Chardonnay, but it turned out to be the Beringer Chardonnay Napa Valley Private Reserve 2010 (92 points, $37). The majority of the audience thought California and won four points. Molesworth, right on everything but country, got three. Salley, who thought it was a French wine, got two. “If that wasn’t a softball up the middle, I don’t know what is,” said Shanken.
The wines got progressively tougher. The second wine was the El Molino Pinot Noir Rutherford 2009 (93, $60). The third was Il Poggione’s Brunello di Montalcino 2007 (92, $85). After an early wobble, Molesworth and Lagasse found their stride and got more answers right. Salley, new to blind tasting, took a little longer. “Did I mention that John was an excellent shot blocker, an excellent rebounder, but not much of a scorer?” teased Shanken.
By the last wine, the panel had adjusted to Shanken’s game. With four points at stake, the panelists successfully identified the red as a Cabernet Sauvignon from South Africa—Rust en Vrede’s Cabernet Sauvignon Stellenbosch 2009 (92, $28). Molesworth and Lagasse tied for an overall score of 14 points each. Salley finished strong with 12.
But the wisdom of the crowd finished first—the audience got 16 points. Salley was gracious in fourth place. When he revealed he had never been to Bordeaux, Shanken offered to introduce him to Corinne Mentzelopoulos, owner of Château Margaux, who was sitting in the front row. Salley asked if she was single, because he was looking for a French winery to invest in.
Was there anything to be learned from an hour of laughing and tasting? Molesworth summed it up best. “Blind tasting is a lot of fun. You should try it at home. Have a party where everyone brings a bottle and you taste,” he said. “And when you taste, trust your instincts.”