Blind Tasting and Context

What it means and why it matters
Mar 5, 2013

Recently, several prominent wine writers argued on Twitter in a contentious back-and-forth with me and others that blind tasting was bad. It's tasting without context, they said. I am not setting up a straw man here. Here are some of their actual tweets:

"Why should wine routinely be tasted blind, devoid of context or perspective? Why deprive those who would judge it of that information?" contended Bruce Schoenfeld, who writes a wine column for Travel + Leisure magazine.

"I question whether blind tasting … can uncover the most compelling and virtuous wines," read another comment from Jon Bonné, wine editor of the San Francisco Chronicle.

Virtuous? Oh my, is that the top of a slippery slope.

I learned the value of blind tasting early in my wine-drinking life. In the 1970s I lived in Miami and participated in a wine group that included some serious collectors and an important retailer. From time to time we each brought a mystery bottle from our cellars and poured it into a decanter out of sight of the others.

Although we tasted blind, several members knew that my wine was usually from California, and would dismiss it (even when it was a BV Private Reserve; I did not cheap out with this crowd). One day, the host suggested we secretly switch decanters. My Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1968, one of California's early classics, went into his decanter, his Châteaux Margaux into mine. Thinking his wine had to be one of his Bordeaux first-growths, they all swooned over it, and dismissed "my" Château Margaux. When the identities were revealed, the condescenders of California decided the Mondavi was lacking and the Margaux was fantastic.

This story echoes in my mind whenever anyone questions the necessity of blind tasting in making judgments about wine. But I wanted to understand what this new way of thinking really was about, so, since we live in the same town, I bought Bonné a cup of coffee and asked him to explain his views.

"I do a better job as a critic when I seek out newsworthy wines," Bonné said, "the ones that make smart decisions about their cultural values, farming values and esthetic values." Bonné cited Skinner winery's vivid Grenache from the Sierra Foothills as a wine that might be overlooked in a blind tasting. And Cabernet Sauvignons such as those from Stony Hill or Corison can get swamped if surrounded by more opulent styles.

A valid point; it's long been known that bigger, more muscular wines can overshadow the charms of more delicate samples when tasted side-by-side (blind or not). Experienced tasters know that. So when I come to a wine that seems relatively insipid, I don't just blow it off. I take a moment to let my palate refresh and go back to it a few minutes later. With patience, the good ones show what they have, if they have it.

However, I take issue with the notion that one can't discover worthy wines in blind tastings. I've lost count of the wines that showed something special in a blind tasting, which I followed up to learn their stories. That's where the context comes in. Is it a new producer, or a familiar producer doing something different? The character of the wine leads to the context, not the other way around.

Another theme is that an art critic, a film critic or a music critic can know the context before they review the actual experience. Should a wine critic be any different? I worry that biases can easily play into a fair evaluation. Symphony orchestras might still be missing the talents of women, Asians, Latinos and African Americans if blind auditions (now standard) had not proved they sounded just as good when everyone tries out behind a screen.

My stance is simple. If we know—or even suspect—the identity of the wine we're tasting, it's too easy to find exactly what we expect, not what's really there. Think of those collectors who believed California wine to be inferior. And I'm not alone in this conclusion. There have been many scientific studies that demonstrate the power of expectation to influence judgment.

Today, however, the position is flipped. Bonné is writing a book about the "new California," wines that play against prevailing styles of the recent past. But if you are convinced that off-the-beaten-path wineries are more interesting than the mainstream, isn't that what you are bound to find if you don't taste blind?

And you might be right, but to prove it I am convinced you must take away the cues. Find the evidence when tasting blind with competing wines. Either the wine in the glass really reflects its "virtue" or it doesn't. Then you can make an editorial judgment of which wines to highlight for readers.

In our Twitter conversation, the travel writer argued that we can't judge a wine fairly if we don't know what the winemaker was aiming for. But as far as I am concerned, if we cannot sense the winemaker's intent in the glass, then you're arguing that it doesn't matter how it really tastes.

I do not always taste blind. Experiencing wines at lunch or dinner, at trade tastings, in winery cellars or in interviews with winemakers provides context. Tasting the delicate structure and finesse of Adelsheim Pinot Noirs with winemaker Dave Paige, studying the vineyard sources and what they bring to the wine, sensitized me to those characteristics when I encounter his wines, or similar styles, in my blind tastings. Having tasted Washington's Red Mountain reds on other occasions, I can adjust to their tannic grip when I encounter it.

Although reviews you see in the New Releases section of Wine Spectator were tasted blind, the tasting note is not without context. Once the score and characteristics are determined and the identity revealed, I can add a phrase that compares this vintage to previous ones, or include a key piece of germaine information.

Mostly, however, I let the note stand on its own, and pursue the context for where it belongs: in stories about the region, the winery, the winemaker or the wine type. Then the context reflects what's in the glass, rather than the mind of the taster.

Readers value critics who can lead them to wines they want to drink. We offer our opinions, and if you agree with the assessment when you try the wine yourself, you might try another recommendation. If this happens often enough it builds trust. The only way I can build trust is to taste honestly and critically, and to do that I need to eliminate as much bias as I can. That means tasting blind when reviewing.

To further illustrate how subtle cues and beliefs can affect our judgments, I offer the following story. It is 100 percent true. I have the column I wrote at the time to prove it.

The late restaurateur Vic Bergeron, the original Trader Vic, was a showman of the first magnitude. One day in the early 1980s he invited every wine writer in Northern California to come to a tasting. He had made a discovery that would revolutionize wine aging. Storing wine under a pyramid, he told us, accelerates the aging process and makes any wine better in months instead of years. To prove it he offered us examples of the same wine aged under the pyramid and in his regular cellar.

A line of waiters appeared each holding two bottles of the same wine, identical except that half the bottles had gold seals on them. The waiters poured with great fanfare. The writers almost unanimously preferred the wine with the gold seal. No prizes if you can guess which one had been aged under the pyramid.

This was pretense, not blind tasting. First Vic set up an expectation that there would be a difference between the two bottles. Then he accentuated it by changing the appearance of one of the bottles. The subliminal meaning of a gold seal isn't hard to grasp.

On the way back to the office I bought two bottles of the same wine and affixed a gold seal to one of them. I set up my own tasting, collaring colleagues at random to taste them and tell me which one they preferred. It was almost unanimous. They found the gold seal bottle clearly better.

The lesson to this parable is about expectations. Even when we aren't aware of it, anything that can suggest one wine is better than another in a tasting will bias our judgment at some level, "virtuous" winemakers included. That's what matters.

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