The New Yorker threw down the gauntlet. Wine Spectator rose to the challenge.
In a special issue devoted to food (Aug. 19 & 26), The New Yorker magazine devoted one small story to wine. It's a shame, really. There were plenty of strong stories in the issue; I particularly enjoyed a profile of wild man chef Mario Batali of New York's excellent Babbo restaurant. Why give such short shrift to food's favorite partner? Even this august magazine just doesn't get the point.
To add insult to injury, the one wine story was written by an avowed beer lover, Calvin Trillin. Trillin may be a noted food writer, but he confessed, "when I'm trying to select a bottle of wine in a liquor store, I'm strongly influenced by the picture on the label."
After that, it came as no surprise that Trillin set out to take wine lovers down a peg or two. The story's title said it all: "The Red and the White. Is it possible that wine connoisseurs can't tell them apart?" Trillin suspects they can't. He has heard about a test in which wines are served at room temperature in glasses that mask their color, and "was definitely told," he writes with evident glee, "the tasters often couldn't tell red from white."
Can this be true? If so, it makes a mockery of the entire idea of serious wine-tasting. It implies that wine critics are frauds, basing oracular pronouncements about quality and origin on nothing but inside information and guesswork. It suggests that we at Wine Spectator might just as well hang up our corkscrews and look for honest work.
I decided to take the test myself. And to be fair to Trillin, I asked for volunteers to join me. They included our tasting director, who reviews 2,000 wines a year and should be able to tell the difference (and, if not, be fired), along with three copy editors and two art directors, all of whom drink wine with enthusiasm, but don't pretend to be experts.
The day came. Our tasting coordinator selected six wines -- I asked not to know how many were red, how many white -- put them in bags, numbered them and brought them all to room temperature. The tasters then sat, blindfolded, as each wine was poured into a glass and the glass was put into trembling hands.
We sniffed, we sipped, we guessed.
"This is harder than I imagined," confessed an art director, tasting his first wine. One copy editor was more confident. "That's a Chardonnay," he proclaimed of wine No. 5. "I'd say this one [No. 3] is a red Rioja," opined the tasting director. "It has a supple texture and a hint of vanilla." Another copy editor based most of his guesses simply on the aromas. "The hard part is not dribbling the wine down my chin," he said.
How did we do? Six wines times seven tasters equals 42 guesses. If Trillin's suspicions were true, and we were simply flipping coins, the odds say we'd get about half right.
In fact, we guessed correctly 40 times. There were only two mistakes.
The hesitant art director missed the first wine, probably from nerves. The other art director -- a young woman in her first job out of college -- mistook an oaky Chardonnay (yes, wine No. 5) for a red wine, possibly because barrel fermentation and aging had given it as much tannin as some softer reds. None of the copy editors missed a wine. Neither did the tasting director, nor, I'm relieved to say, did I. And by the way, wine No. 3 was indeed a red Rioja.
What did we learn?
Even an inexperienced wine taster can tell red from white. It's just not that hard. There's no reason to be intimidated by wine; our taste buds are natural guides to its flavors and its pleasures.
More than that, our palates can be educated. Someone who cares enough to study wine can figure out a lot more than whether it's red or white, even "blind" -- like which grapes went into the wine, where it was grown, how old it is. The kind of information that makes wine a uniquely complex beverage, and particularly fascinating for people who really enjoy the sensory side of life.
Calvin! You're a guy who likes to eat, and you write about food in a way that makes a reader hungry. You should give wine a second chance. And the next time The New Yorker wants a wine article, don't just scoff and theorize. Pull some corks and pay attention. You might be surprised how much you enjoy yourself, and how much you can discover in a glass of wine.
Thomas Matthews, executive editor of Wine Spectator, has been with the magazine since 1988.