In Defense of Blind Tastings

May 26, 2006

There’s a thread on another Web site discussing the pros and cons of blind tasting.

A reader sent me a clip from that dialogue citing one comment that blind tasting is “vastly overrated.”

Really?

Maybe the person meant "vastly underappreciated."

Blind tasting has been the wine industry’s standard for evaluating wines for a long time. Perhaps it’s only critics -- many of whom don’t taste blind -- who disagree about this practice.

While blind tasting is hardly perfect, it is the most objective way -- and fairest to producers -- to analyze wine. It's the way we at Wine Spectator review all new releases, and except where otherwise noted, all wines are reviewed blind.

Had this person said that blind tasting isn’t the only way to evaluate wines, and that it has its imperfections, that would have been different.

The discussion also raises some questions about how different reviewers analyze their wines, how much time they spend with them, and whether critics change their scores after the wines are revealed.

I’m happy to talk about my tastings and will from time to time.

Here are some of my practices:

I know the varietal, vintage and appellation of most wines.

Wines are opened about an hour before tasting and one pour is splashed into the sink, to let the wine aerate.

I use a warm-up wine, which was previously reviewed and rated, as a reference point.

I typically taste eight to 10 wines to get my bearings (and I taste with one of my colleagues; they’re there to learn and share their views). I write notes and score the wines, with the bags still on. Once I feel comfortable with my ratings (and that can vary depending on the varietal), I begin to unveil some of the wines.

When I find a wine that’s outstanding, or sensational, or tight, or something I want to reconsider, I leave it bagged. On a good day I might retaste a dozen or more wines, still blind, before knowing their identity.

There are times -- the 2001 Peter Michael Les Pavots springs to mind -- when a wine is so astounding that I taste it six or seven times before finding out its identity. Heck, most of that bottle was gone after all of us tasted it time and again.

I often retaste (blind again) a wine that gets a 98-point rating. Why not? Wines like that don’t come along that often.

The notion that I only spend 15 seconds or three minutes on each wine is also pure conjecture. It depends on the wine. Bad wines are easy to score, and the notes are short. Great wines deserve a more comprehensive description.

On good days (yesterday was a bad Merlot day), I’ll take some of the wines home and drink them with dinner. It gives me another chance to think about what I liked about a wine.

Other times, such as with a dense, backward Petite Sirah, I’ll let it sit, still bagged, overnight and retaste it the next day. I don’t change the score, but might tweak the note to reflect a broader drink window.

There’s nothing wrong, either, with a critic adding a comment in the note after it’s been rated and unveiled.

As I’ve said, I’ve come to appreciate blind tasting because it often renders surprises and forces you to use your sensory skills rather than your ability to read a label.

I’m sure you have some thoughts on this subject.

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