Everyone at my end of the table thought we knew what the wine was. We were all wrong.
The object of our confusion was a bottle sitting a few feet away, covered in a sheath of tartan wrapping paper. We all had some of the wine in our glasses. A few of my friends thought it was a California red, maybe from Sonoma County. Ron was pretty sure there was Cabernet Franc in it, thanks to a taste of tobacco leaf. I tasted it too, but I thought the wine was from France—maybe a Right Bank Bordeaux made from Merlot and Cab Franc.
Bryant, the charming (and apparently devious) friend who brought the wine, unwrapped the bottle. Inside was the gift of humiliation—a bottle of Boekenhoutskloof Syrah Coastal Region 2009—from South Africa.
Welcome to wine's most humbling game—the blind tasting. My friend Tim McNally, a New Orleans wine writer and radio host, hosts an annual guys' lunch every December. We all gather at a local restaurant (this year, the timeless Crescent City Steakhouse), eat outstanding meat and drink great wine. The price of admission is one to two mystery bottles. Some of the guys work in the wine or restaurant business. Some just like to eat and drink. This year, 14 gentlemen put 25 bottles on the table, and we proceeded to swirl, sip and embarrass ourselves with hypotheses on what was in each bottle.
At Wine Spectator, our reviewers rate wines in blind tastings, but those are what we call single blind tastings—we know the appellation the wine came from and the vintage. (Read more About Our Tastings.) I sat in with various reviewers, learning about the process, for more than five years. The tasters are evaluating the wine in a flight of its peers, not trying to guess its identity. This holiday lunch was what we call double blind. We knew nothing about the wines in the bags.
People employ different tactics when confronted with a double-blind tasting. Some smell the wine, imbibe a healthy sip, swirl it around their palates, swallow and say, "Mmmmm, that's delicious. I believe I will have some more." Those may be the smartest people at the table.
For those of us foolish enough to hazard a guess, I find the best strategy is to not think too much. Wine makes its biggest impact on your nose, and scientists say sense of smell is closely connected to memory. We've all smelled something that's taken us back to the past. When I do manage a correct guess, it's usually because an aroma unlocked a memory of a wine I've encountered before.
It's all too easy to make the mistake of employing logic to guess a wine's identity. You identify a few flavors in the wine and start conjecturing. Or worse, you try to guess the wine based on what you know about the person who brought it. As an old admiral once said, "It's a trap."
Is there any value in the exercise of double-blind tasting? Would it be better for us to know what was in the bottle and focus on the quality of the wine? Perhaps.
But far too often we drink only what we know. The wide variety in wine can be so intimidating that once we identify a few regions or grapes we like, we cling to them like life preservers. At our lunch, you never know what people are going to show up with. I've made it a personal mission to bring wines I'm willing to bet my friends have never tasted before, such as a Sardinian Cannonau or a Godello from Galicia. Is this partially to stump them? A little, I confess. But it's also because I want to show them something new.
This year? Sadly, my bottle of Movia Cabernet Sauvignon from Slovenia was horribly corked. My second bottle was (thankfully) in perfect condition—Costanti Brunello di Montalcino 2007. Andreas Costanti, whose estate is on the slope of Montalcino just below the town, makes a classic but never rustic Brunello. I can't smell it without imagining that part of Tuscany.
If I had identified the wine and explained why I liked it before everyone at the table had tried it, they all would have suffered from preconceptions. That is the virtue of a blind tasting. You can taste it blind, share your impressions, then unbag it and go back for another sip. You can't do it the other way around.
So as 2013 begins, why don't we all make a resolution to regularly step out of our wine comfort zone this year? Try something new. And why not organize a blind tasting among your friends? Introduce them to some of your favorites without prejudicing their palates. And tell me, what would you bring for them to taste, both to stump them and to broaden their wine horizons?