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A Name That Wine Game

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: May 18, 2006 10:34am ET

I played a round of mystery decanter on Saturday night with a group of friends. It’s a game any wine lovers who want to test their name-that-wine skills will enjoy, whether they’re novices or geeks.

Dining outdoors on the patio at the restaurant Angèle, in Napa, six of us enjoyed dinner, working through a 1994 Etienne Sauzet Montrachet (sleek and honeyed, with a mineral edge), a 2004 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir (rich and exotic), a 2003 Cayuse Walla Walla En Chambertin Vineyard Syrah (dense and beefy) and a 2002 Lewis Cuvee L Napa Valley Cabernet (plush and opulent).

Then we ran out of wine.

We called on Angèle’s wine manger, James Darden, to surprise us by picking a wine off the wine list and pouring it to us blind.

Mystery decanter is simply an intellectual and sensory evaluation exercise. It’s best played with several people – six is perfect – and everyone takes their stab at identifying the wine. As you work through the possibilities – grape type, region, appellation even vintage – everyone is allowed to benefit from the collected wisdom. So everyone gets to play to the final verdict, or verdicts.

When Darden poured the red, we all guessed it was likely an old world wine. Most of us figured Southern Rhône.

Medium red garnet in color, it looked like a mature wine. It was lightly aromatic, with spicy floral, beefy mineral and dried currant flavors. We figured late 1990s, maybe a 1998.

When you play this game, it’s OK for the host to let loose with a few clues. So Darden nodded his head when we guessed Southern Rhône, and then honed in on Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

We were pretty confident the wine had some Grenache and Syrah, but of course we were only close. We missed two grapes by a long shot.

When the bottle was revealed, it was a 2002 Grange des Peres from the Languedoc ($135), a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The color didn’t look like anything from the New World. But it also didn’t taste much like Cabernet, which has a strong personality and often is a giveaway about a wine.

Guessing the wine’s identity, of course, would have been a feather in anyone’s hat. But explaining the reasons why you think a wine is from a certain appellation or made from a certain grape is just as important. So is guessing its age.

Give this a try the next time you’re in the mood for a mind-bending name-that-wine game.

Scott Young
Richmond, Va —  May 18, 2006 2:27pm ET
James, this is one of my favorite things to do. I work as a distributor and I love to do this on a consistent basis with my fiance. Her mother will pour a random wine from another room into glasses for us and then we'll work through it together. Other than increasing our knowledge, my favorite part is that it allows me to get a better handle on which varieties she likes and from which regions without having any "outside" factors affect her opinion. Wine should be enjoyed and it's much easier to do that if you know what you like (other than the critter on the colorful label).
Kurt-inge Eklund
Esl?v, Sweden —  May 18, 2006 4:12pm ET
Fun game after 4 btls.... Well, it is interesting to have wines served blind from skilled people. It is so easy to fall in the trap that you judge the wine from the environment from where it is served. Like you think you know that in this home/restaurant all wines come from Italy and in the glass you have a wine that you likely never would get there. I think, though, that this game should be just a game in a dinner as a dinner is something that should be enjoyed in great company and not as a competition. But is is for sure a fun game to force you to judge your wine with no preferences. By the way; Ang¿ is a great restaurant!
Sao Anash
Santa Barbara —  May 18, 2006 7:23pm ET
James,I think it's so important for winemakers,especially, to play mystery decanter, or mystery wine. So many of them get used to drinking and assessing only their own wines, or the wines of their immediate peers, and, at some point, they stop learning about their vocation. With so many wines out there to teach us about varietal character, balance, elegance, it's a shame that more winemakers don't push their own palates to learn as much as they can about the varietals they choose to focus upon, and others as well. This can't be a coincidence: the winemakers that I most admire are also the ones that consistently try other wines, from all over the world, blind, and oftentimes alongside their own. I still remember one winemaker I worked with, and admired very much. Each month he would taste his wines blind alongside the best wines of the world in that varietal category. I believe this made him want to make better wines, to always strive to improve. Thanks for the blog.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA —  May 18, 2006 9:34pm ET
Mystery decanter can be a very humbling experience. I usually get the red vs white guess correct... but then it can get pretty embarassing. One time I actually guessed the EXACT wine (1997 Kistler Hirsch Pinot)... but more often than not I barely get the planet right.
Ryan Dougherty
Napa, CA —  May 19, 2006 11:51pm ET
Blind tasting is, without a doubt, one of the most educating and fun ways to learn more about wine. Most blind tastings I've done, however, have been conducted at a shop or at someone's home - never at a restaurant. So, I'm curious, (especially as a frequent visitor to Angele) what does one/a table order to accompany a blind tasting?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 20, 2006 11:27am ET
Ryan,I usually leave it up to the staff. Hopefully, they're as good at picking the wine as they are an entree or side order.OTOH, most food and wine pairings work just fine.
Chris Horn
Seattle, WA —  May 22, 2006 6:58am ET
James--The next time you visit your favorite restaurant, go ahead and play Mytery Decanters (plural) with the Som...Give him/her the bottles you and your party have provided and allow the (trusted) wine professional to unleash them at his/her discretion, with the food in mind...(And if you allow for a Wild Card entry, chosen from said wine pro., it can lead to an eye opening and often vexing experience...)A side note to Ryan from Napa--Just ask the wine guy/gal on duty to send you bottles or (my preference) glasses of wine without disclosure...(If you choose the "bottle" option, make sure you discuss prices, because we know how that kind of situation can go south...) Most of us on the floor love the challenge and opportunity to serve wines blind while keeping an eye on proper pairing...Because (ultimately) the context surrounding a flavor has a much to do with the perceived excellence of a flavor...(Fresh squeezed orange juice VS. Concentrate--Both rather horrible after brushing one's teeth...)Thanks for the blog, James...There is much joy to be had in this vast world of wine--and playing a game as simple as Mystery Decanter over dinner is perhaps as satisfying as any...Wine is supposed to be fun, right?
Grady Wine Mktg I
BC Canada —  May 23, 2006 5:54pm ET
Hi there, a great idea, to the unintiated can be a tough start...many of my friends are neophytes I do a similair (albiet easier) approach; at dinner parties I have 2 or 3 wines of the same varietal (or blends) from different regions/vintages in decanters. From there we taste them blind and compare, this gives the 'rookies' an opportunity to taste wines and discuss the differences. Something easy and fun for newer wine drinkers.
Laura Long
Santa Rosa, CA —  May 24, 2006 7:14pm ET
Greetings,Thank you James for bringing this idea out in the open. I love doing this with family and friends. And thanks to Chris for bringing up speaking to the sommilier about price. Most folks are very intimidated to talk about the price of wine. Diners could probably get a much better selection on the list if they give the somm/server a budget and entree selection. In fact could you perhaps discuss this subject in a future blog?As someone in the trade, nothing would give me more pleasure than to dine out and let the 'wine guy' pick my wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  May 24, 2006 7:19pm ET
Hi Laura,I did give James a budget....$1,000...luckily he didn't scorch me (and my guests).

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