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The Trouble with Blind Tasting

Blindly nailing down a wine's identity is a neat trick. But should it be a job requirement?

Posted: Jul 18, 2013 10:45am ET

By Ben O'Donnell

If you're an American in the wine industry and are within my age range (mid-twenties to early thirties, not to put too fine a point on it), you have, or are somewhere on the path toward, a Master Sommelier diploma. That is barely an exaggeration. (Some folks pursue a Wine & Spirits Education Trust diploma, or go on to a Master of Wine, instead.) For a generation that purports to care little about what the so-called experts have to say about wine, it seems we all want to become one anyway.

"It definitely helps to have it on the résumé when it comes to scoring a great job in the wine world," said Dustin Wilson, wine director at Wine Spectator Grand Award–winning Eleven Madison Park and MS class of '11. "It's a title that earns you some automatic respect."

The numbers speak for themselves: 63 and 70 people have sat for each Master Sommelier exam this year, compared to 38 and 37 in the two 2009/2010 sessions. (Some people were returning; you can repeat a failed segment of the test twice more, then you have to retake the whole thing.) In 2012, a total of 95 people took the Advanced Sommelier test for the degree a step below, with 39 more this past April. Of the 133 total North American Master Sommeliers, 71 have earned their letters since 2005, and the first test was held stateside in 1987.

By most accounts of people in the program, the series of seminars and degrees leading up to one's MS is a fantastic immersion in wine knowledge. At $2,870 for the four course levels required to get your MS—and thousands more often spent on tasting practice—it's also a pricey test to fail, and around 90 percent do in the final stage of each session (this month's sitting of 70 hopefuls only minted one new MS). There are three segments, two of them perfectly unobjectionable. Deep knowledge of wine and spirits, along with grace under fire on the restaurant floor, should absolutely be required of, well, ideally any sommelier, but certainly one who claims mastery.

But here's the rub: You also have to blind-taste six wines in 25 minutes and "identify grape varieties, country of origin, district and appellation of origin, and vintages of the wines tasted" at a minimum of 75 percent accuracy. Even if you're a wine ace, you've played this game and lost, perhaps embarrassingly. So as you might expect, the tasting sinks plenty of sad somms. The new film Somm includes scenes when the four documentary subjects/MS candidates (Wilson is one) guess off by a mile, both in their thousands of practice hours and on the big day.

"When I first passed my theory and my service in '08, I was a hair away [in the tasting segment]," said Spago's Christopher Miller. "I had blazed through the course levels, top of the class and everything, won some competitions." During the postmortem, Miller was told, "'You were so close but we couldn't give it to you because it wasn't mastery.' I was not a master taster. That was hard to hear."

Miller had just been hired to build out the cellar of Wolfgang Puck's signature restaurant. Two years later, he earned Spago a Wine Spectator Grand Award, overseeing a list he had nearly quadrupled to 3,300 selections. He also failed the MS tasting a third time.

Yet Wilson feels that the blind tasting pulls no punches. "The wines that are used are always very representative of a classic wine from a classic region. The idea is not to trick you; while Trousseau from California can be delicious, something like that would never be a part of the test." Still, he added, "I'm sure if you asked most people what the most difficult part of the exam is, I believe tasting would be at the top of most people's list. It certainly was for me."

Why do sommeliers need to be able to identify an unknown wine anyway? Their job is to pick quality wines for their restaurant and then recommend appropriate ones to guests, not to perform parlor tricks.

But Miller defended the practical application of double-blind tasting: Since blind tasting washes out received wisdoms about how wine styles are supposed to taste, the ability to pinpoint where different wines converge and diverge helps him make recommendations to his customers. "It's the things that you screw up: If you're a trained professional who's been doing this twice a week and you keep screwing up [different styles], good chance a consumer will appreciate the fact that those are similar. When you taste a Burgundy blind and you swear it's New World Pinot Noir, then somebody comes in, and they want Burgundy but something a little bit fruitier, that's the one you go to." Mistaking similar styles is less helpful when you're sitting for the exam, of course.

The training, then, makes one a better somm, but do the letters themselves? "Let's say you're studying like an Olympian for four years and you don't make the team, you're still in pretty good shape. You didn't make the cut, or you didn't have your day, that doesn't make you any less of an athlete," Miller put it. The MS should be treated as "an accreditation that is a recognition of time spent."

"And some of these people," Miller went on, "just want to rush through." He's right: I've talked to ambitious younger pros who see programs like the MS as the fast track—perhaps the only track—to the big leagues, a grad program to hustle through more than a laurel of experience.

Therein lies the trouble as I see it. Miller, who finally passed last year, is obvious proof that you don't need an MS to practice wine, unlike passing the bar for law. His story is also proof that double-blind tasting, the grafting of wine knowledge onto sensory nubbins of the brain that still trick us in ways science doesn't understand, is rather more capricious than straight book-learnin'.

As such, achievements like the MS and MW should be considered a badge, not a barrier. Yet Wilson, who had been a sommelier at RN74, another Grand Award winner, picked up his wine director gig at Eleven Madison shortly after completing his MS; another disciple in Somm was offered a plum position at Krug the day of his success. Such evidence from wine businesses that an MS might be sine qua non for certain job offers tends to feed into the anxiety of aspiring somms, even if, as Miller put it "the perception has increased more than the reality of it."

I'd caution wine businesses to ensure it doesn't become a reality. All but requiring a certification like an MS or other wine degree, which can reward the lucky and punish the accomplished, makes a wine company look unconfident in its own ability to gauge a potential hire's qualifications or, worse, foremost interested in flashing the letters of a trophy somm. That does a disservice to the customer—and the hard work of the men and women who toil through wine school.

You can follow Ben O'Donnell on Twitter, at twitter.com/BenODonn.

Hoyt Hill
Nashville, TN USA —  July 18, 2013 4:25pm ET
I was in the group of twenty wine professionals who took the MS exam in 1987. Although I did not pass, I came away inspired by the professionalism and dedication of the other candidates. Coming from Nashville, I had not really been around very many people who were as knowledgeable as those in the group that week. And I have had some amazing stories to tell for the ensuing 26 years, including the one about my horrible faux pas when Madeline Triffon, the first female MS, came down to inform me that my blind tasting would begin thirty minutes late and I asked her to help me kill the time by modeling her bikini for the thirty minutes! She was not amused, to say the least!
Thomas Schaal
San Francisco, CA —  July 19, 2013 4:31pm ET
I would be very careful about heading into the treacherous waters of talking about "rewarding the lucky" and "punishing the accomplished". Successful completion of the coursework to become a MS is a tremendous accomplishment, and I am certain luck has, at best, an infinitesimally small component in succeeding in the blind taste test. If the top restaurants in the country decide that a MS is a prerequisite for employment as a sommelier, then I applaud them. If the stress or "anxiety" of tasting blind under the pressure of the big exam is too much, then maybe it is not meant to be. At the master sommelier level, it is comparable to the rarified air being an professional athlete performing under pressure of the big game. Not everyone can succeed, or it cheapens the title. I would prefer to toast those who succeed by their sheer talent, drive and passion for their craft than to wallow in the self-pity of those who fail.
David Rapoport
CA —  July 19, 2013 10:16pm ET
I'm not a neuroscientist, but I would expect that the aural analogue, would be ear training. People with perfect pitch aside, you need to, and can be trained to hear and notate music; as well as look at music and hear it. I imagine the former is the closer analogue.
You're exposing your brain to sounds and understanding what they are and how to notate them. Additionally, if you are taking dictation of music and you understand the cultural context behind that music, you learn tricks for eliminating the unlikely for that period/style.
It strikes me that blind tasting is the same:
You train your brain to recognize flavors and their associations. Additionally, you understand the context behind wines, so when tasting you can eliminate up front and narrow down.
Clearly people differ in innate ability. However, the mystery and near deification of those who do well in blind tastings mystifies me. It's a skill. You can learn it. How far you go will be determined by how hard you work and how well you brain constructs and remembers flavors. Just like how well you do at training your ear will be a function of how hard you work and your baseline ability for your brain to understand the relationships between pitches (and rhythms)
Regardless, with very few exceptions, I have to imagine anyone can start from nothing and improve with the right training.
That said, the skill has considerably less use than being able to notate music from hearing to paper

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