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2008 California Wine Experience: Blind Tasting Seminar

Wine Spectator senior editors and audience members challenge themselves in guessing the grape variety of seven different mystery wines

Laurie Woolever
Posted: October 21, 2008

After attendees at the 2007 Wine Experience named it their favorite seminar of the weekend, it was no surprise that the Blind Tasting seminar was back in 2008. Moderated by Wine Spectator editor and publisher Marvin R. Shanken, the seminar featured a panel of seven senior editors, each of whom had chosen a wine to be tasted blind—and identified—by the audience and themselves. Shanken described the process as double-blind because nothing was revealed about the individual wines; each editor knew only his own selection, though not where it would fall in the lineup.

While serious in their intent to illustrate the challenges and opportunities of blind tasting, Shanken and the panelists kept the seminar entertaining, with good-natured jokes at each others' expense.

First, tasting director Bruce Sanderson explained the magazine's official blind tasting process: Wines are received at Wine Spectator offices in Napa, Calif.; New York; San Francisco; and Tuscany, Italy. They're given a code and bagged to conceal their identities. Reviewers know a wine's vintage, region and variety, but they do not know its producer or its cost. Sanderson said, "Anyone that's been involved with blind tasting understands how humbling it is, and also the value of it, in the sense that it puts all the wines on a level playing field." All told, he added, by the end of the year, the editors will have tasted more than 20,000 wines in 2008.

New to this year's seminar was the opportunity for attendees to test their skill at determining which of seven grape varieties comprised the wine they had just tasted. For each wine, the audience entered their guesses on a handheld electronic keypad; the results were projected on screens at the front of the room. As one might expect, guesses for the first wine ranged widely across the spectrum of grapes, and by the sixth and seventh wines, by process of elimination, most voters chose correctly.

Sommeliers wrapped the wines in foil to disguise their identities.  

Servers poured from bottles wrapped in foil. The first was revealed to be Cougar Crest Cabernet Franc Walla Walla 2005 (93 points, $34), chosen by Harvey Steiman for its seductive floral and spicy qualities and because, he admitted, gesturing toward his colleagues onstage, "I thought it would throw these guys for a loop."

The second wine was Quinta do Vallado Touriga Nacional Douro 2006 (92, $55), chosen by Kim Marcus, who noted that in Portugal, varietal bottlings such as this 100 percent Touriga Nacional are few and far between. The wine showed fresh fruit, spice and a minerality typical to the Douro, and Marcus noted that its fermentation in stainless steel and aging in barriques were indicative of Portugal's new wave of modern winemaking.

Wine number three, chosen by James Molesworth, turned out to be Bodega Noemía de Patagonia J. Alberto Río Valley 2007 (91, $55). It's 95 percent Malbec, 5 percent Merlot, and Molesworth noted its up-front raspberry character, graphite note and racy acidity on the finish. James Laube praised the wine for its straightforward and discernible varietal characteristic, something he said too often gets lost in what can be the homogenizing process of modern winemaking.

  Marvin R. Shanken challenges the senior editors to guess the varieties of seven wines.

The fourth wine, a red Burgundy, belonged to Sanderson: Nicolas Potel Echézeaux 2006 (91, $155), which he described as "a little wild, a little unruly in its youth. There are some tannins there, they're fine tannins. In about five to seven years, this will be a beautiful bottle of wine."

Thomas Matthews was responsible for the fifth wine, Bodegas Muga Rioja Reserva Selección Especial 2004 (92, $48). Made from 70 percent Tempranillo from La Rioja Alta, it has "an elegance and acidity, and a certain kind of lift," said Matthews, who also noted the coconut and vanilla flavors lent by American oak, and smokiness resulting from French oak.

Wine number six, La Spinetta Barbera D'Alba Vigneto Gallina 2006 (91, $60), had been chosen by James Suckling, who called it "superversatile" and noted its balance of vanilla and cherry flavors and fresh acidity. Suckling also admitted that he'd been worried about his performance at this tasting because he had roughed up his palate with tequila shots the day before, as he'd made his way to New York from Havana via Cancun, having been on assignment for Wine Spectator sister publication Cigar Aficionado.

The audience cheers as the favorite wine is revealed.  

Whether by process of elimination or, as James Laube joked, because it had "varietal characteristics that were most familiar" to the voting attendees, it seemed no mystery that the final wine, Novy Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands Gary's Vineyard 2006 (93, $32) was Laube's. He called it a "classic Syrah, with white and black pepper, jalapeño, great balance and length."

When asked to choose which wine of the seven they most enjoyed, the highest percentage of the audience chose the Novy, which seemed a fitting homage, given the seminar's context in the California Wine Experience.

Before concluding the seminar, Shanken asked audience members to stand if they had not guessed any of the wines correctly. Two brave attendees, along with one who had guessed all seven correctly, were given all-access passes to next year's Wine Experience, where they can continue to hone their tasting and evaluation skills by sampling hundreds more fantastic wines.

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