Blind tasting

The perils of blind tasting (and results of the Pinot Noir Battle)

Yesterday was the annual Twin Cities Wine Pinot Noir Battle, in which we serve a wide variety of incredible Pinots side by side in a blind format (bottles wrapped in foil, with no details revealed) to determine crowd favorites and see if price actually does matter.

Before I get to the results let’s talk a bit about blind tasting, which is held up as the pinnacle of “fairness” when it comes to wine evaluation.

In a blind tasting, you strip the wine of any influence in the form of price, label design, expert reviews, scores, and other expectations. It’s just you and the juice. When you taste wine blind you are essentially leveling the playing field, and to show the true ‘value’ of a wine many would say there is no better way to do it. Small craft industries are built on tasting wine blind, and many books such as The Wine Trials use this as their form of evaluation. As they say on the winegeeks.com website, “The best way to make to make an honest assessment [about wine] is to know nothing at all.”

My opinion on blind tasting? It’s bullshit … for the most part.

Most people are surprised to hear this, so let me explain.

Wine does not live in a vacuum, and evaluating it is not the same as testing washing machines. You cannot graph out a piece of paper the percentage of happiness that is derived from a wine. And most importantly, the context in which the wine came to be will shape your impressions and enjoyment of it in magnificent, monumental, and mysterious ways.

Blind tasting 2Here’s an example. You hand me a glass of Sauvignon Blanc. I swirl it and smell it. Grassy tones, ripe fruit, not sharp like a New Zealand gooseberry bomb. Lots of minerals, definitely French, I think. On the palate it’s immediately bright and lively, it has presence, and is really really good. The finish goes on and on. Damn, that’s some good wine. Then I put the glass down and you reveal what the blind wine was: Dagueneau Silex Pouilly Fume 2007, the last wine made by the genius madman of the Loire before he died in an ultralight plane crash in 2008. Suddenly, the memory and palate impression of the wine shifts … this is history in a glass. Returning to the wine, it takes on a reverence and a context that is simply impossible to comprehend. This was it, the last wine from one of the legends in our wine world. It now tastes different, and better, because I know more going into it.

See where I’m going with this?

Context, in the form of history, food pairing, personal memories, or geography will shape the taste of wine in ways that amplify details and thus enjoyment. Wine is not just grape juice. Terry Theise, in his quest to re-mystify wine has it right: we have to return to treating it with reverence, so we can further appreciate the joy it gives us.

So if I’m against blind tasting in general why did I do a huge blind Pinot Noir tasting yesterday? Because, folks, it’s just plain fun. And I did it to remind myself of one of the main reasons to taste wine blind: it’s simply the best way to learn about a varietal, period. Yesterday 25 folks earned their PhD’s in Pinot Noir.

Here are the wines we sampled, along with a few short notes.

FLIGHT A

A1: St. Innocent “Villages Cuvee” Pinot Noir 2010, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($29.99)

A2: Nautilus Pinot Noir 2010, Marlborough, New Zealand ($34.99)

A3: LIOCO Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, California ($39.99)

A4: Drouhin Cotes de Nuits Villages 2010, Burgundy, France ($29.99)

The goal of the first flight was to compare same vintage and roughly same price wines to see if there was a ‘geographical stamp’ on the wine. In other words, I pushed the class to seek out the aromas and tastes of Burgundy vs. Oregon vs. California vs. New Zealand. Additionally, I asked everybody to rank the wines from first to last in terms of pure hedonistic enjoyment, i.e. “Which made you smile the most, or which did you unintentionally drink up first?”

The class favorite was the LIOCO, which was showing beautiful richness and ripeness (as well as stunning balance). LIOCO is a hands off producer, with lower alcohols than most California winemakers, but it still had a richness unlike the others. In a blind tasting this can tip the scales, and delicacy is usually trumped by concentration. On a personal level, I thought the St. Innocent was showing great but was not a crowd favorite (truth be told, I think it’s just a pup and needs another year or two to come together). The Nautilus, typical of New Zealand Pinot Noirs, zinged with good firm acidity and in the context of a meal would shine, but this wasn’t a meal. Against the other wines, going back and forth, that acidity became more pronounced. The Drouhin was picked out by the class as the Burgundy (well done, students!) and showed the integration and complexity that seems to always pull us back into that little strip of land called the Cote d’Or. The Drouhin was showing really, really, really well.

FLIGHT B

B1: Confuron Bonnes Mares Grand Cru 1999, Burgundy, France ($199.99, but not really available. This was from my cellar)

B2: Matrot Bourgogne Rouge 2010, Burgundy, France ($29.99)

B3: Evesham Wood “Cuvee J” Pinot Noir 2007, Willamette Valley, Oregon ($49.99)

B4: Calera Mills Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Mt. Harlan AVA, California ($59.99)

photo 1-2The second flight was a wide variety of prices and vintages, mainly to see if the class showed group preferences or if individual tastes would win the day. Additionally, I wanted to play the whole “is it worth the money?” game, so I threw in a $200 wine from my cellar. Lastly, with the Calera, I wanted to see if a 95 point rated Pinot Noir stole the show.

The Grand Cru Bonnes Mares only got two top votes (one being from me). It was beautiful, haunting, complex beyond belief, and showing its age. The color was advanced with orange and brick hints, and the aromas were of dried fruits, worn leather, bay leaves, and spicebox. The mouthfeel was long, gorgeous  and complex. But here’s the kicker: in the blind line-up the other wines stole the spotlight. It’s like having a deep intellectual and enjoyable conversation with a new friend at a party, when suddenly the funny guy (a bit drunk) comes into the room and shifts all the energy. Know what I mean? The context of a blind tasting was not where that Bonnes Mares belonged, but in order to learn this, it had to be there. Does that make sense?

The other three wines ran neck and neck for the top spot by crowd votes. This was interesting to see, for the individual preferences of the students showed through. Those that wanted more compost and dirt aromas picked the Matrot Bourgogne (which is showing incredibly well right now for such a young and low priced wine. I’m going to seek out lots of this for my cellar). Those that wanted more power and concentration went toward the Calera Mills Vineyard, which was scored 95 points in Wine Advocate. (Don’t get me wrong when I say power and concentration … this isn’t Zinfandel or Syrah we’re talking about here. Power and concentration in Pinot Noir is more about firmness and youthful energy. The Calera had balance and elegance, but also attitude galore and needs a few years to settle down).

This brings us to the Evesham Wood, which all things considered (price, age, provenance, etc.) put it on the top of the heap. It has had enough time to settle down and unwind a bit (Pinot often goes ‘dumb’ around 3-7 years of age from the vintage), but still has years of solid giving ahead of it. This was made by Evesham Wood’s founder, who has since sold the property (the new wines are different in personality but equal in quality), further accenting my point: the context of that wine made it taste different to me, knowing there is now one less bottle in the world that was made by the legendary Russ Raney. A wine of historical importance (even if it’s just $50 a bottle) should not need to prove itself against others in a blind tasting. It should be considered carefully on its own.

Sometimes, it’s not who wins the race. The point is that it’s not a race at all.

5 Responses to The perils of blind tasting (and results of the Pinot Noir Battle)

  1. Sam Baxter January 27, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

    Great article Jason. I agree that wine taken out of context can be educational but can strip the mystique and true enjoyment from it. Looks like you are doing good work educating the masses in the twin cities. Cheers! Sam Baxter

  2. Jake January 27, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    “It now tastes different, and better, because I know more going into it.” It sounds like you’re describing the act of fooling yourself. The last wine made by a genius madman better taste damn good, especially if you spent a lot of money and time on it. There’s nothing wrong with romanticizing a wine, we all do it, but we should admit to ourselves that we’re doing it. Having your prized Pinot “demystified”, while a slight bummer for you, is not as big a problem as the more common scenario where those who are less experienced with wine are fooled by the expectations they get from a label, a rating, or a price tag. Particularly for them, a blind tasting can be an eye-opening experience.

  3. Dave January 28, 2013 at 11:55 am #

    I don’t see it as fooling yourself, I see it as appreciating it differently. It doesn’t necessarily mean it now tastes better for me, but I can enjoy the experience in a different way. We’ve all been to tastings where somebody brings out a “special occasion” type wine. Doesn’t usually live up to the expectation, but the experience is fun. Being a bit of a wine dork, I prefer my mass tastings to be blind. Mostly because they tend to bring in wines from similar vintages. Then you can let your individual taste preferences go to work. Although I like to know about a “special” wine that I won’t buy on my own to try, usually due to price/availablity constraints. Just so I get a chance to try it…

  4. Brian Weber February 6, 2013 at 11:35 am #

    While I would agree with anyone that says that blind tastings can have a place for finding good tasting wines and creating a better understanding your own palate, I completely agree with your thought that blind tastings are bullshit (again, as you say, for the most part). If you only want the best tasting wine, by all means, taste blindly to your heart’s desire. However, to really see a wine, you have to understand that each wine is like a picture–a snapshot of those particular vines in that particular vineyard (or AVA) during that particular season undergoing a specific set of climatic conditions and stresses, eventually being made into wine through a particular process by a particular winemaker. A picture is worth 1000 words, and really, so is a wine. (Makes you wonder why it’s often so hard to write 20 words about a wine in a review, doesn’t it?) There are so many things that make a wine what it is, and while the nose and taste are certainly a part of that, a wine isn’t fully understood until you know where it came from and what it underwent to eventually get into the glass in front of you.

  5. henry March 4, 2013 at 8:54 pm #

    Those saying that tasting blind is bullshit obviously have (or aspire to have) a big cellar of expensive wine and need to justify it. Wine is just a drink. The rest is marketing/fairytales. Sorry.

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