Tasting wine blind

By Felix Salmon
September 12, 2009
Executive Wine Seminars, on Wednesday, and I knew I had to meet him, so I did just that, this evening. Bob's been running blind wine tastings for decades now, and so he knows just what they're good for and also what they're really bad at. Here's a bit of what he wrote to me:

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I got a wonderful email from Bob Millman, of Executive Wine Seminars, on Wednesday, and I knew I had to meet him, so I did just that, this evening*. Bob’s been running blind wine tastings for decades now, and so he knows just what they’re good for and also what they’re really bad at. Here’s a bit of what he wrote to me:

It should be obvious to any thinking person that blind tastings necessarily favor–on a group vote basis–wines which offer immediate pleasure and gratification. Left to their undirected devices, the senses will almost always gravitate to the obvious and miss the subtle. I have fallen victim to the sweeter-is-better trap several times myself. At blind tastings that include left bank and right bank young Bordeaux, the right bank wines almost always garner higher scores from the crowd. Young Merlot simply tastes “better” than young Cabernet Sauvignon. Softer, sweeter, more flattering.

When I did a blind tasting of Pinot Noirs a couple of years ago, I got really excited about the eventual winner, the 2005 Heron. I ended up buying quite a lot of it, and sometimes ordering it in restaurants or bars as well, and, weirdly for a wine which everybody thought was spectacularly good, it didn’t grow on me at all — quite the opposite.

Part of that is maybe just that most wine deteriorates with age, and that the ’05 was better when we first tasted it than when I drank it a year or more later. But another part of it, I think, is that the kind of wines one loves in blind tastings are not necessarily the kind of wines one actually likes to drink in real life. As Bob says, they tend to the soft, and fruity, and sweet. If you normally like that sort of thing, then great, but if you tend to prefer something a bit more austere or elegant, then you might well end up doing yourself no favors at all if you taste a lot of wines blind.

This evening, Bob ordered a gorgeous terroir-based Beaujolais, after which we moved on to a big Californian old-vine Zinfandel. We both preferred the old-world wine, but as Bob said, if you put the two next to each other in a blind tasting, there’s no doubt which would win. In contemporary art terms, it would be a bit like exhibiting Fred Sandback next to Jeff Koons. Even when you’re tasting like against like — for instance, when you’re tasting young Bordeaux — you’re just as likely to steer yourself wrong by tasting blind as you are to find a hidden gem, since the best Bordeaux wines just don’t do very much when they’re young.

“The problem with blind tasting is that you’re working from a position of ignorance,” said Bob. If you know exactly what it is that you’re tasting — a young first-growth wine, for example — then you can taste it in that light. Similarly, if you know that you’re looking at an Ad Reinhardt painting, you’ll be willing to spend a few minutes with it so that you can appreciate its subtleties. If you didn’t know it was a Reinhardt, then you’d probably just read it as a black monochrome and move on. Or think about someone like Joseph Beuys: the whole point of the art is that it’s multi-layered, and responds slowly to the viewer, who has to think things through.

Much wine — and most great wine — is similar: it grows on you, slowly. But in the artificial environment of a blind tasting, where you’re running through a dozen or more wines, it’s impossible for the vast majority of us to do such wines justice. Hell, its hard enough to do even one bottle of great wine justice: while every so often, while you’re drinking a bottle, it all comes together spectacularly, there will also always be times when you take a sip absentmindedly between bites and miss a lot of the beauty and flavor.

On top of that, blind tastings by their nature become guessing games, and the people doing the tasting, rather than simply approaching each wine with an open mind, are constantly asking themselves which wine it might be, whether it’s famous, or expensive, or maybe even the one that they brought to the tasting. Such thoughts are not conducive to the appreciation of great wine, just as someone looking to see whether a painting was genuine or not is likely to miss out, while doing so, on much of its aesthetic appeal.

In any case, the various different factors which go into the enjoyment of a wine are so multitudinous that when you try to eradicate them all in order to allow different wines to compete on a level playing field, you at the same time eradicate much of what makes a wine so enjoyable in the first place. You might love your spouse’s [insert body part here], but it would be pointless and invidious for someone to test that love by presenting you with a series of carefully anonymized body parts and asking you which one you liked the most.

On my first anniversary, my wife and I drank a spectacular bottle of wine which was given to us as a wedding present by a good friend; what’s more, it came from the cellar of a wonderful restaurant and we drank it at that selfsame restaurant, with delicious food and friendly service and in general everything going right. We’ll both remember that bottle for years, it was everything you could ever hope for from a wine, and more. That’s by far the best way to drink great wine: with good food, on a special occasion, with people you love, purely for enjoyment. If you take most of that away, and drink wine blind, surrounded by serious men spitting into buckets, you’re doing something qualitatively very different indeed. And it should come as no surprise that there might not be much if any correlation between how much you like a wine in the former context and how much you like it in the latter.

There’s also a pretty strong argument to be made that blind tastings are positively bad, harmful things: that the hot, sweet, oaked, fruit-forward, soft-tannined wines which tend to excel in blind tastings are precisely the wines that everybody in the world is trying to make right now. Blind tastings, in many ways, might well have caused the homogenization of global wine culture — something which pretty much all wine lovers abhor but which seems at the same time to be unstoppable. And they’ve done it through the mechanism of the 100-point tasting scale, as invented by Robert Parker.

Wines sell based on how many points they garner, and they garner points by being tasted, blind, by critics like Parker. It used to be that if one importer or wine merchant didn’t like your wine, another one would. Nowadays, it doesn’t matter what those individuals like personally: it matters what the blind tasters at the Wine Advocate and the Wine Spectator like. And the importers and merchants flock to the high-point wines, because those are the wines that their customers want.

What is blind tasting good for? Well, for one thing it’s very good at showing how important knowledge of price, as opposed to price itself, is as a contributing factor to a wine’s perceived quality. If you know that a wine you’re drinking is expensive, you’ll probably like it much more. If you’re deceived into thinking that a wine is expensive (if someone poured Yellowtail into a Lafite bottle, say) you’ll like that much more, too. And if someone poured Lafite into a colorful screw-top bottle, you’d like it less.

When I say, then, that in wine there’s no correlation between price and quality, what I mean is that there’s no correlation between price and quality except for in the 99% of cases where in fact the correlation is very strong — the cases when you know, more or less, how expensive the wine you’re drinking is.

I’m trying to train myself out of that ingrained mindset, by drinking quite a lot of cheap wine and buying large quantities of the good stuff. And there really is a lot of good cheap wine out there. But I know that I do still have the same prejudices as everybody else, no matter how much I write about negative price-quality correlations. If I open a cheap bottle and I don’t think much of it at first, I’ll assume it’s not very good. On the other hand, if I open an expensive bottle and I don’t think much of it at first, I’ll let it breathe, I’ll revisit it later, I’ll try to see if I can discern some subtlety and sophistication which might not have been immediately apparent. And if I look hard enough, I’ll probably find it.

*Um, I mean yesterday evening. I wrote this on Friday, but finished it late, and for some weird reason my internet seems to go down every evening at about 10pm — it’s done it four nights in a row. I spent an hour on the phone to Time Warner tech support on Thursday night, to no avail, and they’re sending someone out on Tuesday morning, when the internet will probably be working fine. Any ideas what the problem might be? The internet doesn’t go down entirely — the lights on the cable modem are still right, and I can occasionally download emails or the Google home page (which takes literally minutes to load). But it’s unusable, and the signal, as seen by Time Warner’s techs, is all messed up.

Update: Thomas Matthews, the executive editor of Wine Spectator, leaves a comment defending blind tasting and saying that if you want to be objective about things, “there is no better methodology”. I agree. But I think that objectivity is overvalued sometimes, and in any case it’s important to be aware of the weaknesses of the blind-tasting methodology, even if you can’t come up with a better alternative.

Daniel Posner notes that Robert Parker himself rarely tastes wines blind any more — this is true, and I think does speak to the limitations of blind tasting.

And londenio draws the comparison between wine and cola: Pepsi generally wins in blind tastings, ‘cos it’s sweeter. But most people still prefer Coke.

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