The Craggy Range strategy

December 8, 2009
Eric Arnold reports back from a blind-tasting wine stunt:

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Eric Arnold reports back from a blind-tasting wine stunt:

This fall, at New York restaurant Eleven Madison, six top pinot noirs from California, Oregon and Burgundy (the most expensive of which was $425 per bottle) were served blind alongside six of Craggy Range’s pinots. The two dozen or so tasters were asked to guess where each wine was from, then rank them on taste from one to 12.

None were particularly good at guessing each wine’s origin (I got four of the 12 correct), indicating that all the wines were made very well (for example, there was no stereotyping of all California pinots as tasting like this or New Zealand ones smelling like that). But in the final scoring, an average among all the tasters’ scores, Craggy Range dominated, claiming tasting spots one through five. Its sixth entry came in eighth place.

A similar thing occurred at a tasting, a few weeks prior, for several critics and writers in San Francisco. There, Craggy Range’s Bordeaux-style merlot, called Sophia ($50), bested a range of top Bordeaux wines as well as some other entries from New Zealand. The Château Mouton-Rothschild Pauillac 2006 ($695) landed in 11th place out of 12.

It seems that the Craggy Range owners have cracked the blind-tasting code, and are using it to their great advantage. Arnold says, correctly, that the results of blind tastings are “notoriously inconsistent” — but you can be sure that the results of this tasting weren’t down to blind luck, or Craggy Range would never have gone to the expense of mounting it.

The first trick that Craggy Range uses is to put its wines, which are made for drinking immediately, up against very young French wines which are made to be cellared for many years. That’s an invidious comparison, and it basically means that the tasters at these events are being asked to compare, on an apples-to-apples basis, wines which are drinking well now with wines which will taste much better in a decade’s time. That’s a bit silly.

The second trick, I suspect (and I haven’t tasted Craggy Range wines, so I don’t know for sure) is that the Kiwi contingent is simply sweeter and fruitier than the wines it was put up against. Here’s what I wrote back in September:

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.

Craggy Range, here, is taking its New World winemaking skills and then comparing them in a blind taste test with the very epitome of austere and elegant wines: expensive Burgundies. It’s then giving that test to wine snobs — people who like to think that they have outgrown a childish love of sweetness, and have moved on to appreciate the finer things in life. But the fact is that blind tastings are a really bad way of appreciating a fine wine. (The best way, of course, is to drink it with great food and great company.)

The Wine Spectator’s Thomas Matthews left a comment on that blog entry, saying that “good judges know that the ‘immediate gratifications’ of, say, residual sugar and high alcohol are not necessarily indicators of underlying quality” — to which I can only say that although they might know that in theory, they’re pretty predictable when it comes to forgetting it in practice. And I suspect that Craggy Range is cunningly taking advantage of exactly that disconnect.


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