February 28, 2011

What do you blind taste?

Right now I'm working on the format for a new wine tasting group. With the success of our Vancouver club, I wanted to incorporated ideas from that experience, but also I think critically about formatting. One issue that concerns me is whether to conduct the tasting blind, or share all the information upfront.

From my experience in the WSET courses, I've done plenty of blind tasting. Generally, a region or style would be presented, then two or three wines would be poured for comparison. Information about the specific region/appellation, varieties, producer, or price was not revealed until an assessment was made. This is done, according to the curriculum, to train objective evaluation techniques - to get us to think about what we are tasting it and develop a logical analysis to arrive at a conclusion with out being influenced by externals or irrelevant factors. And hopefully it leads to useful notes about a wine's structure and the experience of tasting it, and not to more wine bullshit. This idea is pretty much standard industry practice, but the blind tasting has also taken on an almost mythical quality. Stories abound about sommeliers identifying obscure wines precisely down to the smallest detail. My feelings on this? Sure, thats a nifty trick - you do have to be very experienced to pull it off. But what purpose does it serve? Anybody who can read could tell you about a wine by looking at the bottle. Even many sommeliers will dismiss this as nothing more than a parlor trick. The real skill lies in evaluating a wine's characteristics and pairing the wine and food to best reveal the character of each, not in identifying its vintage and origin. Beyond this, wine is meant to be enjoyed.

There is value in having information upfront when tasting. I find it helpful to know what to expect so that I can recall previous tasting experiences and benchmarks to help me judge a wine. I admit that I have fallen victim to the influence of price or a label, but blind tasting leaves the subject of wine cold and dead, and a lot less enjoyable. The anticipation and story of a wine are also part of the wine's allure and enjoyment. Furthermore, the producers name or the price are not the only elements that can mislead a taster. For one, context is highly relevant; how many wines, and what kinds are you tasting before or after. What about color? Yes, color can sometimes tell us about a wine (bricking, or browning from oxidation), but can also be manipulated through the use of grape juice concentrates. And color is not an indicator of intensity of flavors - intensity of flavors are measured with the nose and palate, not the eyes.

So, what to do about the tasting club? Well, the goal of the group is to expand peoples wine sphere's and help develop their wine knowledge. I don't really care if they can identify a wine blind, or even evaluate a wine's structure, because group is not for wine professional. They simply want to know more and try things that they might not on their own. And I believe that they can judge for themselves whether a wine is worth its price. Anyone can, if they stop for a moment to reflect, can tell you if they like something or not, and what it might be worth to them. But here is the bottom line for me, when most of us drink wine, we know what we are drinking. We've selected them, or our host has told us about the wine. We anticipate the wine, we offer up our enthusiasm or share in our hosts excitement. Even as part of a tasting group, shouldn't we all get more excited about wine?

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