Friday, December 19, 2008

Blind Wine Tasting

It’s rather ironic, but to do a blind wine tasting properly, your eyes and your mind must be open. In case this term is new to you, a blind wine tasting is one organized so that none of the tasters know in advance which wines are being poured. The glasses of wine are organized in a flight, usually 2oz. pours, or the labels are hidden by brown bags. The former method is typical of most wine judging, where wines are organized into flights of a particular grape, such as Chardonnay.

The latter method is the one I employed when I set up blind tastings for my students in Silicon Valley a few years back. Wine knowledge was not part of the two-week course on data communications and networking concepts, but they found it a welcome relief from the intensity of the class. Little did I know then that I’d become a wine writer, critic, and teacher of wine!

My own experiences with blind tastings led me to a number of conclusions that have been amply documented in a new wine book, The Wine Trials, by Robin Goldstein. The book is offered through Fearless Critic Media out of Austin, Texas. Their website is and their conclusions may be quite surprising to some.

They held 17 tastings in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, and Texas. A total of 560 wines were tasted by 507 volunteers (yes, I know, who wouldn’t) in venues from casual wine bars to top restaurants. The tasters were selected from a broad stratum of people who ranged from professional tasters to casual wine drinkers. In many cases, not even the type of grape was identified, allowing each taster to judge the merits of each wine on a number of qualities.

One of the conclusions in the book was that professional tasters and knowledgeable wine drinkers often could detect the quality of a more expensive, well-made wine, but not always. They also found that many wine critics scored wines correlated to the wine’s price. In most cases the wine critics saw the labels, and knew the reputation and history of the wines they evaluated. This technique is at odds with a blind tasting methodology. As a result, inexpensive but well-made wines usually did not score as well.

The tasters for the Wine Enthusiast Buying Guide for 2007 also use a blind tasting methodology, although they know the region and grape of the samples. A number of less expensive wines were rated over more expensive ones, suggesting that blind tasting is a better arbiter of true wine values.

The Fearless Critic group decided to test for the placebo effect. This effect is well known in medical circles where one target group gets the real pill and the other group receives a placebo. The belief that something will work or that something should taste good can significantly affect the results of testing. The placebo effect in wine tasting is accomplished by putting a lesser wine in a more expensive bottle, and vice versa, to see what influence a highly regarded label has on taste perception. The wine testers saw a moderate to high impact on the taster’s evaluation of a wine.

I’ve seen this scenario play out at a restaurant, when an expensive wine I tasted turned out to be mediocre, yet others at the table, with less experience, thought it was wonderful. While the placebo effect allowed them to enjoy the wine more than its actual merits, which could be a good thing, it had the undesirable effect of compromising their knowledge base of how a good wine should taste. And yes, I’ve been guilty of the same thing.

I’ll draw just one example from the book. When tasting sparkling wine and champagne, Domaine Ste. Michelle Brut from Washington’s Columbia Valley ranked 1st of 27 sampled. Dom Perignon Cuvee came in 17th of 27. Ste. Michelle goes for $12, the Dom for $150. I always wondered how Gruet would have done in this tasting; I’d bet close to the top as well.

Some of the wines under $15 that rated high are ones I’ve often found dependable. A good well-made and inexpensive wine can often trump a more expensive one. Think of it this way, if you had a reputation that commanded high prices for your wine, and you turned out a mediocre wine one year, would you drop the price to its true value? More than likely you’d sell it for about the same price as a previous year, and if it didn’t move, offer it on sale. You didn’t think this ploy only works with Persian rugs, did you?

In Napa, if a new up-and-coming winery comes out with an outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon that, based on costs, can be sold for $40 instead of the $75-$100 range of comparable Cabs, what would happen? Experience has shown that the wine will be ignored by many buyers. After all, look how cheap it is. In the wine world price does not always signal quality, but it does drive the demand for many wines. The prestigious label will still impress your friends, and the placebo effect assures that most of them will think the wine is great.

So is the placebo effect in place when Dom Perignon is served, label showing? Think about that the next time you want to celebrate a great occasion and are looking for the best. It is seldom the most expensive. Come to think of it, I do believe we have holiday occasions coming up where you can put that theory to the test. However, if you try to switch bottles; I would strongly recommend you not try to put the Gruet in a Dom Perignon bottle. Trust me, you won’t get that fat cork back in the bottle. Salut!

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