Can blind tasting help you see things clearly?

Oh, Twitter. The things you make me do.

Last Saturday, I caught a tweet by Cory Cartwright which said – a little provocatively, I’m sure: “Blind tastings, dumb? or just a waste of time?”. Despite many reactions by a lot of serious people, Cory never followed up on that tweet, and since he’s put his blog Saignée on hiatus, there’s no post either to give us any insight into what he meant exactly.

That didn’t stop some other tweeter to jump me insisting that blind tastings are not serious, useless even, akin to trying to describe sushi in the dark.

Say what?

I still don’t get how that came about. I’d replied to Alice Feiring, who said “there’s always something to learn”, and added that “You need to approach wine from many perspectives. Blind tastings give you 1 perspective, barrels another.” And later on, I pointed him to a story that British wine journalist Tim Atkin wrote about  the limitations and joys of blind tasting, where he shows how blind tastings can be used to play tricks on tasters – even the most competent – or can serve to clarify certain aspects of tasting, whether it’s finding the commonality in a region or appellation, the character of a particular vintage or spotting certain wine faults. Lots of nuances and limitations.

Anyway, because of a few tweets, here I am writing a whole post on blind tasting – which, in case you didn’t know, means tasting without knowing the identity of the wine(s) in your glass(es), and not tasting in darkness or blindfolded.

I like it. A lot. The regular tasting club I’m a member of is now fully double-blind – meaning that we don’t know anything about what we’re tasting, not even country or vintage. It’s a bit of a party game – the discussions are often hilarious – but it’s also a great way to reason your way through some wines, find the common points, define the character of each and all, etc. Sometimes you fail remarkably, but understanding why can be quite enlightening. Early on, I tended to have similar impressions when tasting sangiovese and nebbiolo, and through blind tastings, I managed to better define each and have a clearer idea of each variety, over time. For certain purposes, blind is the best way to see what’s going on.

Let me do a little sports analogy, here. About football. Or rather, about watching football. As a kid, in the 1970s, I enjoyed watching the Steelers beat the Cowboys on television with my granddad (who loved the Cowboys more, partly because of his admiration for Tom Landry). I loved cheering my high school team from the sidelines, and I kept watching games, on and off, during all my teenage years. However, it’s when my friend Guy Caron, who was running the sports section at La Rotonde, the University of Ottawa’s French newspaper (and is now the NPD MP for Rimouski-Neigette – congrats!), took me up to the press gallery at Landsdowne Park, that I really started to understand the game in more precise terms. From that angle, it was much easier to see the game develop, the strategy, the way the plays come together or fall apart, etc. It’s been something that has helped me enjoy the game more, however I am watching the game.

Would I refuse front-row tickets at centerfield because I enjoyed seeing the game from high up? Of course not.

In the same way, I enjoy blind tastings greatly, as a way to get your bearings without getting too influenced by labels and previous impressions, and just concentrating on what’s in the glass. As long as no one is gaming the tasting, it works really well.

But like the view from on high, it’s not the only way I want to consider wine, and it’s not the way I want to review wines, especially for this, my blog and personal wine writing playground.

I don’t think I’ve ever reviewed a wine simply from a blind tasting. I prefer to do the reviewing in context and state why I liked the wine and present where it comes from, instead of just providing a series of sensory impressions (in fact, my descriptors are often very limited). I don’t give scores, either, for similar reasons. But then again, I don’t delve through dozens of wines at a time to try to evaluate a wide range of wines in a particular appellation. It’s a different kind of business.

Which brings me to ask a question: are the people who seem to have a problem with blind tasting actually having a problem with the use of blind tasting in scoring and reviewing wines? I wish Cory would write a post about this and let us know…

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3 Comments

  1. Posted May 5, 2011 at 5:31 am | Permalink

    I agree. While I find it difficult to judge a wine on the 1 oz sample poured in many tasting activities, similar to Remy’s wine club, ours does many events where we taste blind. It is a lot of fun and sometimes it can be really difficult when obscure wines are used (like our last event). It does train you though – and having no idea what varietal is is supposed to be (double blind) makes for some funny guesses.

    My experience within our club is that those of us taking (or haven taken) formal training seem to mess up the double blind more often than those not! (maybe we are trying too hard). I think I would sum it up with “the more you know, the more you realize how little you know”, and blind tasting is a great form of learning.

    • Posted May 5, 2011 at 6:28 am | Permalink

      Your description seems right. Blind tasting does test your categories and make you – hopefully – avoid feeling like you know everything.

      The Beckett quote found in Tim Atkin’s article seems particularly apt: “Fail again. Fail better.”

  2. Rick Bates
    Posted May 6, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    Allow me to look at this issue from another side:
    I do many blind tastings with friends, as consumers, not as wine writers. We do them blind and allow everyone to chose their “favourite” wine(s) before knowing exactly what was in each glass. That way we eliminate any pre-conceived ideas, and block old prejudices. People vote/choose based solely one what they taste and like at the time.
    Many are very surprised to find out what they liked! “hey I didn’t think I liked xxx” “I thought I hated xxx until now” Opens up everyone’s eyes and hopefully gets them buying a wider variety of wines afterwards.

    My favourite, or course, is to put a Canadian wine with others, I always get “Hey, I didn’t think I liked Canadian wine.” That’s very satisfying!

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