Sat 22 Sep 2007
There’s quite a to-do over at Eric Asimov’s blog The Pour about the best way to encounter and experience wine. The possibilities seem to be: (1) Over dinner with family and friends, knowing what the wine is; (2) In a blind tasting situation, where tasters know something about the wines (say, the grapes or the vintage) but not all the details; (3) In a double blind situation in which tasters know only that the wines are red or white.
Responders to Eric’s posts can be various, opinionated and vociferous, and on this issue they do not disappoint. Some insist that double blind or at least blind is the ONLY way to properly evaluate wines; others insist that such an approach is academic, intellectual, over-analytical and ridiculous and that wine must be appreciated in the context of its history, heritage and geography along with the appropriate food; still others assert that notions of history, heritage and geography are a crock and that you should just drink the stuff and enjoy it on the basis of whether you like it or not.
I think that first we have to separate drinking from tasting.
Drinking, I would say, implies sipping wine as an aperitif or having a glass while cooking or sitting down to a meal whether at home or in a restaurant or bosky dell. The themes? Enjoyment, fun, pleasure, eating good or great food while drinking good or great wine, and, sure, maybe a little education in the process, as in, “Whoa, I didn’t know a pinot noir could have these flavors. Where did you say it came from?”
Tasting is different. Tasting wine is what people do when they want to experience many wines in a short time. as at an importer’s portfolio tasting; or educate their palates and sensibilities about the wines of a particular region or property or grape and so on; or test their palates and sensibilities and knowledge against a group of unknown wines, either solo or with other tasters.
In the first category, for example, I would never go on a picnic and insist on drinking a bottle of wine blind, so no one knew what it was; what a jerk that would make me! Nor would I insist that, while standing around the kitchen before a dinner party, the wine the guests sipped should be covered so no one knew what it was and we could educate ourselves. “What a pompous spoil-sport,” the host would mutter, “last time we invite him.” When LL and I sit down to dinner and have a bottle of wine or perhaps I open two or three for comparison while we eat, I don’t put them in brown paper bags, because we have too much fun sipping and comparing, going back to the wines several times as they develop, not that we’re not also serious about this.
Trade tastings, especially large ones, aren’t conducted blind because, after all, the purpose is to let people try as many wines as possible and and develop potential orders for the wines.
In other circumstances, however, single blind and double blind tastings are not only educational and frequently revelatory but essential. Research by psychologists and sociologists has show over and again that our judgments about wine are drastically influenced by the presence of a label and all the label implies about grapes, property, region and reputation. If you understand that you’re about to taste Lafite-Rothschild 1982, the structure of expectations that knowledge imposes is almost impossible to ignore. And if I were the wine manager for a restaurant, I would insist when wholesalers came to call and present new wines that I not be told what they are in advance and then taste them double blind, or if that’s impossible, single blind, knowing perhaps that the wines were, say, reds from Australia or whites from Spain but nothing about producers and prices.
This year I’ve held two tastings for six people at home. One was blind; the panel knew they were tasting 24 merlots or merlot-based wines but knew nothing about years, regions or properties. The second event was double blind; all the tasters knew was that they would be trying 22 red wines. They turned out to be petite sirahs, and, boy, did that create a stir! In both cases, the experiences were profoundly revealing and educational.
Let’s allow Michael Broadbent, the dean of British wine tasters, writers and auctioneers, the last word. This is from one of the most valuable items in my library of books about wines. It’s Michael Broadbent’s Pocket Guide to Wine Tasting, a slim little volume first published in 1968. My well-worn copy, printed in 1982, is the sixth edition, published in 1979.
Here’s what Broadbent says, on page 63:
“It is my firm opinion (one of the few these days unwhittled by doubts!) that to assess the qualities of a wine by tasting it completely blind, without any hint of what it might be, is the most useful and salutary discipline that any self-respecting taster can be given. It is not infrequently the most humiliating. The first thing it does is concentrate the thoughts, and expose fresh and unprejudiced senses to the problem of analysing the colour, bouquet and flavors. To know what the wine is before one starts to taste is like reading the end of a detective novel first; it satisfies the curiosity but dampens the interest.”
Need we say anything more?
The image of the wine taster is from graphics.boston.com.