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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
11/04/2011
Friday Fishwrap
BLIND FAITH: A Critique of Comparative Blind Tasting

By Stephen Eliot

“We have to recognize that critics will disagree about wines. There is an assumption that if critics are all equally experienced and competent, they will come to the same conclusion. That’s not how it is”.

So argued English writer Jamie Goode earlier this week when questioning how a panel of wine professionals could have chosen Chile’s Sena as superior to its storied French counterparts from Bordeaux. Not all critics are created equal, and Goode advises, “you have to choose which voices you will follow”.

I very much believe that Mr. Goode’s summary advice about seeking out the opinions to which you do or do not listen to is to be heeded. And he goes further with this observation buried in the article—a view that is perhaps even more provocative and more intriguing than any opinion about which wine was or was not the best. Goode asserts that “many wine professionals are poor and/or inexperienced blind tasters.”

Now, there are all kinds of wine “professionals” who cannot wait to tell you what they think. There are retailers, writers, sommeliers, wholesalers, public relations firms, winery reps and winemakers, and, as their businesses are different, so too are their agendas and respective points of view. I do not think that blind tasting is germane to them all. I do not necessarily think that it is important that they all are accomplished blind tasters, and that is as good thing as I count among friends a few whose abilities as blind tasters are nothing less than incomprehensible to me.

When it comes to the job of being a wine critic, however, of recommending and describing wines for an inquisitive public, I know of no more important tool than comparative blind tasting.

Not all wine writers are “critics”, but that is, in fact, our own little niche in the professional wine world. Charlie and I taste blind, day in and day out. It is the methodology in which we believe. We like a good story and will occasionally try to tell one, but that is not our principal focus. We are interested in what is in the bottle. We do not construct tales about this or that winemaker, of how they came to winemaking, the grand architecture or spectacular view from their winery, or their innovative new ways of making wine. We do not spend our time invoking some model of what wine was in some mythical golden age, and we do not spend our time wringing our hands about motive, manipulation and philosophical failure.

For us, it is about the wine. We open bottles, taste what is inside and offer up our opinions… nothing less, nothing more. We strive as much as possible to be impartial, and comparative blind tasting goes a very long way towards achieving that end.

One hears arguments to abandon blind tasting as useless, and I suspect that I will hear some here, but I have yet to encounter one that made a great deal of sense. I am always willing to listen. There are writers that proudly proclaim they have never tasted blind, but I see nothing in those claims about which to be particularly proud. None of us is wholly lacking in bias. Absolute objectivity only exists outside some Platonic cave. But, I would argue, there are also a good many things, some quantifiable, about which wine-lovers will agree, and there are ways to minimize the subjectivity that always threatens. I do not want to see labels. I do not want to know prices. I admit that I have favorite producers, and I tend to like expensive wine. I worry that if it is expensive I will find a way to like it, and I am fully aware that there are certain wine “styles” that I prefer over others.

I would agree with those who make the case that knowing a wine’s history, of how it is made and how it has historically has developed in bottle are important concerns and cannot be ignored. Still, the leveling field of experienced blind tasting seems to me to be the next best thing to objectivity when it comes to comparisons and hierarchical ranking as to what we believe is lesser, good, better and best. It will do until something more precise comes along.


 

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Comments

Blind Tasting
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:11/4/2011 12:03:57 PM

Stephen, from your long experience at blind tasting, how many wines do you figure you can taste before "palate fatigue" comes into play? What do you do to help assure that it doesn't, other than the obvious (spitting)? And what are your thoughts on whether the rise in alcohol levels in wine over the past decade or two brings you to "hitting the wall" sooner?

Blind Tasting
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:11/4/2011 12:55:47 PM

Mike, thanks for some very good questions.

At CGCW we long ago settled into a "routine" of tastng between 16 and 20 wines per day done in two flights of either 8 or 10 respectively. We take our time and will spend and hour-and-a-half so so with each flight, sipping, spitting, jotting down notes and discussing what we find. These are manageable numbers in a time frame that has come to make sense for us, and, while we feel we are not fighting fatigue, there are days when we are sufficiently tired after the last wine is tasted.

Any wine that is up for a ** rating of, or any wine that strikes as as atypical or as over- or under-performing will be recalled for a lengthy session before we go to press. Those sessions can include as many as 30-35 wines, and they may take as five or more hours to complete. Even then, those tastings are less about compiling detailed notes than about confirming first impressions...or not.

I think both the number of wines and the time allocated for their tasting must be weighed equally in answering your questions about when palate fatigue strikes, and I suppose that I would set the number at somewhere between 30 and 40 over the course of several hours before I feel like I am losing my "edge". I have never been comfortable with and have long since declined to "judge" in the many medal competitions that seemed more like tests of endurance than anything else. There may be those that can taste 100-200 wines at a sitting and come up with meaningful conclusions, but alas I am not one of them.

No special tricks as far as staying fresh other than water and some sort of neutral cracker or such...that and a periodic break here and there.

As for the alcohol issue. There are more factors in palate fatigue than just alcohol. High acid and especially tannin will make their impact known as well. I really do not know how to answer your specific question insofar as alcohol creep has been gradual over the years, and I can't say that at some point in the past I suddenly became aware of its fatiguing influence. There is no question that a couple of flights of high-alcohol Zins leaves me wanting a Coke or a cup of coffee, but "hitting the wall" significantly sooner that was the case twenty or thrity years back? Sadly memory fails me and comparsions are speculative at best.

only if the wines are organized in some coherent fashion
by jason p
Posted on:11/4/2011 1:11:03 PM

By and large, I do believe bind tasting serves us well--but only if the wines tasted are organized in a way that makes sense (for instance, tasting a number of Gevrey's together, withou, say, some Volnay or some NZ pinot thrown or even some Cabernet Sauvignon thrown into the mix)--and maybe the defining theme is revealed to the taster.  Though the taster, by means of knowing the theme, might import some previous experiences and expectations into the tasting, nevertheless the producers remain hidden--and the biases involved with such knowledge minimized.

germane
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:11/4/2011 3:14:11 PM

The kind of wine critic of which Jamie refernces, and to which the public is likely overexposed follows the exact opposite of the CGCW philosophy that Stephen put forward: "For us, it is about the wine."

For them, it is about them.

 

 

Blind faith
by tom barras
Posted on:11/4/2011 6:11:30 PM

In your opinion, do you and Charlie have a preference for, say, a particular style of red wine?  Rich? Ripe? Concentrated? Full Bodied?  Or something more reserved that  is not yelling for attention?

Blind Faith
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/4/2011 7:03:23 PM

Tom--

While CGCW presents a unified face to the world, its writers, Steve and I, and its tasters are not part of some monolithic whole. We each come with our built in preferences.

That said, it has always seemed to me that we have pretty catholic tastes in terms of light to heavy, dry to sweet, etc, with the important standards being focused on balance, varietal precision and adherence to past expectations. We are, after all, informed by our upbringings as drinkers of European wines.

That is not to say that we look down our noses are variations on the theme. How else could we like Zinfandel and some of the late harvest versions.

Steve can offer his own views of his ideosyncracies. I will admit that I like structured wines for my cellar. I like being able to pull out long-aged wines whose character has grown and whose drinkablity has been enhanced over time. But, like most of us, the majority of wines I drink are young, and so I do not care that rich, full-bodied Chardonnay are drinkable when young. I don't mind drinking structured Merlot beef instead of Cabernet, which I do almost always cellar. Yet, if you put a big, ripe, fleshy Cab in front of me, with deep and decently balanced character, like Darioush or the priceworthy Rockwall, I would drink it happily because those wines are hedonistically satisfying.

For me, it comes back to focus, balance and pleasure. That is why I am happy with Pahlmeyer and Chasseur Chardonnays yet absolute admire Freestone Chardonnays.

 

Blind Tasting
by Mike Dunne
Posted on:11/4/2011 9:01:20 PM

Thanks, Stephen, for your thorough reply. Your tasting regimen sounds ideal. I'd like to see wine competitions adopt more restrictive standards for judging wines, perhaps no more than 50 to 60 a day, split over two sessions that allow time for deliberation and debate, but I don't see that happening, given the cost of running competitions and their need to keep judges moving flight after flight. You are absolutely right on about the impact of tannins and acids - and let's not overlook residual sugar and oak - on the palate, but I was prompted to focus on alcohol because of a proposed study that would examine the influence of higher alcohols alone on palate sensitivity. Again, thanks.

wine competitions
by Thomas Pellechia
Posted on:11/5/2011 11:15:30 AM

Mike,

The wine competitions and evaluations in which I have been a judge not only try to get too many wines in, they also have judges tasting every type of wine that you can imagine--usually in some order of white, red, sweet, etc. but still...

Idiosyncracies?
by Stephen Eliot
Posted on:11/6/2011 12:52:10 PM

Tom,

Charlie only talks of my "idiosyncracies" when we disagree :), but I find essential agreement with his comments above. I hate to sound so equivocal, but my tastes in styles changes with mood and meal. A long-braised brisket has me craving for something big, ripe and rich, but when sweet, loin-lamb chops or veal is on the menu, something a little more sotto vocce and refined is my first choice. I suppose that I lean a little more to come-hither fruit and Charlie to "structure" when it comes to blind tasting, but balance, complexity and depth are the things that count highest on both of our scorecards.

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