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Tasting Wines By Price—An Exercise in Futility

By Charles Olken

Last night was a typical Monday night Chez Olken. A Connoisseurs’ Guide blind tasting followed by dinner so that we could taste the wines with food. Because these tastings are always done with the bottles wrapped from stem to stern in aluminum foil, they allow us to luxury of not knowing, and thus, not caring, about anything on the label—not producer, not place of origin, not alcohol content, not price.

In our line of work, we think it is important to “not know”. We have long, four decades long and counting, tasted by the credo “Let the wines speak”. We do not claim to be unique in this methodology, but it is why we do not ever review wines tasted at the winery with the labels showing. Other writers do and claim no bias. I am sure they mean it, but listen to the words of a winery that recently invited us up to taste while declining to allow us access to its wines for our blind tastings. When asked if that was a “fair” way to review wines, the winery owner explained, “I get better ratings that way”.

Another way to look at this issue is the influence of price on ratings/expectations—a lesson that came home to us in spades last night. CGCW tastes sixteen wines per night, broken into flights of eight. The first group were Chardonnays with nothing out of the ordinary except that the two most expensive wines, from the Napa Valley and noted producers, finished in the middle of the pack while less expensive efforts came to the fore. We do not publish raw results so placing is not a sole determinant of perceived quality, and the richer, deeper wines, while not as outwardly fruity, will get their due.

It was in the second flight that the perils of tasting by price smacked us in the palate. When the wines were finally revealed, there were two in the pack with three-digit prices. One finished in a rating tie for first alongside a $40 wine and would have won had one taster simply dismissed it as too ripe, while the other one finished near the bottom overall. There were stylistic differences as well as differences in depth and focus, of course, and that challenge is ever present.

But, the second of the high-priced spreads not only bore a price in the hundreds of dollars but also came from a well-regarded winery. It was from the 2011 vintage, and showed it. There were audible gasps of disbelief when the wine was revealed. It simply was not very good. Whether the winery can sell all of it is not our concern. I would guess that it can, and, given my faith in the laws of supply and demand, I am left only with qualitative comments and the observation that this deficient wine be left on the shelf by CGCW readers.

It is often said that wine critics are swayed by expectations, and I suppose that it must be true at some level. Even now, I am wondering if we missed something in the fancy wine that finished last. How can a wine costing that much be thin, green and overly acidic? But, at least by tasting it blind, and by retasting it another time in a different blind tasting, we will “know” before we publish. If nothing else, those two expensive Cabernets, with their widely disparate placings, reinforced the futility of judging a wine by price or winery reputation or place of origin. That may not be new news, but is the clear and unambiguous news from last night’s tasting.


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by TomHill
Posted on:10/21/2014 4:40:12 PM


Not clear from your post, but I'm assuming the 2'nd flight was of 8 Cabernets??



by Charlie Olken
Posted on:10/21/2014 4:53:58 PM

Sorry for the confusion. CS it was.

No Subject
by Hsio
Posted on:10/22/2014 9:52:12 AM

Wow, but not surprising. Thank you. Great read!

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