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The “Right” Way To Taste Wine—The Search For Consistency

By Stephen Eliot

Is there a “right” way to taste wines? It seems to me that advocacy on an ideal model, a “one way fits all” methodology is ultimately as useless as populist deference to the notion that beauty lies entirely in the eye of the beholder, and thus any wine’s achievements or shortcomings are relative to an individual taster. As much as the latter notion creeps into a good deal of latter-day wine journalism, I know of few, if any, writers of consequence that really believe that good, better and best do not exist, and, when it comes right down to it, wine writing is an exercise in judgment and one that depends on a set method of inquiry if those judgments are to have consistency. Validity and authority, in the business of professional wine criticism are nothing without consistency.

Now, I have no quibble with whatever tasting technique or format one might embrace. There are endless arguments for and against blind tasting and the number of wines that can usefully be evaluated in one sitting. I am both amazed and disbelieving at those who claim to be able to taste a hundred and more wines over the course of a couple of hours, and, more often than not, I find opinions so formed to result in reductionist drivel, but, even then, if those results are consistent over time, then I suppose that they are not without some value to readers who understand a given writer’s bias.

We happen to believe in the efficacy of what is generally referred to as “single” blind tasting. Knowing the variety and, perhaps, the vintage is useful in establishing a point of reference and setting the parameters of evaluation, but we prefer not to see labels because experience necessarily leads to prejudice and an uneven playing field. Objectivity is elusive in the best of circumstances, and it becomes more illusory yet when I know am faced with a favorite or wine that has consistently disappointed in the past.

I am often asked how we taste here at CGCW, how many wines in a session and how much time is allotted to each wine. For the record, we will typically taste 16 wines a day, in two flights of eight, and take several hours to do so. We regularly invite a panel of guest tasters drawn for all corners of the profession, from retailers to sommeliers to winemakers. There is a good deal of discussion about each wine and plenty of time spent in scribbling notes as each wine is revisited again and again. We have tasted at the same table in the same way for over forty years. Yes, we taste hundreds, if not thousands, of wines annually in other venues and other formats, but the aim is simply to broaden a base of understanding, to add to our ongoing education and personal familiarity of the wine world at large. For publication, however, the methodology of evaluation is rigorous and fixed, and I like to think that it is unassailable in its consistency.

And so, we return to the notion of consistency. It is what useful judgment and evaluation require regardless of method. It is what our readers demand and deserve.

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