New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov gave me an hour of his time for a Q&A recently. One of his most provocative opinions is his opposition to blind tasting, even though the Times uses it.
Asimov: "I think it's infantilizing. It gives consumers the illusion of a level playing ground. I think we're all very open to the idea that because we're Americans and we're democrats with a small d, aristocracy is a fiction and if everybody is given the same opportunity, then everybody can shine equally ... I think that's a dumbed down way of looking at wine.
I think for evaluating wine, there's a great deal to be learned by knowing what you're dealing with, the history, past performance, past experiences. It seems silly to me that only wine critics are asked to shut their eyes to that."
Asimov strikes at the heart of the modern system of wine evaluation, both the method -- blind tasting -- and the motivation.
Why do we taste blind? Three reasons. One: To discover good wines that we might have otherwise ignored or dismissed. Two: To evaluate wines we have tasted in the past without preconceptions.
Three: Because it's fair.
|Eric Asimov has a book coming out in October|
This was Robert Parker's initial great leap forward. Prior to Parker, wines had a clear pecking order established by the government of France. That's why the Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976 was so shocking. How could any wine from California ever beat wines from the gilded chateaux of Bordeaux? That wasn't a wine tasting; it was a revolution.
The Judgment of Paris was a one-time thing, but Parker, every month, refused to accept wine classifications based on power and social class. No matter what Parker did the rest of his career, the idea of putting all wines on an equal footing was a power-to-the-people breakthrough. Asimov acknowledges this in our conversation.
Is it time to turn the clock back?
A variety of psychological studies have demonstrated good reasons to taste blind. (Here's just one article about this; you can find others.)
One important finding is that people can't distinguish expensive wines in tastings. If you believe in aristocracy, that means people don't have taste. If you don't, that means all expensive wines are not necessarily better.
Both may be true. But I believe the latter.
I don't believe critics need to taste all wines blind. Asimov writes well about estates that have been using traditional methods for years. Their wines should be covered in context. Nobody needs to taste wines blind to tell a story.
Sometimes the story behind the wine is important in your enjoyment. Vegans enjoy a wine more if it's unfined and would rather not know about the insects that went through the crusher. Traditionalists and hipsters both enjoy a wine more if they know it's fermented in a cement tank, whether or not they can taste the difference. The story matters, much of the time.
But if I just want to know who's making good Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, blind tasting is the only way to go. I know some of the winemakers and many of the brands. As unbiased as I try to be, I cannot possibly put aside my preconceptions.
It wouldn't be hard to marginalize blind tasting in the wine world (a lot easier than eliminating tasting notes, something else Asimov espouses). Robert Parker doesn't always blind taste; he could eliminate it. Wine Spectator says they blind taste, but nobody believes them; they could easily eliminate it.
Wine competitions would still use blind tasting, as they should, but let's face it, consumers aren't buying wines based on medals. When I visit new wineries, they're always bursting with pride at a gold medal they won somewhere, and why not? Pride matters.
I'll bet the reason I support blind tasting and Asimov doesn't -- even though I love to write the kind of narrative-driven stories he does best -- is because I judge at a few competitions (Concours Mondial, Critics Challenge and Sunset), and he doesn't. These are much more blind than New York Times panels, in which he buys the wines and gets somebody to put them in a paper bag. He knows what's there; he just doesn't know the order.
At a wine competition, when I don't know for sure what kinds of wines I'm tasting, I often learn something, albeit usually about my personal taste: that I like Luxembourg Rieslings, don't like Cab-Syrah blends, and will pick a good Chianti Classico over almost anything else. Of course, all criticism is personal taste, even when people pretend it isn't.
Which means it's fair for Asimov to dislike blind tasting for himself. That's not the way he relates to wine, nor is it the way he likes to write about it. The wine world needs storytellers more than pure flavor evaluators. I lean towards the former myself.
But some people don't want a story; they just want the best-tasting glass, and blind tasting is the way to find it. It's a service, and criticism is also a service industry.
What do you think, readers? Is blind tasting a good way to evaluate wine? Or should you always know the identity of the producer?