Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Blind tasting vs. aristocracy

Let's talk about aristocracy.

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
I disagree strongly with Asimov on this issue, and it could be because we disagree about aristocracy. I don't think it's a fiction; I believe aristocrats run this world. But I don't have to like it and I don't have to contribute to it.

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?

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28 comments:

SiduriWines said...

Blake,

I know that you say that nobody believes that Wine Spectator tastes blind....but I have been to their offices, seen the set up, had the process explained to me, and I do believe that they taste blind. So it isn't quite "nobody."

And I am in complete agreement with you on the importance of blind tasting.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

ColoradoWinePress said...

I am with Adam. I have no reason to doubt that WS tastes blind. The protocol could be improved, however. The editors are given a narrow spectrum of wines, say Oakville cabernets over $75. They may not know which wines are in the brown bags, but you can bet there are some preconceived notions about what the results should be. Same thing when they lump Colorado, New York and Virginia cabernet francs into a lineup together. I'd love to see them put a mix of regions and price points all together under a varietal or "style" classification. That's the fun of blind tasting. I know that some Colorado wines would show as well if not better than their high-priced, high-scoring counterparts. I do love that WS is covering CO, NY, VA, etc more, even if it is in a segregated fashion. Slowly but surely....

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Thomas Matthews said...

Wine Spectator strongly agrees that blind tasting is the best way to avoid bias and give every wine a fair and equal chance to show its best. That is why all of our reviews of newly-released wines are the result of blind tastings.

If you’re interested in our tasting methodology, I invite you to read our policies on our Web site: http://www.winespectator.com/display/show/id/about-our-tastings

I’d also like to note that blind-tasting does not conflict with the goal of telling stories. Our editors spend weeks every year visiting wineries and talking with vintners, and we publish profiles as often as tasting reports in Wine Spectator.

Thomas Matthews
Executive editor
Wine Spectator

sethmlong.com said...

Blind tasting has makes us better students of wine. It sharpens our wits. It feeds our voracious appetite to test resolve and further our knowledge. I taste as much as possible blind. Not to be able to call Roulot Aligote, Burlotto Monvigliero or Dagueneau Silex out, but to remove my preconceptions, my bias which will be there if I see the label and know a bit about what the wine SHOULD be like. To challenge my abilities to truely understand wine without knowing what it is that I am tasting. When I remove preconceived notions of what a wine should taste like, I am willing to tasting a wine for what it truly is, in it’s utterly subjective, dynamic and contentious candor.

W. Blake Gray said...

Sigh. Sometimes you put in a single sentence and that becomes everyone's focus ...

I was kind of kidding -- obviously some people believe WS tastes blind, and it won't be long before Thomas Mathews shows up here -- but also riffing on a very common rumor/belief/complaint.

Do I need to take that sentence out so we can talk about everything else in this post? Let me know.

W. Blake Gray said...

Hi Thomas, you beat me to it! Hope you're well.

SiduriWines said...

It might be useful to look back at Eric Asimov's own blog post on blind tasting and how (and why, in his opinion), a well known, highly respected wine faired less well than others.

http://dinersjournal.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/13/if-i-only-knew-when-i-tasted-it/

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Adam, that adds nicely to the discussion, and I encourage readers to follow the link.

nomadfromcincy said...

I think blind tasting is critical. I also think telling stories is critical. When Eric Asimov wrote about Canary Island wineries (and I think he focused on one in particular), I didn't care if he was tasting blind. When he writes up comparative tastings, I would prefer if he did them blind.

Blind tasting is also fun -- I like being surprised by a wine from an off-vintage or an overly commercialized brand.

That said, order of tasting can always impact your perception of a wine. Any thoughts on how to deal with that?

W. Blake Gray said...

Eric Asimov on Twitter: "That simplifies my point. Blind tasting has its uses, but it may not be the best way to judge young wines en masse."

If you want to read his view in greater detail, follow the link Adam Lee posted above.

I still disagree. Maybe the Clape he left out of the Cornas tasting just wasn't that good that year.

Shutup Andmakewine said...

I can tell if a wine was made in a concrete tank... with a Geiger counter.

http://hps.org/publicinformation/ate/q1543.html

Anita said...

I'm enjoying the discussion about the best way to taste, but what really captured my attention was the fact that you like Luxembourg Rieslings.

I live in Luxembourg and I would be interested to know if you have a particular favorite.

Thanks,
Anita

ColoradoWinePress said...

Blake, why put the WS comment in the post? You know that an article about blind tasting that suggests a major publication may not adhere to its stated policy is of course going to get comments. Do you actually believe that WS doesn't taste blind when scoring wines? I think that you actually wanted to see Mr. Matthews comment on you blog! Otherwise, nice post. Discussing the merits of blind vs. non-blind tasting is always fun!

SiduriWines said...

Colorado,

I think you're right. You make one little Birther joke and you feign surprise that the media reacts. You write one little line about the WS and are surprised that people react. Maybe Blake Gray is actually Mitt Romney?!!

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines

ColoradoWinePress said...

Adam - HA! I bet Blake wasn't expecting to be called Mitt Romney today! But yes, I agree.

Kyle

McSnobbelier said...

Taste is so subjective and complex, I think all the various hot discussions on wine today all swirl around it. This issue of wine lists and sommeliers and ratings and reviews are all linked to tastes. There are so many variables and I believe that taking one variable out will force our other senses to be more alert. If blind tasting is learned systematically and practiced (not for parlor tricks) it can be beneficial. The problem with it is that it is full of nuance, mistakes and ridicule.

My palate judges how I value a wine for purchase, if my palate is off on a particular day or the wine is off then problems arise. Hopefully for my clients, I am humble enough to recognize where the problem with my valuation is when it arises. Sometimes its my mood, or the wine or food I just had or the room (or maybe Bob Jr's dog). Sometimes it's the wine, the temperature, the length of time it's been resting after a long commute or maybe there is a tiny imperceptible flaw. TCA can harm a wine at levels that are quite low and for some not noticeable. What is unfortunate about all this is that some wines get dismissed or valued inappropriately due to any number of reasons and then those wines loose sales and fans for reasons that are not their own fault.

So any way to improve the valuing of wine is a positive, and I think blind tasting is certainly one.

W. Blake Gray said...

I love being compared to Mitt Romney! Now if I could have only his 10th best house, and maybe his 20th highest tax-free income-producing investment ...

Have decided to revisit the Wine Spectator/blind tasting thing in a post of its own. Wait for it!

Fred Swan, www.norcalwine.com said...

I find non-blind tasting very valuable for certain things: comparing multiple vintages of a particular wine, getting a deep understanding of a particular region or the differences between specific vineyards, etc. However, I agree that, when evaluating wines for review purposes, blind is best. And I don't believe in dividing wines into groups by price point. If I had winery advertisers concerned about being out-scored by much lower priced wines, I might be pressured to do so. Which is one of the reasons I don't take winery ads.

chilecopadevino said...

I do about 25-75, blind to open. But I spent years and tasted 1000s of bottles blind. The studies that show people can’t tell very good from average wine blind are based on people with untrained palates or little blind tasting and evaluation experience. An expensive very elegant mid bodied wine can be buried by a well made, mid priced spoofifide fruit bomb and that will come out on top in some blind tastings, as do some Syrah, warm bombs over cool climate styles.

ae608b22-f17d-11e1-bb11-000bcdcb8a73 said...

Great article! I completely agree with the need for blind tasting - also an interesting article from Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) that mentions wine and blind tasting.

http://danariely.com/2009/06/07/how-concepts-affect-consumption/

Joe Roberts, CSW said...

Great article. Unfortunately I gotta jump on the WS comment bandwaggon though. I mean, I've taken my shots at WS in the past but I'm agreeing with CO on this one, the WS comment felt out of place (which is probably why it got a lot of the focus of the ensuing discussion). And believe me, bro, I know **exactly** what the single-sentence-out of-1100-words comments focus is like! :)

Reymundo said...

Very good article & close to my heart. I am a winemaker that enters wine competitions frequently. I find it hard to believe that some competitions do not judge the winres tasted blind? But I know they do! Some tastre the wines in a round trrable setting and discuss what each judgfes comments are convcerning each wine. Obviously,the best wine attorney/litigator has a better chance of convincing the rest of the tasting panel to vote for his/her favorite. Sorry, not very objective especiually if trhe wines aree froma new emerging wine region in America or elsewhere!

Curtis Phillips said...

I would go further. Nothing short of true double-blind tasting is unbiased. The methodology of most of what passes for sensory analysis in the wine industry, and especially the wine-consumer press, is at least 60 years out of date.

W. Blake Gray said...

Reymundo: I have previously judged in the "browbeating" style of competition you mention. What I didn't like about it was the horse-trading: I'll give a gold to this wine I don't like if you give a gold to that wine you don't like.

The 3 competitions I'm doing on a regular basis are more immune to lobbying. At Critics Challenge, Michael Apstein and I judged the same wines and gave medals whether we agreed or not. Sunset is still developing its system but the head judges apparently plan to move closer to the Concours Mondial system, where each of the judges makes a numerical judgment and the results are combined. Concours Mondial has the additional advantage that the judges don't speak the same language so you really can't browbeat somebody who disagrees with you.

dmwineline said...

Blind tasting takes wine out of its context, and for journalist wine writers such as Eric (and Blake, and myself), context is the story. For critics, context is bias and must be eliminated.

So yes, there is room for both methods. The writer tells wine's story in a way that hopefully gets the reader thirsty, while the critic can tell the reader which wines are worth buying. I generally consider myself a wine writer, not a critic, though for better or worse The Washington Post wants me to do both.

And I fully understand Eric's desire to do away with tasting notes, with their puffery and codewords and repetitive redundancy saying the same things over and over and over again and again ad nauseum. They are as painful to write as they are to read. I just haven't figured out how to kill the genre.

Dave McIntyre

DAPZ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DAPZ said...

WS aside, I believe it's also important for sommeliers and wine directors to taste their wine blind when selecting wine for their restaurants.
I also think that tasting wine often is extremely useful in wine sales(restaurants or retail). If your are trained to bling correctly identify a wine as being a sarah from crozes hermitage for example, that means that you have such an understanding of how that wine should taste like that you can accurately describe it to your customer and that should improve the dining experience.
Some people like to classify the tasting groups that we take part when studying for the CMS exams as useless little games and that is why I think they are dead wrong.