In Blindness Veritas?

Tasting wine blind isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Don’t drink the label, drink the wine. Among the many (unwritten) rules of wine appreciation, this is easily the most important. It’s also the hardest one to follow. Even the most discriminating oenophiles find it difficult not to be influenced by the name on the bottle, particularly if the name is a hallowed one. For this reason, many people believe that the only reliable way to judge wines is to taste them blind—that is, to taste them without knowing who made them. (Indeed, a blind tasting is the one occasion when drinking out of a brown paper bag is not only respectable but a sign of intellectual rigor.) When people don’t have the benefit of seeing the label, the argument goes, they have no choice but to judge a wine solely on its merits. But does this approach really make for the best wine criticism? In blindness veritas?

It depends on whom you ask. The Wine Spectator proudly trumpets the fact that its tastings are done blind, presumably as a way of distinguishing itself from Robert Parker, who says only that he tastes blind “when possible.” The newest voice in wine criticism, a group of mostly European grape pros called the Grand Jury Européen, always tastes with the bottles hidden from view, and its president, Francois Mauss, is a tireless champion of this method. The GJE specializes in “single-blind” tastings: The tasters know a few details about the wines being poured—the region, or the vintage, or the grapes, or some combination thereof—but don’t know the names of the wines (in some instances, they are told the names in advance, but they have no idea which wine is which). In “double-blind” tastings, the participants know nothing about the wines except what they see in the glass. (And yes, scientists would likely scoff at the wine world’s loose use of these terms.)

Blind tastings can serve both as rites of passage—the exams for both the Master of Wine and the Master Sommelier degrees include blind tastings—and as ritual hazings. Within wine circles, nothing cements a reputation quite like acing a blind tasting. Years ago, British wine writer Oz Clarke was served a mystery red. After much sniffing and sipping, he said he couldn’t decide whether it was the 1982 Paul Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle or the 1983. There was a reason he couldn’t make up his mind: The glass contained a blend of both. But such triumphs are rare; more often than not, blind tastings yield embarrassment.

In December 2005, I wrote a piece about American sparkling wines in which I claimed that costlier homegrown bubblies were no match for high-end Champagnes. A few days after the article was posted, I received a phone call from Hugh Davies, the owner of Schramsberg Vineyards, one of California’s leading sparkling-wine producers. Davies wasn’t happy with me, and after several minutes of gentlemanly sparring, he asked if I would do a blind tasting. I couldn’t exactly say no, so I told him I’d be game. I quickly forgot the conversation; Davies did not, which is why I found myself, 10 months later, seated in the tasting room of a Manhattan wine shop, nervously eyeing 12 glasses of effervescent yellow liquid. Davies was there, of course, as were several sommeliers and journalists. We weren’t told the names of the Champagnes and sparkling wines or the quantities of each, though it stood to reason that at least one Schramsberg wine was on the table. Our task was to rank the wines in order of preference and to identify them by place of origin. My personal mission was to avoid the egg yolks aimed at my face. (I was later told by Schramsberg’s PR honcho that the event had been organized for my benefit—which was to say, my humiliation.)

I knew the clues I was looking for: The Champagnes would be taut, mineral-rich wines with brisk acidity, while the sparkling wines would be comparatively plump and exhibit more tropical fruits. But knowing what to look for during a blind tasting and being confident you’ve found it are two different things. I was pretty sure the fourth glass was the Bollinger Grande Année (a Champagne)—the wine had Bollinger’s telltale hazelnut/white-chocolate aroma. Otherwise, though, I was second-guessing myself every sip of the way.

I ended up doing better than I had expected. For one thing, I was right about the Bollinger; it was the ‘96 Grande Année. More importantly, my two top picks—by some distance—were Champagnes: the 1996 Salon and the Bollinger. I also correctly identified seven of 10 wines by region (I thought two bottles were damaged and didn’t venture a guess for either). There was a pair of Schramsbergs in the tasting; I ranked them fifth and sixth, respectively. I couldn’t claim complete vindication: I had two sparkling wines, the 1999 Domaine Carneros Le Reve and the 1999 Roederer l’Hermitage, as my third and fourth choices, but they were nowhere close in quality to my top two choices, and that was good enough for me. I took a triumphant stroll across the room to share my results with Hugh Davies, who responded graciously. He didn’t ask for a rematch, and I didn’t tell him that there was no chance of one.

Salon and Bollinger showed well that morning, but it might have been a very different outcome for them (and me) the next day. Blind tastings are wonderfully democratic, but there is a tendency to overlook the fact that wines and palates are fickle and to read more into the results than is justified. This was certainly true of history’s most famous blind tasting, the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when a panel of French experts rated several unheralded American wines superior to a handful of top Bordeauxs and white Burgundies. The Paris tasting demonstrated that the United States was capable of producing great wines; it did not prove, as some suggested, that first-growth Bordeauxs and grand cru Burgundies were overrated.

Celebrated wines often fail to live up to expectations in blind tastings. Earlier this year, I took part in a blind tasting of 1996 Barolos and Barbarescos. A dozen wines were served, among them two Red Label Riservas from Bruno Giacosa. Many people consider Giacosa the finest producer in Italy’s Piedmont region, and his 1996 Red Label Riservas had been widely hailed as brilliant. Around 40 people participated in the tasting, and all were asked to pick their top three wines. Amazingly, one of the Giacosas failed to garner a single vote and finished dead last, while the other received just one first-place vote and two second-place votes and came in ninth. People who are convinced that wine experts are full of it and who also believe that expensive wines are never worth the money invariably regard such “upsets” as proof of these general propositions. That’s silly. Great wines don’t acquire their reputations by accident. Given the unanimity of opinion about the Riservas, and Giacosa’s track record, I’m pretty confident we just caught the wines on an off night. All wines evolve in the barrel, the bottle, and the glass, and their timetables don’t necessarily accord with ours.

A good showing can also be extrapolated to excess. In London last month, Chateau Pavie finished first in a blind tasting of 150 wines from the 2001 Bordeaux vintage, beating out such eminences as Petrus, Lafleur, Margaux, and Latour. Pavie has aroused lots of controversy in recent years: Many people love it, but others contend that it is now made in a style more evocative of Napa than Saint-Emilion (its appellation). It also has an uncanny knack for performing well in blind tastings of young Bordeauxs. Naturally, Pavie fans do cartwheels every time this happens. But have these results really settled the argument over Pavie, or do they simply prove that Pavie, in its current incarnation, stands out among juvenile, tannic wines? The real test of a Bordeaux is how gracefully it ages; let’s see how the Pavie compares with its peers a decade from now.

With blind tasting, it is just you, your retronasal passage, and the juice. The results are often surprising and frequently humbling, and those are good things. But tasting blind doesn’t necessarily make for better wine criticism. If you don’t know the wine’s name, you also don’t know its back story—how it was made and how it has tended to evolve in prior vintages. These are important considerations, particularly when appraising younger wines (a point made very persuasively by New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov in a recent post on his blog).

No question, having the bottle in front of you can be a crutch, and there is overwhelming scientific evidence that labels affect how people respond to wines. But with or without knowing the name, a good critic ought to be able to deliver an honest and accurate assessment of a wine’s quality. It’s not an either-or proposition, of course, and a combination of the two approaches probably yields the most useful information. The truth, ultimately, is in the wine, but tasting blind isn’t the only way to get at it.