A Blind Tasting With Family and Friends

Ξ January 12th, 2010 | → 10 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Tasting Notes, Wine News |

Coming on the heels of my review of The Wine Trials 2010 by Robin Goldstein and Alexis Herschkowitsch was a blind tasting in the Sierras with family and friends. I had planned a more conventional tasting weeks before. It was to have been with labels exposed and winery back-stories at hand. But after reading The Wine Trials 2010 I thought it would prove much more interesting to my non-expert friends were I rather to explore, unknown to them, some of the questions forcefully asked in the book. Is price correlated to quality? Can an expensive wine be sensed? Knowing only the price range of the wines, can folks ‘ballpark’ a price point? Further, is the evaluation of wine quality made easier or more complicated if the wines may not be discussed during the tasting? And what of defensiveness, intimidation, parroting the critics, post-tasting humiliation, all of the pleasure-robbing pathologies surrounding wine? Should the blind tasting be properly constructed, might this miasma of anxiety be displaced by, well, good, clean fun?
I did not follow the letter but the spirit of The Wine Trials’ Chapter 8 Drinking games for adults, the book’s instruction manual for blind tastings. My method was the following (and nearly all of these details were known to the participants): I purchased all of the wines from one store, Trader Joe’s. The price spread was from a few dollars to around $30. The wines were made of one grape, Cabernet Sauvignon, with one notable exception I’ll explain later. Four wines were domestically produced, in California. One was from Bordeaux.
I placed the bottles, five in all, in identical paper sacks. I then removed all of the tin and plastic on the necks of each bottle and pulled the corks. Only one cork was plastic. I concealed them. The bags were then taped closed at the neck. I left the room and requested that another soul randomly number the bottles which were promptly placed among the participants at the tasting table. I returned to the room and passed out notebook paper and pens.
Though unintentional, it happened that none of the wines I selected appear on the list of 150 recommendations in The Wine Trials 2010, though it may be that they were on the original gathering of 450 wines. I do not know. Neither is it particularly relevant.
Of the five participants (and I will be speaking of myself in the third person from time to time), there were three women, all mothers, and two men, both fathers. They range in age from the late thirties to the early fifties. All are college-educated; they think for themselves. Each soul is independent and will not hesitate to express an opinion. All are good-looking, talented and desirable. They are all middle to upper middle-class. All stick to a budget. None drink to excess unless provoked by the chafing coil of daily responsibilities. Four souls are avid, casual wine-drinkers; only one is an oft-times annoying student of the vine. All of their children were present, and, I should point out, quite amused at their parent’s behavior. Moreover, the secretive character of the wine tasting exercise interested them. Who doesn’t enjoy guessing what’s in the brown paper bag?
A simple series of questions was asked. “Which wine(s) tastes expensive?” “What is the taste of expensive?” “How much would one be willing to pay for a given wine?” Not asked was which wine was a favorite, though all were free to speak of such a thing only after the other questions were answered, or at least an attempt was made. Lastly, each soul was given the option to guess the grape. (It must be said that the questions were so designed as to shift the burden off of private reflection and onto that of a wine’s commercial reception.)
Dinner had already been eaten. The numbered wines were tasted in order. A single 12 oz. crystal glass was used by each taster, and each time the glass was rinsed with the next wine to be tasted. A spit bucket was provided. Its use was encouraged.
The results? The first wine tasted was from the general Napa AVA, a 2008 Spiral cab. This wine tasted ‘expensive’ by two participants. The tannin and acid was compelling. Too much oak (or oak flavoring?) was nevertheless present. Three folks said, rather emphatically, that the wine tasted like ‘just wine’, ’simple’, ‘thin’, ‘little depth, no story; Elmer’s glue’. Of the latter, they would not pay more than $6. This is a good thing because the wine sells for $4.99!
The second wine was a 2006 Napa Valley Robert Mondavi cab. No taster sensed that this wine was ‘expensive’. Indeed, after two folks volunteered that the wine ’smelled like rubbing alcohol’, tasted ‘metallic, like cherry cough drops’, ‘not complex’, no taster, it turned out, would be willing to pay over $10. Three tasters felt the wine worth less than $7! The retail price for this wine is $20.99.
The third wine, a 2001 Chateau de la Riviere Fronsac. The ringer. Mostly Merlot. But inasmuch as it was from Bordeaux I knew it would be a strict, harsh example. One thought it poor, hardly worth more than $3. The high acid and tannin was welcomed by others, though one taster felt it had but one note. Somewhere between $10 and $15 was the general consensus. Retail: $14.99.
One of the strangest wines of the evening, the fourth, was the 2007 California Pétanque by M. Schlumberger, Inc. Perhaps it was that it was tasted after the Fronsac. One felt it was quite cheap. Others detected chalk, roses, said it had a ’story’. The consensus that it was a medium priced wine. Most would pay $14 to $16. The retail? $4.99.
The fifth wine was a surprise. We had a near unanimous agreement that it was an ‘expensive’ wine, the 2004 Mt. Veder, Napa, Chateau Potelle. One taster said, ‘I would pay over $20 for this.’ Another said it was the ‘best of the evening’. ‘Bitter’ intro, but worth $15 at least added a third. A fourth soul agreed. One last voice, a fan of the Fronsac, said this wine tasted ‘powdered’. Like Kool-Aid, simply dump it into a glass of water. Retail: $24.99.
It is clear that a blind tasting exercise like the one described above, or that found in The Wine Trials 2010, ought to be a part of every wine enthusiast’s on-going education. Not only does it interfere with received commercial and critical opinion, but it makes short work of whatever expertise one may have felt they’re owed. What is interesting is the simplicity of the work. One need merely drink from a paper bag. And no one needs to feel disappointed. Tasting at cross purposes, finding mystery with the most modest of wines, it is a minor miracle that the human palate may draw distinctions from so small a sample. Five wines!
How strange is it that family and friends, first drawn together by a common purpose, a blind tasting, should nevertheless find themselves alone.


10 Responses to ' A Blind Tasting With Family and Friends '

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  1. on January 13th, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Such fun! Some friends and I went in on $150 worth of wines from WS Top 100 and plan a tasting. We’re curious what people will score them, both what they’re worth & how they’d score them. Our next tasting will be one like you describe!

  2. Donna said,

    on January 13th, 2010 at 8:47 am

    Awesome! Now take cheap wine, put it in expensive named bottles, not blind, and see what happens. Then get the expensive bottles of real wine, put them next to the fakes and have them guess which bottle is the real one.

    You might have some friends not talk to you for a couple weeks, but it’s a good experience.

    I’d do it and blog it, but my friends are all on to me after a yellow tail/mollydooker incident I created.

  3. Rosie Herrera said,

    on January 13th, 2010 at 10:15 am

    Great job! Keep it coming, i like the brown bag wine,concept..

  4. on January 13th, 2010 at 11:37 am

    Sounds like a great tasting, Ken. Hope other wine lovers take your lead and try it out.

  5. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on January 13th, 2010 at 11:47 am

    Hi, Tyce. The tasting was great fun. All folks very much enjoyed the experience. Another one is planned for March.

  6. on January 15th, 2010 at 11:51 am

    This kind of tasting is a great social exercise, and it makes wine into what it ought to be in the first place–a beverage to be enjoyed for fun and pleasure. Aside from those who never enjoy their food, most of us use food the same way. We grill the onions for our burgers and we place them on breads that are way more interesting than Wonder or its burger roll equivalent.
    Good on ya for doing this. You were not looking for detailed tasting notes, even for preference, although I have to say that the only way one comes away from that tasting with actionable content is to have formed a buying preference for one or more of the wines tasted. If preference is treated as a total irrelevancy, then the exercise is academic. Nothing wrong with academic exercises for the fun of it, but the bottom line is that we generally want to spend money on wines we like, and so advancing that cause is never irrelevant as I see it.
    Thanks for sharing. Nice story.

  7. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on January 15th, 2010 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks, Charlie. The idea was to introduce friends to the experience of tasting blind. Initially, it produces a giddy, constructive confusion! But inasmuch as we immediately planned a second effort for early March, it may be then, when comfortable with the process, folks will concentrate on which wines tasted they might later purchase. Thank you for dropping by. Always great to hear form you.

  8. on January 16th, 2010 at 3:17 pm

    Blind tastings tend to be one part fun, one part mystery, 2 parts eye-opening.

    Blind tasting seem to take what most consider the simple act of tasting wine to a whole other level. I know that my concentration and senses are heightened when participating in these types of events, whether it is casual or more intense.

  9. Admin, Ken Payton said,

    on January 16th, 2010 at 6:58 pm

    Thank you for the comment, Matt. Keep up the good work on your site!

  10. Susan J. Spaulding said,

    on January 25th, 2010 at 9:10 am

    Blind tastings are SUCH fun!! I do enjoy them. Thanks for your detailed post!!!

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