The Challenges of Blind Tasting

Only by blind tasting can a true assessment of a wine’s style and quality be made, so powerful is subjectivism in the wine-tasting process.

                                                                                                                     Jancis Robinson, Oxford Companion to Wine

Blind, yes, that does sum up the vision involved in this popular method of judging quality.

Kermit Lynch, Adventures on the Wine Route

One of the more interesting activities primarily associated with sommeliers, wine critics, producers, consultants, and true wine enthusiasts is the process of tasting wine blinded. No, no one usually wears a blindfold, instead it is the wine that is blinded, not the drinker. In blind tasting, a wine is taken from its original bottle or container to conceal any identifying information. A glass of wine is poured, and tasters are asked to observe, smell, and sample a particular wine and react to what is in the glass without knowing its grape varietal, its age, its price, or the wine region from which it was grown and produced. Some blind tasting approaches offer specific procedures or frameworks to help tasters identify wines, while other procedures are more open-ended. 

There seems to be a few basic ways of approaching blind wine tasting. First, wine tasters are asked to examine the wine in the glass with the express purpose of being able to identify the varietal, region, vineyard, vintage, and possibly the producer of the wine, without any identifying information. The Court of Master Sommeliers requires an extensive identification of a slate of wine characteristics, including aroma, structure, balance, harmony, and quality to pass three of the four levels of its certification. The number of possible varieties of wines and the time allocated for completing the identification task making each progressive level more challenging. Very few wine drinkers actually engage in this type of tasting unless practicing for a certifying exam, participating in a wine seminar, or as a member of a tasting group.

Another type of blind tasting is more individual and introspective. It involves focusing one’s attention on the wine in the glass for the express purpose of enjoying and appreciating what is in the glass without the biases that come with knowing what the wine is, with all its accompanying identifiers. Tasters are simply trying to decide if they like the wine in the glass based on their experience of drinking it without any additional information. This approach is often used to help individual wine enthusiasts hone their sensory skills and wine appreciation.

Simone, a wine lover in Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter, suggests the only way to get to know a wine is to take a few hours with it, let the wine change, and let it change you, the only way to learn anything is you must live with it. Good advice. Blind tasting can be such a Wham, Bam Thank You Ma’am way of approaching wine tasting. Imagine if you had to blind taste up to 100 wines in a single day to write wine reports or make recommendations. All one is left with after a day like that is a headache and a dulled palate.

Regardless of the procedures one selects, most blind tasting procedures are never fully blinded. There is always a particular context, always a framework, or some clues outside the glass that might help narrow down what the possible wines in the glass are. The shape of a bottle offers some clues to narrow it down, so can the limits on what one can afford to pour for a blind tasting. Very few people will be blind tasting Screaming Eagle anytime soon.

Research on Blind Tasting

Psychologists and researchers in oenology and economics have conducted numerous studies to try and understand the differences between expert and novice tasters, the effects of certain conditions like music, ambience, glassware, and the temperature of the wine have on one’s ability to blind taste wines. One study asserted expert tasters activated higher-level cognitive processes than novice tasters (Wang & Presern). These researchers also said wine experts are more analytical than novice wine tasters and have an extended vocabulary for describing what they have smelled and tasted. By developing their own “sensory prototypes” experts are more consistent with their assessments of wine. But isn’t an extended descriptive vocabulary about talking, not tasting?

Gordon Shephard, in his book about the brain and wine tasting entitled, Neuroenology: How the Brain Creates the Taste of Wine, explains how the act of tasting wine is a very complex cognitive feat. In fact, he suggests tasting wine uses more cognitive processing than listening to music, hitting a baseball, or solving math problems. Tasting wine involves saliva in the mouth, muscles in the tongue, one’s olfactory systems, retronasal (air from the throat) and orthonasal (air from the nose) breathing, and our emotions. Shephard was asserted that yes, our emotions can change the way we experience a wine. This may be the reason particular wines I have tasted while relaxed and on vacation never taste quite the same when I get home.

A study reporting on the annual Oxford versus Cambridge University wine tasting competition suggests the tasters scored better than random chance would have predicted. Members of the tasting groups were able to identify the country of origin and the varietal in most of the wines they tasted. Other studies have not been as supportive of tasters’ unique capabilities.

In a now famous study from 2001, Frederic Brochet, a PhD candidate at the University of Bordeaux, dyed a white wine red with a flavorless coloring additive and the expert panel described the wine in terms of a red wine. His study suggested that visual cues have an effect on tasting wines. In 2008, Robin Goldstein and associates, implied there is a strong correlation between the price of a wine and tasters’ preferences. Their study showed that overall, tasters preferred cheaper wines. 

Another study reported from the California Institute of Technology, using MRI scans, showed that when tasters knew whether the price of a wine showed cognitive signs of preferring the more expensive ones. Still, another study by Robert Hodgson examined the reliability and replicability of a panel of expert tasters judging wines at the California State Fair. His investigation revealed enormous inconsistencies across wines, time, and judges. All this research, conducted by a vast array of economists, psychologists, oenologists, and expert members of the wine industry suggests that wine tasting is subjective at best, and riddled with bullshit at its worst.

According to this series of research studies, the validity and reliability of the outcomes of blind tasting wine has a troubling history. When people are told that a wine is expensive and of high quality before tasting it they are often overly influenced by that information and tend to agree. If someone sees a bottle of cheap wine being offered, one’s biases come into play before we even taste the win in the glass. Truly, these are some worthwhile reasons for trying to taste some wines without knowing what they are.

The purposes for blind tasting can range from a certification process to trying to hone one’s tasting skills, to studying for a certifying exam, or to show up fellow wine enthusiasts. As a parlor game identifying a wine blinded can be an enjoyable, and humbling experience. Many a time I have missed identifying the varietal, the region, the age, and the quality of wines being offered. When asked about his ability to correctly identify a wine, Eric Asimov, the New York Times wine critic said he gets them wrong as often as gets them right. As a wine critic, some would say it’s essential for reducing bias when making recommendations, but for the average wine enthusiast it may have limited utility.

Reasons for Blind Tasting

One might ask why do people conduct blind tastings in the first place? Especially a blind tasting that is conducted under time-limited situations. Some of the justifications for blind tasting include evaluating a wine more objectively and accurately by only focusing on what is in the glass, focusing one’s attention solely on what is in the glass and not on the label, to increase one’s ability to describe a wine, and to judge the typicity and quality of a wine as compared with comparable wines from a selected region or producer.

Some real-world applications of blind tasting are to inform customers of the quality of a particular vintage, wine, vineyard, or producer by an acknowledged wine expert or to use as the basis for marketing campaigns by describing more accurately the characteristics of a certain wine. Wine makers also use blind tasting to blend wines from various vineyards or vintages to create the highest quality wine from a particular producer. Some champagne houses use blind tasting to blend various vintages together to create their house cuvees. 

The act of blind tasting, whether in single-blind tastings where the tasters are allowed to know the region the wine comes from or possibly the varietal under consideration, or a double-blind tasting where no information is revealed up front, remains a mystery to most wine novices. As many psychologists have noted, we often deify people and events we do not comprehend completely. This is the basis of most forms of religion or mythology. It may also be why we shown such reverence in the world of wine for expert and accomplished blind tasters.

During a blind tasting, we are often impressed when someone can identify a wine varietal, region, or even vineyard and vintage simply by smelling and tasting the wine in a glass. Noted blind tasters have a coveted standing and social status in the traditional wine community. One reason is the sensitivity of one’s sensory apparatus and the knowledge necessary to make sense of the elements perceived is extensive. Blind tasting is not a parlor trick and most wine professionals guess incorrectly as often as they guess correctly, but the skill is based on experience and knowledge, not smoke and mirrors.

However, whether blind tasting has any practical application or connection to the lives of most wine enthusiasts is certainly doubtful. It is at times just one way for certifying organizations to cull the herd, so to speak. The level of accuracy required during blind tasting increases dramatically with every rung on the Court of Master Sommeliers certification ladder. One’s ability to blind taste and identify wines is directly connected to one’s knowledge of wine as much as one’s sensory apparatus. Even if you can correctly identify certain wine characteristics, for example residual sugar, petrol aromas, or racing acidity, unless you know these are possible markers of a German Riesling, it doesn’t matter how accurate your senses have become.

The point of blind tasting should be to focus your attention on what is in the glass, to increase one’s appreciation of the wine being drunk, and to become a more mindful wine taster. This focusing of one’s attention is very Zen-like in its approach to observation and experience and would do us all well if we tried to sustain a bit more of our attention to the things in front of us, except our smartphones. When the goal is simply to correctly identify the varietal in the glass, we are missing an essential aspect of this process.

Deductive Tasting Processes

Some approaches to blind tasting, referred to as deductive tasting processes, are offered by wine certification authorities and organizations, in particular the Wine and Spirits Education Trust and the Court of Master Sommeliers. These tasting frameworks are touted as a way to move from drinking, which is often defined as a mindless activity, to tasting which seems to be more refined, mindful, and elitist. The Napa Valley Wine Academy suggests tasting requires focus, wine knowledge, repetition, developing a bank of olfactory memories from which to draw upon, taking notes, mindful attention, and a grid (there is always a grid).

A tasting grid is considered an essential component of blind tasting procedures. Learning to follow the grid in a specific order, and memorizing the framework, is recommended by the Court of Master Sommeliers for wine tasters trying to move into the upper echelons of the court, especially the Master Sommelier level. These grids usually start with identifying what you see, then move on to what you smell, and finish with thinking about what you taste. If you can learn to use this grid it will make your tasting experiences more consistent, but maybe not more enjoyable. I would not recommend pulling a grid out when sitting at the dining table at your in-laws on Thanksgiving. Just drink the wine they pour and look happy. At least they served wine.

As is often the case, the devil is in the details. Some of these deductive tasting grids have 25-40 characteristics to consider. Some of these grids require you to objectively judge the quality of a wine while others simply want you to use the grid to guess the varietal, region, vintage, and producer. I can honestly say, if the grid you have selected helps you focus your attention on the wine in the glass and helps you enjoy the wine more, keep it. If it doesn’t, I would recommend throwing it away.

The Discourse of Blind Tasting

Along with the investigation of a particular glass of wine comes the language used to describe and discuss these sensory experiences. The development of a lexicon for sharing what one has experienced is an interesting and somewhat challenging process. Are we using language to be more accurate or more esoteric and convoluted? This may seem like a silly question but a brief foray into the terms used by wine tasters and sommeliers reveals what Bianca Bosker called a verbal arms race. She felt at times that her wine descriptors were taken directly from a Wiccan book of love spells.

The language used to describe a particular wine can be more connected to a fruit salad than a glass of wine. Strawberry, black cherry, pineapple, cranberry, currant, fig, and apricot are commonly used descriptors offered by wine enthusiasts during blind tastings. The Court of Master Sommeliers and the WSET have a large section on their deductive tasting sheets dedicated to fruit descriptors. Other sections include, non-fruit descriptors, herbs, nuts, rocks, baking spices and many more. Rocks? Yes, rocks, wet rocks, minerals, sulfur, and cement are often used to describe the “minerality” of a white wine. The problem is that language and experience do not map onto one another directly. Language constructs reality as much as it reflects it. This is another example why learning the discourse of wine will get you as far in the wine world as refining your palette.

The Judgment of Paris

I would be hard-pressed to find a single event in the world of wine that has had more influence, especially on wine making and wine consumption in the United States, than what has come to be known as the Judgment of Paris. In 1976, Steve Spurrier, an English wine critic and educator working in Paris, France, brought together a group of wine experts to do a comparison blind tasting of selected wines from California and from across regions of France. The primary report of this event was filed by George Tabor, an American journalist, and has subsequently been expanded into a book entitled The Judgment of Paris. Famous French wine personalities and critics tasted a selection of chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon and ranked the California wines higher than many of the French ones. 

The rankings from this blind tasting event have been challenged as to its validity and have ignited a battle between French and American vignerons that persists to this day. Time magazine had the winning American wines on their cover. The winning bottles are displayed in a wine exhibit in the Smithsonian Museums in Washington DC. The movie Bottleshock offered a fictionalized version of the events of the Judgment of Paris. Wine podcasts are still debating how this event from over 40 years ago still influences the world of wine. What started out as a simple blind tasting of wines changed the way wine has been grown and sold throughout the world supporting New World wines and challenging the notions that only wines grown in Europe are worthy of distinction. I recommend you read through Tabor’s book. It is truly a fascinating account of this historical event.

So What?

Jancis Robinson said that guessing a wine’s identity on the basis of taste alone is one of the most impressive tricks a human can perform. Besides being a cool parlor trick, does blind tasting have any practical applications of benefits? 

I must admit that I have been part of various tasting groups, both professional and amateur, that have different reasons for blind tasting. One focused on preparing for certifying exams, and the other was an enjoyable way for a group of enthusiasts to get together to share and enjoy wines. However, I am not sure if the blind tasting events in which I have participated have improved my enjoyment of wine? I enjoy the comradery and the challenge of identifying particular wines and varietals with my tasting group, but my enjoyment of a wine is usually more personal and more connected with food than these events allow.