In Blindness Veritas?
Tasting wine blind isn't all it's cracked up to be.
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.
Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.