Party Games

November 24th, 2008

Blind games.

Blind games.

Steve Heimoff, today, wrote an interesting post about the importance of tasting blind. The core of his argument is that it eliminates taster bias and it levels the playing field.

I disagree vehemently. In short, blind tasting is a fun exercise and can make for an entertaining party game.

I believe tasting blind, while eliminating “cues” of reputation (from the label), relies primarily on the taster’s preferences. The idea of leveling the field disregards regional variation. This notion represents very misguided thinking which can only contribute to the much-decried homogenization and loss of diversity in wine.

Blind tasting is a fun exercise. But it levels the field the wrong way. Wines should be evaluated in the context of cepage and terroir. This is what Appellation America’s Best of Appellation program is about and it is exactly what I argued for in a recent post.

I agree with Steve that people should look at wines without consideration of who made it and the reputation they carry. But unless one is looking at a wine and considering its merits in the context of cepage and terroir, one is only selecting wines on the basis of personal enjoyment. If that person makes it their pursuit to review and recommend wines, there is a fundamental problem with the value of the recommendation. Whether they know it or not and whether they mean to or not, they are dictating preference.

Creating lineups of wines of various price points for bind tastings can be entertaining, revealing and perhaps embarrassing for some. But beyond its “gotcha” element it does nothing to improve wine knowledge or communication about wine.

Steve exhorts wine bloggers to taste blind, claiming that many major critics don’t taste blind. Blind tasting to review, he says, will revolutionize the wine industry. I disagree.

The thing that will truly revolutionize the wine industry in the U.S. is a recognition that wines made from specific grapes will express specific characteristics and that the same cultivar grown in different localities will carry some unique, distinguishing characteristics. Further, this revolution will require the knowledge and understanding of how the choice of particular wine growing and wine making practice can affect the expression of grape and site.

The last key ingredient will be addressing each wine reviewed the way a doctor approaches a patient: they know key information about the subject, seek specific signs and findings in the physical examination to determine the client’s state of health, possible problem areas and make a diagnosis. It’s all matter of fact but, when communicated clearly, can relate a clear picture of the person’s state of health to another doctor. Blind tasting and writing about wines based on blind tasting is like a gynecologist making a diagnosis of a woman after speaking only to her husband and never laying a hand on her.

Many rail against the notion of objectivity in wine assessment and reject the possibility of any commonly agreed-upon standards or benchmarks of quality in the context of cepage and growing region. But none are so blind as those that refuse to see.


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3 Responses to “Party Games”

  1. Morton Leslie Says:

    The wine world might be a better place if we just tasted wine anyway we want to taste wine…and then kept our mouths shut. It’s not so bad that we tell everyone our opinions, it’s that some people actually listen to us. When a critic begins to make recommendations on the basis of who made the wine or who owns the winery which occurs more often than anyone will admit, then the idea of blind tasting is appealing.

    In every blind tasting you need some minimal context. It’s reasonable to know what region or what variety or what wine type, but when the information is “who” we run into trouble.

    I taste one bottle a day, never blind, but with a fairly open mind since the purpose of the tasting is to decide if I am going to drink that bottle with dinner. I see no need to talk about it unless my wife asks me my opinion.

  2. mydailywine Says:

    I agree with you about blind tasting but for slightly different reasons.
    I have judged at a few wine shows and sat at tables with very seasoned palates.
    What happens during a wine tasting session is inevitable ( which is how we end up with all of these big broozers with high scores). After a certain amount of wines have been tasted, the palate is dulled and only wines with big fruit and alcohol stands out noticeably.
    Subtle, austere wines lose out in this scenario every time.
    If the wine reviewer could see which region and which year certain wines came from then the wine might get a different reaction, based on context.
    So maybe we are saying the same thing, context matters.

  3. Jerry D. Murray Says:


    Blind tasting certainly has its limitations and as Morton says above, some degree of context must be known to the taster even when tasting blind. In terms of reviewing wines, I think blind is essential to credability. Being honest about a wine, and fair, requires no biases based on preexisting opinion.
    Mydailywine, I think a big part of the problem you talk about has nothing to do with tasting blind but tasting wine after wine after wine. One can take time with each wine and still not know what the wine is.