Blind Tasting

March 20, 2009

The only way to choose a wine...

Having spent decades drinking, serving, and selling wine, my conclusion is that the only way to choose a wine is to blind taste.
I’ve watched people at a restaurant spend $3000 on a current vintage of Domaine Romanee-Conti simply to impress, when the wine needed at least a decade in the bottle to even begin to show its stuff. I have blind tasted sommeliers with exceptional palates on wines wholesaling for less than $4 who loved the wine and were stunned when I told them how inexpensive it was. I have sat at blind tastings and listened to people boldly state what they didn’t like before the tasting, and then choose that exact wine as their favorite.
A perfect example of this is the 1976 Judgment of Paris, when the French put California on the map in a blind tasting. Everyone with an interest in wine should study that event. In a nutshell, it was a tasting put on by an Englishman who owned a wine shop in Paris and wanted to taste some of the new and wonderful wines coming out of California, like Chateau Montalena, Chalone, Freemark Abbey, against some of the French greats, such as Batard-Montrachet, Meursault Charmes and Puligny-Montrachet. Those were some of them in the white wine category. Chateau Montelena (California by the way) won 1st, Meursault Charmes 2nd, Chalone 3rd, and Batard-Montrachet and Puligny-Montrachet 7th & 8th respectively. The winner in the red wines was also a California wine, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars.
I was in a blind tasting of twelve of the best chardonnays from all over the world. I always used to say Kistler Chardonnay was overrated. In this blind tasting I went back to Kistler four times as my favorite. And it was one of the least expensive wines in the tasting…by far.
Preconceived notions abound in everything, but in the world of wine it’s in a league of its own.
As a wine salesman with over five thousand wines in my book, I get to taste people on just about every kind of wine out there. One of the best aspects of my job is blind tasting buyers with a sophisticated palate. Most of them don’t do it, mainly out of fear. But some of them don’t care what a wine is, what scores it got, etc., only how it tastes to them. Those are the courageous ones and the ones I enjoy visiting.
Not long ago I brought in a chardonnay to one of my most educated buyers with arguably the best palate on my run. He put down two glasses, one for red and one for white, and turned his back while I poured. He turned, picked up the white, swirled it, sniffed it, swirled it, sniffed it, took a deep long smell again, then put some in his mouth, swirling it around, swallowed a bit and spit out the rest. He repeated that tasting “dance” several times.
“Chardonnay,” he said in his French accent.
“Right,” I said.
“Not French, though.”
“No. Not French.”
“Maybe…ahh, no. Not California.”
“Not California.”
“No. Not California. I think, maybe Australia?”
“Not Australia.”
“Ah! South Africa!”
“No,” I said.
“New Zealand?”
“Merde. Argentina? Not Argentina.”
“Not Argentina.”
“Not Italy!”
“Not Italy.”
Then he looked at me for a long, quiet moment and said haltingly, “Can-a-da?”
“And good, too!”
Both of us laughed for ten minutes on that one. We still laugh about it. And mind you, this is a man who has taken one taste of a wine and hit the vintage, varietal, and region in one swirl, sniff and taste, and also picked out the most obscure Italian varietals in a blend that no one else could figure out. And Italy reigns supreme in obscure varietals.
Go to tastings and blind taste. Don’t let them tell you what it is, what score it got, who likes it in the who’s who of wine or anything else. Just swirl, sniff and taste. Don’t worry about price, country of origin, varietal or vintage. Once you decide you like it, then worry about everything else. You’ll be amazed. You’ll taste wines that sell for a hundred dollars a bottle that you don’t think much of, and wines that sell for twenty dollars a bottle that you love.
Wine is a personal thing. What you like can change from day to day, depending on what you ate, how you feel, who you’re with, and a thousand other things. I’ve watched master sommeliers guess correctly on the region, vintage, and A.V.A., then say it’s a cabernet sauvignon when it was a merlot. The brave ones laugh and buy the wine. The cowards get insulted.
Wine was made to enjoy. So enjoy it.