Blind tasting is an exam component for many different wine certifications. Typically, candidates are required to describe a wine according to set standards (i.e. “the Grid” or “the SAT”), identify the wine, and then give reasons for our choice. We’re also often asked about the quality of the wine: is it outstanding, good, or merely acceptable? One of these quality categories used to be “faulty” – but for whatever reason, WSET recently removed this as an option. Perhaps they assumed that all exam wines would be faultless.
When practiced rationally, I’m a big proponent of blind tasting. It lets you play detective by gathering clues about the wine: its color, aromas/flavors, structure, quality, etc. before naming a suspect. Blind tasting is also a form of meditation because we focus on the present moment and tune out everything else. Hubs calls this “clearing the mechanism” (his Kevin Costner crush is pretty strong, but it’s an apt analogy nonetheless). Since we cannot have any preconceived notions based on the label, with blind tasting we focus solely on what’s in the glass to judge the quality of a wine.
Unfortunately, all too frequently, we end up judging ourselves based solely on how close we came to correctly identifying the wine.
Airbrushing at its Finest: Hollywood Makes Blind Tasting Appear Flawless.
While documentaries like the Somm trilogy and short series Uncorked have helped to bring the pursuit of wine certifications mainstream, I fear that they’re disillusioning people (including individuals pursuing such certifications!) about blind tasting. It’s not a party trick, and it’s not all about “nailing” the wine. And, contrary to a certain newly released film, one should NOT expect to be able to identify a wine down to the producer and vintage mere weeks after picking up The Wine Bible.
Problem is, many wine students DO expect to be able to do this, and when we can’t – we conclude that we’re not good at blind tasting. We think we’re the “faulty” ones, so to speak.
But Everyone is Flawed – Even (Especially?) Those Who Act Like They Aren’t.
Many times, we wine students lack faith in ourselves – so we hesitate with our descriptions. I will forever remember my Introductory Sommelier Course when a gal was describing a red wine’s aromas to the rest of the 100+ students by stating: “I want to say red plums and cranberries . . .” One of the Master Sommeliers leading the course interrupted her and said “You WANT to say, or you ARE saying?” And honestly, I don’t think he was being a jerk here. His point (I think) was to have confidence in yourself. That being said, I highly doubt that being called out in a room full of Somm-wannabes boosted her confidence level very much.
I cannot tell you how many wine classes I’ve been in where people hesitate to speak up about what they think is in the glass for fear of being wrong. “You think there’s lime in this Riesling? Are you nuts?! It’s clearly lime ZEST.”
It’s also disheartening to observe an online conversation about identifying Malbec in a blind tasting devolve into a pissing match with this zinger: “You can either nut up and contribute content that’s worth a damn or you can see yourself out. The choice is yours. But no one is going to kiss your ring for ‘dry, savory and frequently oaked’. Crush us with your intellect, you fucking hero.”
(Ok, the Riesling example I made up. But the second one literally just happened on a study board while I was putting this blog post together. And even worse, it was written by a wine industry “professional.” Have I mentioned that I should perhaps stay off these boards for my own sanity?)
We Easily Comment on a Wine’s Flaws, So Why Not Our Own?
Speaking up, for fear of being wrong or saying something others perceive as “stupid”, is sometimes challenging. And obviously that’s not just the wine world – it’s human nature. But we all have flaws and we all make mistakes. And in blind tasting, some of these errors are big ol’ doozies.
Full Disclosure: I made one of those big ol’ doozies just last week. I was mortified, humbled and a bit humiliated that I had been SO off base with my call: White wine, with some yummy aromas of peaches, apricots and floral notes. Medium+ body with a slight heat. Off-dry, medium acidity. The palate was full of ripe stone fruits with a hint of baking spices and vanilla. This wine screamed Viognier to me. Not a high quality Condrieu, but possibly from California. Needless to say: Nope!!
Oddly enough – I wanted to share this experience with others! But I hesitated before putting my mega-flaw out there . . . would this be seen as my ineptitude as a blind taster? Would people think I’m a complete dumbass for mistaking a Yellowtail Chardonnay for a California Viognier? Did I care if they thought this?
I ultimately decided: Fuck It. So I posted it on Instagram for all the world to see . . . or, at least, you know, my (almost!) 2k followers. 😉 My Instagram account is all about helping people improve their wine knowledge. By sharing my own mistake, my hope was to make others less embarrassed about when they’ve been way off base in blind tasting -and to realize that this happens to everybody. We should help one another learn from our mistakes – because you know what? Blind tasting is not a competition.
In my Instagram post, I asked others to share their worst/most embarassing blind tasting call and was VERY curious to see what the responses were. Most people commiserated or gave me a virtual “it happens to all of us” pat on the back. Thankfully, nobody mocked me (at least not to my face!). And I was pleasantly surprised that several shared their own blind tasting blunders! Interestingly, most of those who did were fellow Diploma students.
And there was one comment that absolutely floored me. A Master of Wine student, who happens to be one of my favorite wine podcasters and someone that I greatly admire, said that he had recently blinded the same Yellowtail Chardonnay . . . and had also called it Viognier. If someone of his level of experience and education can make the same call I did – maybe there’s hope for me after all. 😉
So I’ve been kicking around starting a series of shorter blog posts about blind tastings. (I can hear one of my followers cheering, and the rest of you frantically searching for the unfollow button.) Personally, I’ve been doing a lot of blind tastings whilst in quarantine and have learned a lot about what works for me – and what doesn’t.
For my Diploma exam (now scheduled for October but – who knows?), we’ll be asked to identify common themes for three of our blind flights: same variety, same region and same country. I’ve been collecting notes from various sources to help me with the “evidence gathering” process – which will allow me to better describe and identify what’s in my glass. I’m also improving on “ruling out suspects” by recognizing what’s NOT in my glass. (Unless it’s Savenniéres . . . this has been my white whale of blind tasting for some reason.) I’m thinking of compiling these notes into some study aids (yes, there will be outlines involved!) and sharing with others who are also studying for wine exams or who just want to improve their blind tasting skills.
Please weigh in with a comment if this is something you’d be interested in – or, you know, not! My thoughts are that if me choking down a glass of Yellowtail helps another wine student out, or encourages them to speak up in class, or gives them the confidence to say “I AM SAYING that there are red plums and cranberries in this wine!” then it’s worth it.
So stay tuned – and stay safe.