Friday, October 06, 2006

On the importance of not tasting blind

It is important for us to discuss the general philosophy behind how we taste wine. By outlining the methods and reasons behind our critiques, our subscribers will have a better understanding of how they should weigh our reviews relative to their own palates and wine drinking experiences.

The Blind Leading the Blind

Some people are ardent proponents of the "double blind" method of tasting. For those that are unaware, this method means that the taster is kept in the dark about everything related to the wine. The taster does not know the vintage, region, winery or even the varietal being poured. Why is it “double” and not “triple” or “quadruple”? We don’t know. What we do know is that it is the stuff of James Bond movies and elitist snobbery with one participant claiming the wine to be a 1945 Mouton-Rothschild while another is insistent it is the '61 Lafite.

This method, although no doubt an entertaining cocktail trick, does not enable the taster to judge the wine by applying prior knowledge regarding typical vintage, region and varietal characteristics as well as archetypal winery style. Think of it this way. If a taster assumes that a big, juicy, fruit forward, approachable wine showing black currant and vanilla is a 2002 Napa Cabernet when it is actually a 1996 Left Bank Bordeaux, who's really "getting it wrong" here - the taster or the producer?

Leveling the Playing Field

A less stringent and we think more useful blind tasting is the so-called "single blind" tasting. In this method the taster is aware of the region, vintage and varietal of the wine, but not the winery or wineries being poured. This is obviously an attempt to avoid "winery bias". By tasting wines single blind, the intent is to avoid fawning over a critical "darling" and to judge all wines on their relative merits. Although in some ways this method does level the playing field, it is not ideal as crucial information about the wine itself is left out of the equation.

Each winery is unique and as such the wines posses a unique "style". We have witnessed firsthand, and with great interest, the way proprietors inject their personalities and philosophies into their wines. It would be a shame to not take that into consideration as it is the very soul of the wine. At the professional wine tasting level, we fail to agree with the “bias” argument because we believe that avoiding bias is accomplished at the expense of understanding what the wine is trying to say with respect to its own identity. In fact, we believe knowing the winery actually decreases bias as far as personal tastes are concerned. A taster may, for example, bestow a mediocre review on a Philip Togni wine because they sense a greenness that does not appeal to them. In reality, Philip Togni produces some very well made, well balanced wines and we have found the greenness to be an integral component of the winery’s style.

All that being said, there is a place for single blind tastings (do try this at home — it’s great fun!) and we will continue to make use of them when we it is feel beneficial to do so.

The Importance of Identity

The bottom line is that each wine is unique. We believe it is of utmost importance to taste wine with as much background information as possible in order to understand what the wine is saying. Personal character is what makes wine so special and our boots are set firmly in the camp that believes homogeneity is a bad thing. We have tasted thousands of bottles of wine from the basic to the iconic over many different vintages. We assure you that any fascination with (or aversion to) a particular winery wore off long ago. In the end, we have to ask our subscribers to trust that we are expressing our honest opinion about what is in the bottle and not what is expected of the bottle. It may take some time (and even some single blind tastings) for fledgling tasters to vilify a $200 wine while singing the praises of a $20 wine. All we can say is be brave and the self-assurance will follow.

To Be Continued...

This is the first in a series of blog posts on the subject of Bon Vivant’s wine reviewing philosophy. In later installments, we will delve into specific concepts more in more detail. Stay tuned and, please, reveal yourself and let us know what you think.

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