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To look or not, that is the question

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There are different ways to taste wine and different reasons for each. Double blind tasting is where you know nothing about the wine. I’ve even heard of some people blindfolding themselves so they can’t tell the color! (I recall at least one study showing that people can’t distinguish between a red and white wine if they can’t see it.)

Single blind, or just plain blind, tasting is where you know something about the wines, but they’re in bags and you can’t tell which is which.

And then there’s open tasting. This is where you know exactly what the wine is, because you’re looking at the label, and you can read. It calls to mind the old saying, I’d rather have a bottle in front of me, than a frontal lobotomy.

Open tasting has the advantage of context. You know this is 2004 Harlan, or whatever. You know the vintage, the producer, the history of the wine, the vineyards. The experience of tasting the wine is another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that Harlan (or any winery) represents. With each tasting, the picture becomes clearer. Tasting out of context can rob you of all the information you need to make a proper judgment. I’ve likened blind tasting to reading the script of Citizen Kane without seeing the movie. Would you be able to identify it as a great film?

In addition, for critics, sometimes there’s no other way to taste a wine except open. Some of the more cult-type wineries insist on having the critic come to them and taste open, often with the winemaker and/or owner. I think most critics agree that this is not an ideal way to taste wine (although we all do it out of necessity), the reason being that a wine usually tastes better at the winery, what with all the hospitality and joy of being in wine country.

Adherents of double blind tasting argue that its primary advantage is a psychological one: If you know nothing about the wine, you can’t possibly have any prejudices about it, for or against. It’s usually double blind tastings that generate eye-popping headlines like TWO BUCK CHUCK BEATS PETRUS.

Wine tasters tend to be absolutists about the different kinds of tasting, with fans of double blind insisting it’s the only honest way to go. Eric Asimov, over at the Times, has argued cogently in favor of open tasting, or, at least, single blind tasting, and I’ve heard for years, from pretty good sources, that Parker has been known to taste open. My own preference is right down the middle: single blind tasting. At home, I know what wines I’m tasting because I’ve chosen them and set them up. (Maybe one of these days I’ll be able to afford an assistant.) But I bag them, switch the corks around, and leave them alone for an hour or two. If you know me, it is perhaps not surprising that, by the time I’m ready to taste, I’ve frequently forgotten what it was that I opened!

I’ve had my triumphs with double blind tasting. The pinnacle was a few years ago, when I nailed a ‘78 Clos du Val. ( I guessed the Reserve, it was the regular, but I still felt pretty good.) But more often my experiences at guessing have been embarrassing failures of the kind that Bernard Ginestet describes, in Emile Peynaud’s excellent book, The Taste of Wine. “I myself have experienced moments of glory where everything seemed obvious to me, and I have also drunk the cup of humility to the dregs when, unable to interpret any clue at all, I have ended up making enormous blunders.”

Which of course brings up the late, great Harry Waugh’s immortal reply to the question, Did you ever mistake Bordeaux for Burgundy? Answer: “Not since lunch.”

How do you taste?

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