Upsetting applecarts: Blind tasting as a revolutionary act
First I picked The Matriarch, the least expensive ($90) of Harlan’s 2005 lineup of 7 wines, as my top wine in a tasting at the winery. Then, a few weeks later, I chose a Paso Robles Pinot Noir (Adelaida 2006 HMR Estate, $30) over 11 others from the North Coast, including some famous, pricey bottlings. A couple days after that, my top Cabernet, in a tasting that included Staglin, Beringer Private Reserve, Flora Springs Trilogy, Rubicon Cask and Whitehall Lane Reserve, was Justin 2006 Reserve, also from Paso Robles.
What’s going on? Each of these three tastings was conducted blind. That eliminated the element of bias based on knowing what you’re drinking. Blind tasting is enlightening, but it also exposes the critic to the possibility of embarrassment. Reputations can be shattered. But truth is a higher value than a reputation, and if a Paso Robles Pinot bests several from the Russian River Valley, then so be it.
One thing my friends, my fellow bloggers, have taught me is the importance of truth and its handmaiden, transparency. Winston Churchill once remarked, “In wartime, truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies.” But wine tasting is not war, and deception has no part in the critical process.
The reason why tasting wines blind is so important can best be illustrated by what may happen when you don’t.
When I did my annual tasting at Harlan in October, I was startled when Bill Harlan told me he had never tasted his own wines blind. Nor had he ever tasted all seven in a lineup. Nor had at least one of the world’s most famous über-critics who had just been there. In fact, Bill said, he was amazed that I had the cojones to taste his wines blind, and then inform him and his winemaker, Bob Levy, of my conclusions before the wines were unbagged. Wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I got them “wrong”?
Well, no. There’s never any reason for embarrassment if you’re truthful. You can’t be wrong if you tell it like you see it. The worst that can happen is someone will disagree with you. On the other hand, I think there would be room for embarrassment if you’re looking at the labels as you taste, and then conveniently rate Harlan Estate ($450) at the top, and score everything else down from there, based on descending price. That’s why The Matriarch got the highest score in my tasting. Since I didn’t know what it was, I had to go by one parameter only: How good it tasted. And let me assure you, that Matriarch was one gorgeous wine.
Ditto for the Adelaida Pinot Noir, which comes from one of the highest and coolest parts of the Paso Robles appellation, and whose vines are among the oldest Pinot plantings south of the Santa Cruz Mountains. A 1975 Pinot from the vineyard, crafted by André Tchelistcheff for the previous owner, Hoffman Mountain Ranch, may even have taken first place in a famous 1979 GaultMillau tasting in Paris that included Romanée-Conti (for a fascinating exercise in investigative journalism, check out this 2005 article on the tasting by my late friend, David Shaw). But the point is that far western Paso Robles is capable of producing excellent Pinot Noir, and the only reason a critic wouldn’t understand that is if he was so mesmerized by the words “Paso Robles” on the label that his brain was deceived into not appreciating what’s in the glass.
Today’s young bloggers talk about bringing revolutionary change to the entire field of wine writing and criticism. Imagine if everybody tasted completely blind, all the time, in such a way as to level the playing field utterly. How soon would it be before the great and famous wines of the world were losing out to less expensive, upstart rivals? That would be truly revolutionary. I urge young bloggers, as you increasingly get the chance to taste really famous wines — and some of you will — do so in lineups that include “lesser” wines, and do so blind. Many of America’s top critics — the ones you hope to, and maybe someday will, replace — don’t taste blind, even if they say they do. But you should.
THIS JUST IN
Rep. Mike Thompson, the Democrat from Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino counties, is said to be Barack Obama’s pick for Commerce Secretary. This is fantastic news for the wine industry. Mike is a solid friend to wineries, and he even owns vineyards in Lake County. Good pick on President-elect Obama’s part.