Reopening the blind vs. open tasting debate
When I was down in the Santa Ynez Valley a week ago, I tasted through a bunch of his wines with Doug Margerum. Doug is a longtime factor in Santa Barbara County, having opened Wine Cask restaurant and wine store in 1981. It’s hard to describe how important and influential Wine Cask was to the county’s nascent wine scene. Doug began his own Margerum Wine Co. in 2001, and also crafts the wines for the Happy Canyon brand. He sold Wine Cask, after 26 years, in 2007, to devote himself fulltime to winemaking.
I tasted and reviewed the Margerum and Happy Canyon wines open, not blind. In doing so, I explained to Doug that I usually review wines at home, blind, under stringent circumstances; and I was feeling a little guilty that I was tasting them open, with the winemaker, at the winery. I added that I could only try to be as objective as I could despite the non-blind circumstances.
Well, Doug had what can fairly be termed a strong reaction to that statement. He told me in no uncertain terms that he didn’t believe I should be tasting his wines blind. (!!) We ended up having a discussion, and here are Doug’s reasons, as I understood them, why a critic shouldn’t taste blind.
First of all, Doug said, “There’s no reason to feel guilty about tasting open.” His feeling is that “You can give so much more to your readers if you come into tasting the wine with knowledge” of its origins. “You need to judge wines by the context in which they fit. There are wines meant to be aged, wines made for aperitif, wines made to go with richer or lighter foods, wines for the table — and then there are wines meant to win blind tastings. They’re the wines that stand out — but they’re not often the wines that are outstanding.”
Okay, I stopped Doug at that point. The argument that only Parkerized wines get high scores is at least 15 years old. Nothing new there. But I wanted to know more about why Doug feels that a critic like me is better off tasting wines openly, so that he knows the context.
Doug could best explain himself by way of a specific example. “Okay, take Chinon. If you taste it blind, especially against a California Cabernet Franc, you might not like it much. It’s green, it won’t do well in a blind tasting. But if you know it’s Cabernet Franc from Chinon, then you go, ‘Okay, it’s Chinon.’ So now, you can judge it by how well it fits into the Chinon category. It might be great with steak frites in the summertime. So if you understand the philosophy behind the wine and winemaking, you can approach the wine in a much more educated way. That’s why it’s an injustice to rate Chinon against California Cabernet Franc, because you’re not rating it in the category in which it belongs.”
I was getting a little confused. So let’s say I’m tasting a flight of Chinons, to rate them for my readers. (Actually, Roger Voss would do that for Wine Enthusiast, but this was just a thought experiment.) Why, I still wanted to know, would it be better for me to taste that flight open, instead of blind?
Doug backed up a little. He allowed as to how a Master of Wine, who was seeking to learn about wines and regions, might profit from tasting blind. “But an M.W. learning about wine isn’t the same thing as a wine writer making buying decisions for readers.” How are they different, I wondered? “Because, for an evaluation of the wine, and telling people what to buy and what they should actually drink, it’s a totally different story. You can’t discern that in a blind tasting. You can’t tell people what’s good and what’s not good.”
I’m still not sure I understand where Doug’s coming from, or the distinction he’s making between how an M.W. tastes and how a wine critic tastes, or ought to taste. As I’ve written here many times, both blind tasting and open tasting have their virtues. Neither is perfect.
When I taste blind at home, in flights of similar wines, I work very hard to discern the minutest differences. Those differences may be small, but they result in one wine getting 87 points and another getting 91 points. And, as we all know, that’s a huge difference in the market. But when you visit a winery and the winemaker wants to taste you through the range of his wines, it doesn’t make much sense to taste blind, when you’re dealing with different varieties, vintages and wine types. I know that I’ve stated in this blog that I’ve tried to minimize my formal tastings at wineries in order to avoid being influenced by the set and setting (as Timothy Leary once put it). But if Doug Margerum is right, I — as a wine critic — actually should be tasting openly with the winemaker, in order to transmit the best, most accurate, and contextual information I can to my readers.
I sure would love to hear what you all think, because this is a topic that’s not going away.