Blind vs. open at the winery, redux
Nearly a year ago, I wrote that I wasn’t going to taste with winemakers at the winery anymore.
That was in reference to my annual trip up to Sonoma to taste through the new Kendall-Jackson Highlands Estates wines with Randy Ullom. You can read the post, but essentially, what I meant was that I thought I could be more objective tasting everything at home, blind, under my normal circumstances.
I’m now going to revise my position. I know that opens me to charges of inconsistency, but it’s the best of the various options open to me. Let me explain. There are some winery brands in California that I want to review, and that my readers at Wine Enthusiast want me to review, but the proprietors flat out refuse to send their wines to anyone. Instead, Mohammed must come to the mountain.
Up until now, my attitude toward these proprietors has been kind of, “Well, fine. If you don’t care about me, then I don’t care about you.” But I’ve realized that it’s not simply that they don’t care about me. It’s that they feel strongly about not sending their wines to anyone, not just me. And they’re perfectly happy to host me at their wineries, if I care to come down.
That’s actually news to me. I never formally reached out to a lot of these guys, because I was so loaded down with wines that were sent to me that I barely had time to review them. But then, as many of you know, we divided the state up, with Virginie Boone tasting the inland part. That freed me up and gave me more time to focus on the coast. So I put the word out, and I have to admit I was a little surprised when invitations immediately came in from the following Santa Barbara wineries to taste all their SKUs: Au Bon Climat (via Jim Clendenen), Babcock (via Brian Babcock), Sine Qua Non (Manfred and Elaine Krankl, and so in demand I can’t even find a website for them), Bonaccorsi (Jenne Bonnaccorsi and Clarissa Nagy) and Qupe (Bob Lindquist). It’s about 70 wines in all, and while that means a lot of driving to and fro around Santa Barbara, it’s something I’m planning on doing in the not so distant future.
Look, these are important wineries. I pride myself in being the non-snob critic here in California, and it thrills me to be able to recommend a Best Buy under $15 or something like that. But an important part of my job also is to let readers know about these rare and coveted wines. If that means traveling to them, it’s something I’m more than willing to do.
Which raises the question, when I go, do I taste blind or open? I don’t know the answer. (I do know the proprietors are happy to leave me alone while I do my tasting thing. They just want the opportunity to talk about their wines before or after.) I don’t know if they’re willing to put their bottles in paper bags. I used to go up to Harlan to taste every year with Bill Harlan and Bob Levy, and we tasted open while we talked. Then, one year, I asked them to bag the bottles for me, and then leave me alone, which I think startled them, although I hope it didn’t offend them; but what stunned me was when they said I was the only reviewer who had ever tasted there who asked them to taste blind! If you roll some famous names around your head, you can get the full impact of that.
I’m curious to hear what readers think: on these visits to wineries (which admittedly will still remain rare), should I taste open, or should I insist on the wines being blind? A few perhaps relevant quotes. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.” That’s from Ralph Waldo Emerson; he might have added wine critics. Also, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now,” the immortal Joni Mitchell sang. So have I, and I still really wonder if I know life or, in this case, the best way to taste, at all.
P.S. Check out my story on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon for Lexus online.