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The old single vs. double blind vs. open tasting thing again

36 comments

I know that people are going to accuse me of rolling out a controversial topic just for the hell of it. But I really want to settle in my mind this difference between open tasting, double blind and single blind tasting, and see whether any of them has the moral high ground. Some recent issues have arisen that have caused me to ponder this subject mightily.

The argument comes down to bias. If I’m staring at Lafite Rothschild as I review it, is it possible for me to be objective? That would be open tasting. Single blind tasting would be if I know the flight is, let’s say, Napa Valley Cabernets from 2007 priced at $50 and higher. I may not know what the bottles in the paper bags are, but I know the general category. Double blind tasting would be, “Okay, here’s a flight of red wines. Go for it!”

I go back and forth and every which way on tasting, possibly because I’m a Gemini (twins, remember). I like tasting openly because I like having that context and I enjoy playing with the thoughts in my head concerning how and if the wine agrees with my expectations of it. That’s a perfectly valid approach, but I can understand why some MW types would object to it on the grounds of insufficient objectivity.

I also like single blind tasting. I want to know a little about the context, because that calibrates my mind and puts it into the zone. The drama of everything in a paper bag, with some context, appeals to me, because a $25 Napa Cab may give Harlan serious competition. But again, I understand the argument that even a little knowledge will prejudice me, one way or the other.

Then there’s double blind. I totally “get” the concept here. The wine is what it is. Since you know nothing, all you have to go by is your palate. If a $25 Lodi Cab scores higher than Harlan, well, there it is. A double bubble burst. The most honest form of tasting.

And yet…Here’s my problem with double blind. Let’s say you take a bottle of something everybody agrees is world class. Maybe it’s Petrus. Put it in the middle of a double blind tasting in which the other bottles are, let’s say, various red wines from Italy, Argentina, Australia, Napa Valley, Paso Robles, South Africa, Chile, and other Bordeaux. Would the Petrus stand out? Maybe. But I suspect that if it were simply identified as “red wine” it would score reasonably well, but not in the stratosphere. On the other hand, if it were in a single blind tasting identified as “Bordeaux, first growth quality,” it would probably earn a higher score and a more passionate review.

This is why double blind tastings rarely result in extreme opinions, on either the positive or negative side. Tasters don’t want to go out on a limb with wines they know nothing about. The really odd thing is that most proponents of double blind tasting nonetheless manage to sneak some context into the structure of the tasting. For instance, they might know they’re tasting California Cabernet Sauvignon, but not know where it’s from or how much it costs. That’s context–it pushes their heads in a certain direction. So what’s the different between that context, and a little more context in which you know that the Cabs are from Napa Valley? How much context is allowable? The double blind people never say, as far as I can tell. They just insist their method is best.

I see weaknesses and advantages from every approach. In a perfect world, which is not one I live in, I would prefer single blind tastings, in which, as I said, we knew what the general category was. When I worked for Wine Spectator, one of the tastings I was permitted to attend was single blind, but we were told it was premier cru white Burgundy. I could almost see the Spectator boys calibrate their brains accordingly. One can be cynical about such an approach, but I’ll tell you this. If every wine on earth were tasted by every critic double blind, everything you think you know about the great brands would be overturned.

Where does that leave us? In my opinion, critiquing wine is about more than organoleptic quailties. I want to be able to wax poetic about a wine, fall in love with it, talk to you about how fantastic it is, use my writing skills to maximum purple prose. I submit the thesis that nobody who tastes double blind can rise to that level. The best they can do is use sterile laboratory language to the effect that the wine seems well made and complex, or not. That’s fine, as far as it goes, but if you want your wine critic to get excited about wine–or, on the other end of the spectrum, to get really angry and snarky–that wine critic needs to have some context surrounding and informing his judgment. It’s the difference between writing with passion, as opposed to writing with dull precision.

  1. Perhaps the problem, in that case, is that double-blind tasters need to learn to feel more free in their wine opinions without having extra information to generate a passion that might not be there without the extra information. In other words, I definitely fall in the double-blind category. ,) But I’m also coming from the background of someone who’s only been drinking wine for 5 years, so all my knowledge on it has been built from the ground up. If I like a wine, then I’m inspired to learn more about it after trying it—not the other way around. Once you’re at the level of an enthusiast, I could see how priorities would shift—but I don’t see how knowing the background ahead of time actually would lend more credibility to the opinion of the wine. It might create more passion about the wine being tasted, but opinion is highly objective and only more so with more expectations of it.

  2. You’re welcome.

  3. I think they’re all legit and there’s no reason why we can’t use all three, so long as we recognize that some subjectivity is going to come into play for all three:

    - Open: Possibly influenced by the wine label, brand & info.
    - Single-blind: Possibly influenced by context and personal preferences.
    - Double-blind: Possibly influenced by personal preferences.

    The better pros try to approach all, I think, with the right amount of professionalism and frame of mind to minimize the influences since they probably can’t be eliminated. Where we run into trouble is when someone pronounces that one of those tasting approaches is inherently superior to all others under all circumstances (I will never buy that argument).

    Cheers!

  4. Joe and Steve–

    Pretty good analysis of the differences in approach.’

    There is a middle ground within single blind that eliminates even more bias and leads, in my mind, to more thoughtful tasting. That is by limiting the amount of knowledge given to the tasters to the bare minimum to provide just enough calibration/framework for judgment.

    For example, rather than telling tasters that they are about to try Napa Cabs over $50, why not just tell them that they are about to try West Coast Cabs. Period.,

    Why tell them that they are about to try First Growth Bordeaux? Why not tell the tasters that they are about to try Bordeaux. And even which side of the river if that is the case. Telling them that the wines or First Growth or Pauillacs builds too much expectation.

    The issue for me is calibration, not expectation. Just enough knowledge is better than none at all. And since most of us do not evaluate wines from totally mixed locations, mixed vintages and mixed varieties as a matter of course in our blind tastings, it makes no great sense to do everything double blind.

    Please spare me the tasting in which a Spanish Tempranillo-Cab is paired with an Aussie Shiraz-Cab is paired with a Chilean Carmenere-Cab is paired with an Argentine Malbec-Cab is paired with a Loire Cab Franc is then paired with a Tuscan Sangiovese-Cab. Spare me that unless the point is to create that kind of a tasting to find out the results. But, do not expect, indeed, do not ask wine critics to go to those lengths, real or imaginary through double blind tasting in order to produce useful commentary.

    I don’t want to know the wineries involved. I don’t want to know the price levels. I don’t want to know the specific provenance unless there is an overriding reason such as an analysis of WA Merlots for their uniqueness (and even then, throw in a ringer or two to test the conclusions).

    But, do please taste blind if you are doing comprehensive sweeps of one variety. And do not bother with blind tasting if you are writing a sonnet about one wine for your daily blatherings. Joe Roberts is right that there is no one size fits all. But there are minimum standards based on the purposes and nature of tastings. And open label tasting is not, in my opinion, the way to go for publications that offer comprehensive comparisons.

  5. I had a really great comment to write and then somehow Charlie Olken managed to write it first.

    Our expectations of a wine DO influence us, whether we like it or not. If I taste Bastianich wine openly against other Friulian white blends, I will TRY to be objective, but there’s no way I’ll be able to totally be objective. I’ll either pump up the wine and fell better about it, OR I’ll purposely DOWNGRADE the wine as to not seem like I’m playing favorites.

    Blind tasting has it’s place. We should know what the wine is, but not what it costs or who makes it, if we are trying to compare wines objectively.

    I have no problem with openly tasting wines to explore a certain style or region or grape, or to profile a specific producer.

    Context is everything.

  6. Charlie once again speaks wise! And your crazy Cab tasting sounds more like a WSET Diploma exam! :)

  7. All three approaches have their advantages and disadvantages and that will never change. When evaluating a specific wine openly you simulate the actual consumers’ circumstances when drinking a wine at home or in a restaurant. You wouldn’t test drive a car without knowing anything about the make and model (I’m pretty sure that actual blind test driving would have serious detrimental outcomes to the reviewers at Car and Driver, et al. and who knows what would happen to the soccer moms looking for a new Hummer!). How a product compares to its expectations can be an important part of an evaluation.

    Yet, I actually prefer (when possible, and it is not often at my scale) blind tasting. I think double blind with a squint of one eye (I couldn’t figure out how to say one and one half blind; I guess we could start using percent like we do with new oak… 100% blind=single, 200%=double blind, 300%= you’re tasting something but you don’t even know if it is wine; blackberry liqueur might get some 90+ scores!) is the way to go. Tasting a scattering of different varietals/blends creates problems with palate calibration. However, I don’t want to know the prices and probably don’t want to know the specific region. Maybe I just want to know one piece of information and can make judgements base on that standard which all the wines share.

    This is where my regional wine bias comes through along with my love of ringers. At the last two blind tastings in which I took part (Cab Sauv and Cab Franc), Colorado wines were preferred over $100 Tuscan, Napa, Premier grand cru classé B St.-Emilion and 2eme Bordeaux wines. Now, I’m not saying that this will always hold true or that regional wines (CO specifically) are equals with the tried-and-true wine regions, but when the supposed experts “calibrate their brains accordingly” when they think they know what to expect, wines are unfairly punished/rewarded on simply their laurels and not their actual quality.

    I think knowing how evaluations are conducted are as important, or maybe more, than the actual method. Afterall, wine evaluations are mostly for the consumers’ benefit. With the plethora of writers evaluating wine in different ways, consumers are smart enough (or should be) to judge the judges themselves.

  8. Stephen George says:

    Thank you for the interesting post, Steve, and I appreciate everyone’s thoughtful responses. This is an important issue.

    I’ve been thinking a fair amount about this issue of late, and I keep coming back to what I believe is the key question: which tasting environment results in reviews that are most helpful to consumers (those who, after all, make it possible for people like me to have a career in wine)? Although eliminating bias is a laudable goal – I mean, who isn’t in favor of that? – I fear that the standard form of blind tasting used by most critics in the industry does not produce information that is particularly useful to those who are ultimately making purchasing and drinking decisions.

    Most professional blind tastings entail evaluating a wine in a context that is entirely unlike how consumers will experience that wine. That’s a problem for consumers because few of us would disagree that one’s enjoyment of a wine is deeply affected not only by one’s personal taste but also by one’s environment – the location, company, conversation, food, and other drink with which one consumers the wine. And for better or worse, what I know about a wine’s background usually affects how I enjoy drinking it too. How much, then, can I rely on the opinion of someone who isn’t savoring a wine, sipping it over the course of an evening, enjoying it with food, or discussing it with friends, as I would?

    I do a lot of blind tasting, both in my work and recreationally, because it’s fun to do, it’s educational, and it’s useful for doing comprehensive sweeps of one varietal or region or style, as Charlie points out. But when it comes to making purchasing decisions, I prefer to be guided by those writers and merchants whose tastes map closely with mine, whose honesty has earned my trust, and — crucially — who tend to experience the wines they recommend in a manner similar to how I would experience them.

    Stephen George

  9. When you rate a wine what parameters are you using to create the score or review? It seems a bit odd to score one wine against all other wines of any type and style. I would think you need some type of curve to base you judgment on.

    Second you would think a skilled reviewer could recognize the general profile of the wine he or she is tasting based on past experience with wines from that region so is it truly double blind. This leads to the question of the taster cannot identify the wine blind (not due to lack of skill but because the wine is stylistically different from what you find in the region) is the wine deserving of a good score as it does not represent region it is from.

  10. Peter Hirschfeld says:

    While all three methods have merit, Charlie’s point about having some limited context I think is an important one. The issue to me is whether wine should be judged on an absolute basis or within a framework of expectation. I think most wine consumers buy a bottle of something with an expectation of what flavor profile the wine offers and might be disappointed or puzzled if what they get is different.

    For example, I tried a Pinot Noir made by a Zinfandel producer that tasted, you guessed it, much like a Zinfandel. While it was a pleasant wine, it had very little to do with what I associate with Pinot. In a totally double blind tasting, this wine would likely get a more favorable rating than if tasted within the context of being a Pinot. So which is more appropriate? Should a wine be judged simply on how it tastes without reference to what it is supposed to be? My feeling is of course not, as someone who buys that bottle has expectations. So Charlie’s method of supplying the basic context I think is important for those that are writing about the wines for consumers.

    However, I’ve participated in tastings where a group of similar wines was tasted without any description of even what varietal. I actually found these to be fun in trying to figure out what they were and where they were from. But these tastings were just that- for fun- and were interesting and humbling to the participants. They weren’t an attempt at trying to provide some guidance to consumers as Steve and Charlie’s tastings do. We have to remember that we drink wine for pleasure and we read about wine for pleasure and those poetically waxed words should be pleasurable. I like my red wine dry, not my reading.

  11. If you have a panel of judges and tasting severl wines of like category then the single blind is good.

    If you are yourself tasting a wine for an article then an open tasting is good.

    The double blind tasting is ok for people who really know their wines but for most people are not preferable. The double blind tasting I have used at wine parties and that IS fun.

    Phil makes a good point about styles within a region and newer styles in a specific region.

    What it comes down to is trust. If you like to read a specific reveiwer and trust them, that is that. You might not always agree but then we do not all like the same things anyway. I like Pinots but not all Pinots and just because some one gives one a high rating does not mean I HAVE to like it also. I think we all have tasted wine that someone else rated high and did not think as much of it as the person who did the rating.

    If you are a wine professional tasting Chat Lafite you do need to know what you are tasting, so much is at stake at the prices it gets.

  12. There is so much more that can be learned, both by the critic and the reader, if the wines are tasted double blind *and*, crucially, the goal of the reviewer is to give the reader the most information possible about a wine’s quality.

    The question of context is an easy one to tackle. Simply taste once knowing nothing of the wine. In a flight or not. Reds with whites, or not. All Napa Cabs, or not. Score it. Grade it, whatever. Then do the same with the label showing and score it again in context. If the score changes, use the opportunity to explore why, but report both.

    This is pure wine writing gold! Plenty of room for purple prose. Plenty of space for rhapsodic dalliances with the fairies of the wine reviewer’s muse.

    And not only will you the critic be surprised more often than not, but so will the reader! Infinitely more entertaining and informative. And since something is at stake for the reviewer, the initial notes will be more attentive, the guesses more erudite.

    The only reasons not to use this approach is a) professional hubris or b) you simply aren’t trying to inform your readers in this manner. Instead you are saying: “my scores are simply one man’s opinion, and no claim to objective quality is being made.”

    But you can’t have it both ways. And that’s the truth.

  13. Also, The Petrus Steve mentions; say it gets an 85 on the first pass tasted blind. After the reveal and re-taste he scores it 98. To explain he says something like the following:

    “A very intriguing first score. I’m left to wonder: Could you recognize the taste of your lover’s lips blindfolded, your heart shackled by the futile quest for the objective? By a need to quantify the precise swell and moistness of her pout? Petrus needs no such validation. Here is a wine whose ephemeral essence cannot be appreciated apart from its sense of place, its history, and its pedigree. 98 points.”

    That would be a valid review. That would be an enjoyable review to read. It would be an honest review (and it would be even more entertaining if the Petrus was initially mistaken for something like a Syrah :-p ).

  14. Having practiced double blind tasting to pass various exams, to me it becomes very objective, but has many issues. The WSET and various Sommeliers qualifications usually also have a component that rates the quality of the wine as well, to answer to the Petrus example. The . It is useful for developing a calibration of the palate and fixing flavor profiles etc. But that is it.
    I must disagree that double blind tasting does not lead to extreme opinions. I have been in tasting groups where there have been huge disagreements about the wines as far as quality and typicity are concerned.
    There is also a game played in tasting groups called “bagging” when you are handed a wine in a bag, and you are supposed to pick out grape variety, region etc.
    The double blind tasting can sometimes be a like a parlor trick. Ruling out more than evaluation. Interesting though when comparing say a flight of Barolos, the double blind tasting may be more accurate that a single blind tasting.
    Wines should be tasted in context. To use your example of the Petrus, how would it be judged if it was at the end of a flight of Lodi Zins ?
    If you are purporting to be objective, and assessing points, especially on the hundred point scale than wines should be tasted at least blind. The usual tasting note is boring,”cigar box”,”cedar” and “black cherry”. Wine I find is more subjective, and as Steve points out passion and sometimes being snarky are subjective. If you are reviewing subjectively, than who the hell needs blind tastings.
    Double blind tasting does take some of the romance and some of the pure joy from drinking a great bottle of wine. I would rather know story of the wine,the region and the winemaker. Sometimes you want someone to just say, good……

  15. Frank Haddad, sounds like you are coming out against double blind tasting, at least for someone with my job.

  16. Josh, thanks for an intriguing and thoughtful comment. Not sure that would be my language (“lover’s lips”) but I take your point.

  17. Josh, re: your “so much more that can be learned” comment, I would love to taste like that, i.e. initial double blind, with followup thoughtful reconsideration.

  18. Stephen, thank you for your thoughtful and considered remark. I agree with much of what you say.

  19. JD in Napa says:

    Perhaps the question is “For whom am I tasting?” I don’t think that a knowledgeable consumer really cares about the context of the tasting; I’d further submit that few of the commenters here fall into the “knowledgeable consumer” group, as I’m guessing “wine geek” better fits the bill (for Charlie, it goes to “Mr. Wine Critic”…I love Charlie’s stuff ). I’ve always believed that the knowledgeable consumer simply wants an opinion that he/she can trust, and they search for what Stephen mentions in his last paragraph, that critic with similar tastes. I like Heimoff and Olken for their reviews, as they tend to like what I like. Double, single, open, I don’t care. As long as they are consistent in their evals, I can use their advice to assist my purchasing decisions. The rest is an academic exercise for which we knowledgeable consumers have little interest (but that the wine geeks pick apart with great zeal). For the record, I am WSET Certified, and think the tasting trials to which we were subjected are of marginal value. Just the facts, Jack.

  20. Steve, you ask the question if I am coming out against blind tastings, for some one with your job. Yes I am. The last paragraph in your post, when you talk about passion, that is what we all should be talking about. We should be talking about the wines we love, the ones we hate and that one we are not quite sure about. We should throw out the points and the four lines tasting notes. We should be talking about the wines we had with friends, the last bottle we bring out before the night ends. That special one, because the night has become magic. The wine that went well with potato chips. The wines that stop the conversation, the meditative ones. The consumer is coming to blogs to see what we have to say. We should be telling them about the wines and how they work. We should be telling them about wine and how it fits in their lives. We should be telling them what goes well with the pizza they are having tonight. We should be telling them about the wine they can have on date night. A wine for the young dude, who wants to have something with a castle one it, he wants something to impress his new girl. We should talk about that wine that blew our mind. The blind or double blind does not matter. Why should we be worried about being objective, points, all those things really do not matter. Is it a good wine or not, how will fit into my night, will it be good for dinner. Play some Callas, with an Amarone, wonderful match, does it matter that it was not tasted blind. No you do not have to be concerned about tasting blind or not. You just have to communicate as your are, with passion. The folks who are concerned about the tech stuff and points do they really enjoy wine as it should be?

  21. Steve,

    I think it would make a great read. And you’d be breaking new ground, which is always nice.

    Frank,

    Surely you must see these two sentiments are completely at odds: “Why should we be worried about being objective, points, all those things really do not matter. Is it a good wine or not…”

    Wine is largely subjective, but you can have the best of both worlds. The subjective *and* the objective.

    The hypocrisy of the position you espouse above is this: at base the wine critic says “Listen to me! I know my wine stuff!”. For that critic to then say “objective quality means nothing” completely undercuts the critic’s claim to, and the value of, wine knowledge. There must, then, for the wine critic to provide anything of value to his reader, be room made for both.

    There is so much more that can be done with a wine review (and much of it “too expensive”, like labs to verify faults or alcohol content – an example: http://pinotblogger.com/wine-reviews/france/2005-charles-joguet-le-chene-vert-chinon/). But considering the time, effort and expense that goes into making and purchasing good wine I think striving for a better system is justified.

    I enjoy the tech stuff, I enjoy the history, I enjoy the stories, and most of all I enjoy the moments I’ve experienced while drinking and making wine. So you tell me: do I “really enjoy wine as it should be”? Is that even a valid question given your extreme subjective stance?

  22. Why is no one mentioning price? Part of the reason people read reviews and critiques is to get an idea of the quality of the product at the price it is at.

    A Petrus or Lafite is not a throw away wine. A person should expect that their expectations for that wine is worth the cost to them. That is why I would want a reviewer to do an open tasting on such a wine.

    Ahem, how many double blind tastings do any of us go to where Petrus or Chat. Lafite are there? I am guessing not too many. Another aspect of the big label wines is the prestige is ownership. Who wants to own a bad bottle or a bottle from an off vintage at the prices those wines get?

    If I were at a winery and tasting their wines and not someone elses then I would appreciate a double blind format for purposes of knowledge and discovery.

    If I were on a panel of judges for a competition I would want a single blind format.

    If I were writing about a particular wine for the public I would do an open format.

  23. has haddad been reading my newsletters? spot on comment on the end use of wine, and its first duty; to please.
    i participate in lots of wine evaluating. what transpires is a little of all three form sets. at first we did double blind, then category while tasting again, then the wraps came off and we ducked our embarrassments and collected our accolades. apres, with food and camaraderie, the truth of the wines become more evident. some surprises remain, some greats take a fall, but generally, mediocrity stays quotidian. unlike over-analysis in love matters, scrutiny and transparency pay off in wine tasting.

  24. “The folks who are concerned about the tech stuff and points do they really enjoy wine as it should be?” Perhaps the “tech stuff and points” are not part of the enjoyment for some, but they certainly are for others. How one chooses to relate to wine one’s own business – should not be subject to criticism and condescension.

  25. Josh, yes I am being extreme. Your sentence “there must, then for the wine critic to provide anything of value to his reader, be room made for both”. I agree, but my point is this is not being done. The critic does not have to be 100% objective to be valid.

    In the book “Questions of Taste the Philosophy of wine” Barry Smith has a chapter on” Objectivity of Tastings” who takes pages that help outline my argument. He makes the point much better, than I am able to convey in this short space.
    There are hundreds if not thousands of tasting notes on the web. Very few of them have any balance of subjective and objective. That is what I have issues with. The wine critic to be of value should be telling the story of the wine,the history and how the wine effected him. That is what is valid.
    What will make the consumer go out and by a good bottle of Pinot today ? When the ladies are buying that bottle of wine tonight, are the tech tasting notes going to make that bottle fly of the shelf. Studies show that woman make more than 65% of wine purchases. The same studies show that they buy subjectively. Are wine producers and writers selling to that market, with the tech style notes?
    I was not clear I suppose in the point I am trying to make. Objective notes have there place and can be included in a review, but on their own they only appeal to the geeks. I include myself in the geek world. I have spent hours doing WEST and Sommilier guild tasting notes. I enjoy the tech stuff. I get annoyed when I go to a website that does not tell me the tech stuff about the wine. The objective note is easy, I have found. The subjective is what is much harder. The objective note is like saying Callas is a good opera singer. Valid. Subjective is saying that Callas can make the hair on the back of neck stand on end.
    Look at the tasting notes all around the web, how many will say after the verbage, that this is a good or a bad wine. How many reviews on bad wines are there ? Should we not be telling the consumers about the bad wines as well, or is everyone worried that their samples will dry up ?
    Anyone with a little tasting knowledge can do an objective tasting note. I wish that was not true, with the hours I have spent in the classroom. Go look a some of the wine boards. Read them for an hour or so, what do you get out of those notes? It takes some with some skill and knowledge to put some subjectivity in the glass. There was a point I was trying to make with Steve. That it does not really matter how he tastes the wine blind or open. He as he states at the end of the article wants to write about his passion, or wants to be snarky . I hope that I am not putting words in Steves mouth? That is what the consumer is really looking for.
    I agree with you that I have an extreme subjective stance, this is I admit that this a reactionary stance to the pure objective notes. The objective will come out with the tale of the subjective.
    ” Listen to me, I know my wine stuff” is one of the reasons that most tasting notes are so damn objective. We have over the last generation been conditioned by some big name critics and wine magazines. That is if you know your stuff, this is the way to write about wine. “Listen to me, I can tell you the story of the wine “is the way it should be. It is time for a change. Sorry if I rambled on.

  26. Kurt Burris says:

    As a small broker, I like to try wines first in an open format, but with a caveat. Most of the small producers/importers are not bringing in Petrus for me to sell. They are bringing me wines I am not familiar with. I can see the label and I know the region, but I don’t know the price. And from my experience, price sways buyers expectations more than virtually anything.

    A problem with a true double blind tasting is what purpose does it serve. It’s sure not to fill a niche on a wine list or to educate the taster about (fill in the blank) type of wine. I don’t know what I’m going to learn comparing wines that are so disparate aside from being wines there is nothing to compare

  27. Kurt,

    You don’t need to taste a wine against anything double blind to judge if it’s good or not. Even single wines benefit from the approach.

    But I think it would be insane for a broker to taste blind. You’re selling wines, not reviewing them after all. :-)

  28. When you score a wine it implies that the wine has certain organoleptic qualities that earn the score. This implies a lack of bias, that the wine in the glass by itself has qualities that add up to the score. So a $25 Sonoma Cab should have an equal chance at a high score as a Harlan from the Napa Valley. This means to me that a critic who scores wine is obligated to give the score blind to the producer, price or reputation. Believe me I am not impressed by anyones writing skills who thinks it is done with numbers.

    If you are writing about wine, not scoring the product, then it is a different ball game. The 95 point Harlan is an entirely different subject and story to the 95 point $25 upstart. Same with the Lafite you have in front of you. This wine experience has nothing to do with numbers and scores. It is a subject that separates the writer from the wantabe.

    The score of the Lafite sitting in front of you, does not matter. It is Lafite for god sakes! Why worry about its score? You give me a choice between the $25 95 point upstart and a Lafite that you only gave a 90 and I am still going to want to drink the Lafite and digest a little of its history and greatness. (I won’t be able to afford it, but that is beside the point.) Same with the Harlan.

    But I assure you that if you give the Harlan a 95 because it is Harlan, and the upstart a 90 because you think is was just a lucky accident, you are doing a dis-service to your readers. They are intelligent enough to know the difference between a score and a Lafite.

    I think what you are afraid of is not recognizing the Lafite in a blind tasting, giving it an inferior score with the possibility your readers will think less of you. But I think there are many readers who respect your knowlege, experience, and sensory abilities and who will be delighted to find out that they can afford a lesser known wine that tastes every bit as good as a wine possibly can…and yet still understand that the wine is not a Lafite.

    So I say score everything a blind, mix the expensive with the cheap, provide some context about the general wine type, but write about the wines with passion and don’t confuse your score with your passion.

  29. I feel double blind tastings can used as tool to train yourself to focus on you own ability to perceive. In preparing for the WSET Diploma tasting exam our home study group practiced with Mary Ewing-Mulligan. She had one comment that has stayed with me since and use when I teach WSET students now, “Everything you need to know about the wine is right in front of you”. All you need is to use your eyes, mouth and nose unlock the secrets of the wine. The goal of this in the context of exams is to train people to be able to objectively evaluate a wine without bias whether as a sommelier, retailer, wholesaler or winemaker.

    As far as its usefulness for reviewers, I’ll leave that for you to decide

  30. Good article, fun subject too

    As a winemaker in Charlottesville, Virginia I continually taste wines from around the world in a single blind format, against wines of my own just to see where I rate. Being in a “stepchild” region I find it imperative I do so to ensure we make great wine and it is priced accordingly. Recently, as a result of several questions from both consumers and bloggers regarding the “high” price of Virginia wine I invited several bloggers, sommeliers, wine writers and consumers to a single blind tasting here at the winery. It was a great success and everyone left with a more positive impression of Virginia wine, one blogger even had to reverse his opinion of our Pinot Gris from a recent post. The main goal of the tasting was really only about wines at a given price point and seeing which wines fit and which did not.

    The influence of third party recognition is astounding. Wine competitions are one tool we use, yet with so many comps today it is hard to weed out the really intense competitions from the “everybody gets a gold” comps. For us younger regions we carry a stigma from our early years (i was in elementary school so I can’t be blamed) when the we lacked the education and experience and would bottle something no vinegar maker would even buy today. It is a draining stigma that has left its mark even still as wines that are incredibly well made are reviewed openly, and the critic has already gone into the tasting with a preconceived notion that this wine is going to make me gag. So for me taste the stuff blind. No one is asking for you to guess where the wine came from, how it was aged, who stomped the grapes or anything that in depth. They just want to know if you like it, love it or hate it.

    if anyone is interested in reading the blog posts about the tasting I conducted go to: sipswrilsnark.com, richardleahy.com, drinkwhatyoulike.com or katheats.com

    hope I don’t upset you for posting other peeps websites, i’ll send you a bottle of good juice to make up for it ;-) —will you be at the bloggers conference next year?

  31. Andy, I will not be at the bloggers conference this year.

  32. Mark my only reply would be, if you think there’s some fool proof way of consistently evaluating wine through blind tasting, there just isn’t.

  33. I’m going out on a limb here (and not trying to start anything, that of course means I am) but I agree with a lot of previous posts in that “single blind” and even “double blind” have their place, but in the overall scheme of things, I truly believe that the label and the name on the label count for a lot, maybe 25-35% of the overall experience. When a chateau like Haut Brion or even Lagrange, Haut Bages Liberal, or even Hietz or Montelena produces a bottle of wine, with a recognizable label this is just as important (maybe even more so) than what is in the bottle. After all, they have established, over time, a reputation that they have presented tastefully with a well designed recognizable label that immediately sets you up for what you might expect from what’s in the bottle. This is the only thing that they can contribute from the past that might influence what is in the bottle now. And I think that influence should be allowed. I am not against blind or double blind tastings, just remember that you are “denuding” the wine, and I’m not sure many of us would appreciate that, were we the subjects. Bottom line, I think that a label and a reputation speak for something, and there is nothing wrong with that.

  34. Richard, reputation part of the wine “experience” is taken into consideration by the consumer when the wine is purchased. When looking at a row of Bordeaux in the wine shop the consumer definitely takes the brand into consideration when deciding what kind of wine experience they want. I think the distinction that most of the commenters here make is that professional evaluations provided to inform the consumers purchase decision should be based on what is actually in the bottle and not be influenced a priori by a brand’s reputation. This allows for “lesser” wines to be fairly evaluated against the big names. After tasting the wines, I have no problem and even encourage adding information about how the wine compared to the brand’s reputation, such as “Chateau X is a typical of the region and vintage and is a excellent value when compared to more expensive chateaux” or “Chateau Y is another excellent offering from this famous house and is well worth the money to experience its rich history.”

    There is a big difference in professionally evaluating a wine and a consumer evaluation. There is a reason that judges at wine competitions (though I don’t like them much) taste blind. If not, don’t you think the biggest name/most expensive wine wines most of the time?

  35. Nelson Abreu says:

    Double blind is most challenging so I’m not surprised that it makes you uncomfortable. It’s supposed to test your senses and excersize your ability to analyze, judge. The wine being judged is the only constant in this equation. Your word is not final, nor consistent, neither is anyone else’s. The vast majority of reviews from open tastings range between 85-90 points; sounds pretty safe to me. Why allow price or brand to limit your feelings or poetic juices about what you taste?

  36. scientist says:

    Single Blind: the taster doesn’t know which wine is in which glass but the pourer does. The “Pepsi Challenge” is single blind because the person conducting the experiment knows which wine is in which glass. There is an opportunity for the pourer’s bias to influence the taster. Yet, the taster knows that one glass has pepsi and the other has coke.

    Double Blind: neither the tasters nor the people doing the pouring know which wine is in which glass. This is like a clinical trial where the doctor giving you the pill doesn’t know if it is the drug being tested or just a sugar pill. This is to eliminate the influence of the doctor giving you the pill. Yet everyone still knows that the pill is either the drug being tested or a placebo.

    If you want to do a double blind tasting of wine you pour the wines into 8 identical bottles numbered 1-8, writing down which wine is in which numbered bottle, then leave the room. Someone else goes into the room and puts stickers labeled A-H over the numbers (while writing down which number has which letter over it.) Now nobody knows which wine is in which bottle and you can do a double blind test.

    If someone at the tasting knows which wines are in which bottles then it is not a double blind test, it is a single blind test. Blinding has nothing to do with knowledge of what wines are in the lineup, just what wine is in what bottle. Again single = taster doesn’t know but pourer does. double = nobody knows what wine is in what glass.

    Also, the bottles are distinctive enough that just putting a bag over them is a poor method of blinding.

    Misusing terms like “double blind” and “single blind” is just causing confusion among people who actually know what those terms mean.

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