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