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Blind tasting, and getting into the zone

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Two interesting articles in the latest issue of Andy Blue’s “The Tasting Panel” (TTP) magazine. Unfortunately, I was unable to find either one of them online, and I’m not going to pay for online content since I get the zine for free. Maybe you can go to their website and figure out a way to get them.

The first article, “Aroma Therapy,” has a novel concept behind it. Some of TTP’s reviewers were given wines double blind, then asked to speed-taste them and, if they cared to, guess as to the varietal composition. I’ve never seen a magazine do anything like that. Another wine magazine–one which we, at Wine Enthusiast, refer to as “the competition”–used to have a back of the book page called “What Am I Tasting?” in which the magazine’s tasting coordinator would describe a wine, and then readers could test their wits and try to guess what it was. But that was a top-down approach, where the tasting coordinator couldn’t be wrong; only the readers could. By contrast, in “Aroma Therapy”, TTP’s tasters could seriously blunder, and if that embarrasses them in public, so be it.

I like the idea a lot. It gives readers some insight into what professionals actually think when they’re tasting blind. Sometimes some of the tasters were right on: “No doubt: a California Chardonnay” said Jeremy Light, the beverage director at Sunset Marquis Hotel, in West Hollywood. Yet Jeremy got the Saddle Rock 2009 Orange Muscat (Santa Barbara County) wrong: “Is it a domestic Riesling?” he wrote.

You have to give a blind taster huge props for sticking his neck out and actually naming a variety. It’s much safer to write, as Jared Hooper, a Pasadena somm did, concerning a St. Clement 2009 Sauvignon Blanc: “Ripe tropical and exotic earthiness. A flirty wine.” A concise, generic description like that won’t get you into trouble. Someone might disagree (“That fruit isn’t tropical, it’s green apples”), but that’s just that person’s opinion. No embarrassment.

We critics who taste blind go through these twists and turns all the time. I generally taste my wines in flights of the same variety, so it’s impossible for me to think a wine in a Cabernet flight is anything but a Cabernet. But I do like to shake things up every once in a while. For instance, I’ll do a blind tasting of red wines that could be any variety, and then I’ll try to guess. A lighter style of Pinot Noir is generally easy, but not always; some Grenaches can be similar. But when a red wine is rich, full bodied and fruity, as so many California red wines are, it can be the hardest thing in the world to reliably nail the variety. I give a lot of credit to TTP’s reviewers for having fun and putting themselves on the line.

The other article in TTP is called “Channeling the Spirits Masters.” It’s about how this Croatian-born guy, Dushan Zaric, teaches a course, “Mastery of Service,” in which he shows bartenders how to get “into the zone” through meditation. The bartender goes into a state of centeredness and self-observation in which he becomes “a fusion of mixologist, sage and rock star.”

What’s interesting about this is Zaric’s focus on the bartender’s inner state. Most courses in mixology stress the art and science of mixing, with some business practices thrown in. Overlooked in such training is the mental process required for success. Getting into the zone is something that applies to every task. In wine reviewing, you want to get into the zone so that you’re not distracted by the environment. This is why tasters prefer to work in a quiet, uncluttered room, free of distracting smells. It helps us concentrate.

There are other parts of my job that require getting into different zones. When I’m speaking in public, there’s a performance zone I go into. When I’m circulating at a large event, meeting and greeting people, that requires getting into a totally different zone, one of conversational interactivity. I’ve been doing my job long enough to understand the different zones, and I know how to get into them pretty easily. Still, there are times…I wish I could take Zaric’s class one of these days. If it helps “to shift negatives into positives,” as Zaric says, then it would certainly help me.

  1. couldn’t find article #2, but here’s link to current issue, with Aroma Therapy on page 68

    props to TTP for reminding everyone that even when you “think” you know, you may not know, unless it’s so crazily obvious, like a california chard — so enjoy that moment of discovery! a wine that might stand outside its standard/expected flavour profile will throw you, but therein lies the fun i would think, to discover the varying nuances when a wine is perhaps not picked at some crazy level of ripeness and other parts of its essence is lost, or somehow different than the expectations created by the need for wine conformity and mass consumer comfort. i don’t find it a serious blunder, but a refreshing one, to know there might be something interesting and different out there. — or so i would think, i don’t know that much about wine–that’s my husband scott’s job– i just complain about what he got us into…

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