Blind tasting and Parker: the issue that won’t go away
After last week’s brouhaha over Jay Miller I decided to double check what Robert Parker says about blind tasting. From “The Wine Advocate Rating System” page on his site:
“When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions.”
You can see that the loophole here is “when possible,” but how big a loophole is it? So small you can barely squeeze a pinky? Or big enough to drive an 18-wheeler through? Well, here’s Parker on his own “exceptions to this policy”, followed by my comments:
(1) all barrel tastings
That’s cool. I’m down with that.
(2) all specific appellation tastings where at least 25 of the best estates will not submit samples for group tastings
I had to read this a couple times to understand it. I would guess this means, for example, Napa Valley Cabernet. I, personally, am never sent the wines of more than 25 Napa Cabs (Colgin, Araujo, Staglin, Screaming Eagle, etc.), and I would guess Parker isn’t, either. Perhaps he buys them, but my educated guess is that Parker actually travels to the wineries, or to local third party venues, to taste (of course, from now on it will be Galloni), and that these tastings are open. If you roll in other “specific appellations” (Bordeaux, the Northern Rhône, Burgundy), and if you assume that lots of the wineries there “will not submit samples” (do the First Growths or DRC?), then you have to also assume that Parker’s Rule #2 gives him ample leeway to taste openly, pretty much whenever he wants to.
Sodden thought: Who determines what are “the best estates”? And if you know you’re tasting one of “the best estates” wouldn’t that bias your perception of that wine?
(3) for all wines under $25
This is a pretty weird “exception to this policy.” Why should wines under $25 be held to a different standard than wines over $25? Parker doesn’t make this clear. It’s especially difficult to understand, given this statement, from his “Wine Advocate Writer Standards” page:
“In a tasting, a $10 bottle of petite chateau Pauillac should have as much of a chance as a $200 bottle of Lafite Rothschild or Latour.”
Truer words never were spoken! But how can that $10 petite chateau wine have “as much of a chance” if it’s tasted openly? Why not sneak it into a blind tasting against Second, Third and Fourth Growths? That would be giving it “as much of a chance” to earn a high score. If Parker (or anybody else) is staring at the label (and, even worse, at the tech sheet)–and particularly, if he’s sitting down to an open tasting of petite chateau wines–isn’t it possible, and even likely, that his mind is being influenced by knowledge of what he’s tasting? I should think so. “These are just petite chateaux, so they can’t possibly be very good. Everybody knows that,” is how the mentation would go.
Okay, back to blind tasting. Here’s Parker’s guideline (on the Writer Standards page) for “The Other Wine Advocate / eRobertParker.com Wine Critics”:
“All tastings…are done under both blind and non-blind conditions…”.
It’s curious that on this very long page, which is practically an essay, this is the only mention of blind tasting. You would think Parker would focus much more deeply and candidly on this topic, since it’s really at the heart of everything he (and we) do. But no–just this slapdash little reference. And even it is unsatisfactory. “Both blind and non-blind”….How? When? Why? Under what circumstances? So this looks to me like another loophole, as big as the “when possible” loophole mentioned above.
Loopholes are funny things. Everybody uses them. Most of the time, it doesn’t really matter. We give ourselves just enough wriggle room so that, if we have to break a promise, we can say, “Well, I didn’t swear on a stack of Bibles, did I?” But sometimes it does matter. I should think in the case of a wine writer it would be obligatory to have a little note beside every review indicating how the wine was reviewed, and where. In a blind, big regional tasting? Individually and openly, at the winery, with the proprietor? These things matter. People have the right to know. We’ll never do away with loopholes, but we can make them so tiny that only a pinky can fit through.