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What? You can’t identify your own wine in a blind tasting?!?

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“It has always been a comforting thought,” the late, great Harry Waugh wrote, “that seldom have the proprietors recognized their own wine, but this is not surprising because the wines were all of the same family as it were…all were classified growths of Saint Julien.”

This quote is from an article he wrote, “A Visit to Bordxeaux,” in the Oct.-Nov. 1987 issue of The Friends of Wine magazine, which was the publication of the old Les Amis du Vin wine society. LADV was the premier amateur wine lover’s organization in the U.S. in the 1980s. I doubt anything like it could recur today, but it sure was fun in its time.

Anyway, Harry was a great one for humility. He also coined the immortal “not since lunch” when asked the last time he’d confused Bordeaux with Burgundy, suggesting that it’s not just families of wines [like Saint-Julien; Harry missed the hyphen] that resemble each other. In the article, Harry didn’t identify which chateau proprietors didn’t recognize their own wines at the tasting, but the chateaux represented included Beychevelle, Léoville-Poyferré, Léoville-Barton, Gruaud-Larose, Léoville-Lascases, Talbot and Ducru-Beaucaillou. In other words, a pretty swanky class of wineries.

Recently, I wrote that all California wines share (or should share, at their best) the trait of richness. One or two commenters called me out on it. Their sugggestion, which I knew would be forthcoming because when I write certain things I always know exactly which ones people will jump on, was that I was lumping everything together and failing to appreciate or possibly even understand the terroir differences that exist throughout California. Well, that’s not what I meant at all, but my statement (all California wines should exhibit richness) does perhaps bear some explanation.

California is a warm climate. Yes, we talk about “cool climate” appellations like the Santa Maria Valley or the Edna Valley or the Deep End of the Anderson Valley or the Green Valley of the Russian River or the Fort Ross-Seaview area. And we make much of the coastal fog that does in fact permeate all these regions, whose evenings require jackets and sweaters even in high summer. Yet the fact remain that they’re in California–sunny, blue-skied California, where it doesn’t rain between May and November (usually, and if it does, it’s not much), and where the days dependably get warm to hot.

If you look at a map, you’ll see that California lies at a much more southerly latitude than the great wine regions of Europe. In fact, San Francisco’s latitude, 37.7 degrees N, is virtually the same as Sicily’s, 37.6 degrees N. Our climate is Mediterranean, so when you plant grapes that were developed for Europe’s continental climate, like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, they get much riper than they do in places like Bordeaux or Burgundy. This extra ripeness is, of course, what their critics point to in calling them atypical of their type. But it’s also why so many consumers, including me, like them. Richness is not to be condemned in wine.

Which is not to say that richness hides terroir. A Carneros Pinot Noir may be quite different from one grown at the Pisoni Vineyard. An Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon is not an Alexander Valley Cabernet much less one from the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. But–to revert to old Harry–they all show a family resemblance, and the name of the family is California.

If you think about it, if this similarity exists up and down the state, then how much harder it is to differentiate between, say, the Pinot Noirs of the Russian River Valley? Closer than spittin’ cousins, as my Uncle Elmer used to say. Vintners make much of the differences in the wines they produce from neighboring vineyards and even from blocks within the same vineyard, and I’m sure they detect those differences, as a parent with triplet kids can tell them apart from a cry in the night, as opposed to everybody else to whom they’re impossible to sort out. And these subtle differences are there, and they’re part of what makes wine tasting so much fun. But they also can be subtle to the point of uncertainty.

I’ve seen winemakers at blind tastings identify their own wines, and I’ve also seen them fail to do so. It shouldn’t be embarrassing. We make too much of these contests where “experts” are supposed to take one sniff and then go, “Obviously, it’s Harlan, and from a good year…I should think ‘97.” That’s a parlor trick (albeit a pretty impressive one, if you can pull it off). If Harry Waugh took comfort in the thought that a Bordeaux proprietor could fail to recognize his own wine, then I take comfort in Harry’s inability to distinguish Burgundy from Bordeaux…since lunch.

  1. When will someone finally stop a) dismissing the variance in ability to identify a wine as part of “normal” and b) calling it a parlor trick?

    How about we see someone ask the questions 1) why are those who can identify their wines successful? 2) what do they do/know/possess that aids them in this? 3) how can that knowledge aid those who can’t (be they wine maker, sommelier, wine reviewer or consumer)?

    Of course, I don’t mean a missive speculating and philosophizing about these issues, but an intrepid, empirical investigation of these issues.

    That would be far more useful and productive than constantly quoting a humorous Waugh quip.

  2. Christopher says:

    Hey, SUAMW, that sounds like a good idea, maybe you should do that. It would be more useful and productive than commenting on an internet blog.

  3. oenophilosopher says:

    Hey Christopher,

    THAT was an fantastic response, and thanks for the chuckle.

  4. lol

  5. You know what would be really productive, Christopher? Doing the research into published science that validates my point.

    You might learn something and maybe then you could teach others…..
    presuming they want to be taught …. instead of philosophizing or speaking out of the wrong end of one’s digestive tract – an amusing concept, Burroughs wrote about that, might want to read and see how he saw that turning out…

  6. Love that Harry Waugh quote about lunch and burg/bordeaux. But well done on your own quote comparing site differences in wine (micro-terroir?) to a set of triplets and the parents. Never thought of it that way and it suits very well.

    Hope you don’t mind if I use it here and there. :)

  7. Hi Steve, great points as usual. I particularly use the perceived richness and structure of a wine to ID when it is old or new world. Typically richer wines are new world and they shouldn’t be ashamed of it!

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