From the annals of tasting
There are lots of tasting lineups that make sense in reviewing wine, i.e. there’s not just one way of doing it. If Bob Cabral sends me 15 Pinot Noirs from all over Northern California, I could taste them against one another—or I could save the Russian Rivers, for example, to taste against other Russian Rivers (which is how he once told me he prefers) and leave the Sonoma Coasts, etc. for another day.
This above situation (and my mind is far from made up on it) assumes that one should only taste Pinot Noirs with other Pinot Noirs (or perhaps the rare Meunier), Cabernets with other Cabs, Chards with other Chards, and so on. But where is this written in stone? If you taste blind, it can be fantastically instructive to mix up the varieties in a flight. You can see how “Cabernet-ish” that Syrah actually is, which might be instructive information to communicate to readers, which is, after all, the whole point of what I do.
The question is, what is to be gained with tasting like with like, and what is to be lost? Or, to put it the other way, what are the relative advantages and disadvantages of reviewing a mixed flight? Right off the bat, I can hear the terroirists beating their breasts in protestation that the purpose of tasting is to discover minute distinctions between wines of the same variety that must be due to terroir (especially if they’re from the same winery and were made with more or less identical production methods).
This may be true, but it’s not clear that it’s of help to consumers, who after all are unconcerned with the nuances of terroir, but just want a clear, concise description of a wine they might buy. I can’t tell you how consciousness of my duty to the consumer informs my every decision regarding tasting. There are two audiences a professional taster is playing to: the consumer, or the somm/winemaker/collector crowd who love to wade into the tall grass of terroir distinctions, often with a sense of Gotcha! or moral superiority. At the magazine I previously worked for (a long time ago), I saw enough of that pretentiousness to last me a lifetime.
I do think that tasters are best off tasting the same varieties against each other, although this obviously depends on what their samples are. If you’re a blogger getting the odd sherry, Italian Pinot Grigio, Languedoc and Napa Cabernet, I believe your reviews will be of limited value. You can tell readers what your hedonistic impressions are, but offer them little of the knowledge of the winery or vineyard, or of how that year’s vintage compares to previous years. In this, I’m fortunate. I get a lot of wine every year, which allows me to shape my tastings pretty much how I like to.
The important thing in tasting is experience. The knowledge one acquires over many years makes one a better taster: more informed, better able to put things into perspective and break down the barriers. The longer I do this, the easier it gets: I feel like I can capture the wine’s essence in a few words. That’s what readers are looking for, isn’t it? Haiku, not a ballad, that tells the story at its essential elegance.