Wine Talk

Snooth User: Richard Foxall

Blind Tasting

Posted by Richard Foxall, Mar 22, 2012.

This comes up a lot, and dmcker said something interesting about it that sparked some thoughts:

I don't think wine should be rated only double blind

First, I think "double blind" is a bit of a misnomer. It's a term from clinical trials in medical research,  referring to the fact that both the clinician measuring the results and the patient don't know if the patient is receiving the therapeutic agent or a placebo.  A study can have multiple controls and it isn't triple blind.  I suppose not knowing the type of wine, as well as the label, could be "double blind," in a sense.  Then is not knowing the vintage on top of that triple blind?

But that's semantics, and beside the point.  Here's a quote attributed to Kermit Lynch:

“Blind Tasting is to wine drinking what strip poker is to love.”

And here's a nice article about the tasting I've previously posted about that Dr. Vino attended--a perspective on blind tasting that, for purposes of getting many to read it, leads with Parker, but covers the topic fairly.

Here's another article, balanced and somwhat obvious. (I  don't love the analogy to music.  Not to be a horrible curmudgeon, but knowing the story behind "Tears in Heaven" makes me wish Clapton hadn't exploited the story and, if he was going to do it, wrote a better song.  Same for Mariah Carey's "Twister." Oh, but that's Mariah, the Gallo of music.  I would have said Two Buck Chuck, but we have to reserve that for the lip synchers.  And, occasionally, Gallo and Mariah put out something that provides some pleasure.)

I want to point out something:  Lynch says that "blind tasting is to wine drinking"... Not rating.  Kermit Lynch is in the business of selling wine (and Kermit Lynch's place in the wine world, IMO), and not in having it objectively compared to wines of similar price, or different price, or anything else.  He sells the story, and that's been a big part of his business.  A little touch of S. France right there on San Pablo Avenue, right next to Acme and Cafe Fanny.  My, we are enlightened in Berkeley.  ;-)

I do enjoy the stories behind wines, which is why I was happy that Talty won Snooth's Winery of the Year.  The story behind the huge corporations that own all the First Growths and other 100 pointers wouldn't be all that great, though, and that's not the selling point--Parker points are, in great measure. 

And he's not doing so great at the blind tasting, apparently, and seems to have made many exceptions to his policy that "When possible all of my tastings are done in peer-group, single-blind conditions (meaning that the same types of wines are tasted against each other and the producers’ names are not known)."  Of course, if you are tasting less than 25 of the top Bords, you don't have to taste them blind, according to the exceptions! And you know that these are the "peers," so you don't accidentally rate the $25 ringer as high as the $1000 first growth... That policy is already too weak, and it's just Swiss cheese full of exceptions.

I don't drink wines blind very often--I think in just deciding whether I like a wine and want to buy more, opening the bottles one at a time over a couple days is perfect.  Also, going to something like VinItaly, where you are drinking a ton of, say, Morellino, no prices, producers you are unfamiliar with, no prices (many are looking for distributors) and rating those, you don't really need to drink them without knowing who produced what. It's also ridiculous to think you could rate them with any precision when you are tasting a small sample from a bottle opened for who knows how long. But it's practically blind as it is, and you can make some comparative ratings--X was good, Y was really good, Z was so-so.  And doing a non-blind tasting of five of your favorite Brunellos or super Tuscans is fine--you know that you like them and, like GdP, you're prepared to say, "That wasn't as good as I remembered," or "Siepi is better than Percarlo, at least right now." You don't move markets that way--totally different purpose.

But you want to decide if your palate favors Cab-based Bords over Cali Cabs?  You ought to do it blind. 

And you want to say your ratings are somehow objective, that there is such a thing as a 100 point Bordeaux, and you should be taken seriously in suggesting that they are all expensive firsts and seconds?  I think that needs to be done blind. 

Interested in other perspectives...

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Reply by JonDerry, Mar 22, 2012.

It would be niced to be able to say "tasted blind" without qualifying it, with other names or terms given for partial blind tastings, however there's already a standard in place so I'll have to think about it. I'm definitely a fan of blind tasting in general, though preparing a blind tasting without help can be challenging.

The quote from Kermit Lynch is a kind of a joke. Sure, it's fun to taste non-blind as well, though don't you hate when a friend of yours busts out that Silver Oak with that enormous sense of pride that you can't seem to cut through no matter what you might say, so you just don't say anything? Blind tasting would do them some good, of course.

As for the critics, Parker's style seems so measured that it's hard to believe any of it is blind. With Wine Spectator their scores vary from producer to producer and through price ranges enough to believe in their blind tastings to a degree. However, you wonder how much they'll kick up or knock down a score after the producer/vintage is revealed. 

There's all kinds of levels and possible situations for tasting blind, whether vintage, producer, varietals/s, region, and so on.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 22, 2012.

Right on that, JD.  I think blind tasting can be fun but not always necessary.  I am agnostic about doing it for, say, a vertical of one kind of wine where you just want to discuss the wine in question, talk about what you perceive as the vintage variations.  I also really enjoyed the almost entirely not blind tasting at Snooth last October (only your bottles got the blind treatment), because we were just all engaging in GdP's wine philanthropy, learning about the individual wines and sharing our opinions.  I opined that the Burgs tasted like oaked red wine, not particularly varietal specific, and we began to discuss that my ref point for PN is not Burgundy.  (Then we got into a discussion about syrah, which led to talking about Talty... that was quite a night!) Sometimes I will do a blind of a mini-vertical, but not always.  And no one, except maybe a few pros, really has a sample size that makes this scientific in any event.

But if you are going to be a guide to what people should spend their money on, you need to use a meaningful standard and rigorously fair methods.  It's fine to view it as "a place to start a conversation," a la Wine Spec, but then you have to either give up the ideas of objectivity and expertise.  It's ridiculous to think that experts and their "objective" opinions aren't being relied on and don't move the markets.

Reply by GregT, Mar 23, 2012.

Well I've opined on this ad nauseum and in several places so I'll just note that I think it is an extremely useful exercise. It's not like you have to taste every wine blind, but it's very good for pedagogical purposes and to help remove label bias. We know we're supposed to like some wines - taste them blind w/out knowing what you have and see if you feel the same way.

That said, the idea is not to identify a wine someone hands you in a bag, although from time to time that's kind of fun too. Tasting blind is really a way to focus only on the quality of the wine, not on the backstory and the politics and the fact that you're drinking a very expensive or cheap wine.

It's most useful if you know a bit about wine in the first place and if you use it to explore some theory you have or to learn something relatively specific. So you can design your tasting that way. And if you never do it, that's OK too.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 24, 2012.

Right again, GregT.  My biggest issue is with providing buying advice--after all, that's what these mags are bought for--with a policy so full of holes.  For amateurs and even importers (after all, it's their risk if they want to buy wine based on the back story), it's purely whether you want to figure some things out.  And I guess the real question is, why do we care what RP or Laube or Suckling thinks? Caveat emptor, eh?  The "advocacy" of some wines has certainly moved prices them out of mortal reach--but I can't say I'm hurting for anything good to drink as a result.

Reply by outthere, Mar 24, 2012.

Timely post Fox as I'm going to a blind burg/pinot tasting in a couple weeks. Brown bag a PN or Burg under $100 retail. Should be a fun exercise as I have very little burgundy experience, as I have a decidedly Cali-centric cellar and this will be a good way for me to see how they stack up against the wines I am familiar with.

I think blind tasting also brings a kind of innocence to the ratings. For instance when Antonio Galloni did his recent Sonoma tastings and reviews there was a lot of talk about how the scores differed from RP. For one thing AG had never tasted any of these wines and had no pre-conceived notions of how they were supposed to be. Therefor his notes and ratings were, IMHO, more pure than those of Parker. May have pissed a few producers off but at the same time it uncovered some of the ecessive prices being charged by some producers due to the points they were getting from WA. What happens when your $200 Napa Cab only gets a 90 instead of a 95+. Is it now overpriced or was it all hype to begn with?

Reply by dmcker, Mar 24, 2012.

Both. Always assigned those cultish... errrhh cults... and related trappings, whether RP's ratings or other whispered awe that was coming out of ... (guess I'll stop here since Snooth is fairly PC and proper-nice), verly little credulity or credibility. Most recent example was three or so years ago when I was starting to pay attention to Sonoma Coast pinot noir and I was told Marcassin was all that and more. Tended to believe that until I actually had one--what's this? Then another--oh, a pattern is definitely apparent! RP's high priestess was almost hamhandedly turning great pinot fruit into a wine that wasn't pinot noir that I wanted to drink, and charging a pretty penny for it.

Nor do I think Galloni is all that, or that he'll be able to play the same role as Parker during and after the latter's phaseout towards retirement.

Fox, if you're looking towards buying advice, why do you need blind tasting, and why do you care about points? If it's someone whose tastes you respect and may be similar to yours, what's wrong with just the notes and the backstory?

As GregT says we've hacked this subject to shreds in a number of other threads, but I believe you and several of us (including Greg above) have observed that blindtastings are great for sharpening our skills and lifting the veils of our prejudices. But they get old, fast, too. Too much stressing and tearing and detracting from just plain enjoying that wine, even when others in the group don't get defensive (been at too many of them when the typhoon of excuses and apologias and downright whining peaks after notes are shared and the bottles are revealed). Did a bunch of them in the '80s, not so many in the '90s because I was too busy with business. Started some again in the naughties, but found them less fun the more of them I did, though I've got some notes from an interesting tasting of batches of well-aged tete de cuvee champagne I've meant to post to Snooth for awhile from early in the decade. Think they're on an HD in storage, though, since I created the notes before the Cloud existed. This decade I've only done it three or four times, and the speed is slowing to what will soon be glacial.

Reply by GregT, Mar 24, 2012.


The new Ambose Bierce.

I pass the mantle with respect.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 24, 2012.

All good points, d and outthere.  Tonight I drank a Pomerol and a Temp from Castilla y Leon.  Not blind, and I know which my wife preferred, and I know what I thought of the wines. 

I don't pay any attention to RP ratings--I think his preferences in the S. Rhone, for which he has been the biggest advocate other than Lynch, are practically the opposite of mine. I'm not a fan of Lynch's wines from that area, either, even though that means I buck the 800 and the 750 pound gorillas of the region as far as American distribution goes. For Napa cabs, I once shared RP's general inclinations, but he's moved more in the huge, fruit-forward direction and I've stayed about where I was, maybe gone a little in the leaner direction. But I do notice what has happened to the wine as his influence has grown.  Some of it is good--he's debunked the "you can't understand it" of bad wine for the "you ought to be able to enjoy it"--and some is bad--the aiming for "Parker points" and the tendency to favor overripe wines. 

Outthere, I am really interested in your Burg/PN tasting.  In October at the Snoothcave, we tasted a bunch of GdP's wines and I commented that my ref point for PN was not Burgundy and I was at a loss to say what "Burgundian" meant since my experience was everything from wines tricked out with oak (my perception of the higher end) to thin, acidic reds at the lower end. 

Plainly I've also got a penchant for wines with a story--an ever-increasing percentage of my domestic wine consumption is from people with whom I share some connection, or wines recommended by friends and fellow Snoothers. 

And, yeah, D (who else is known by a single initial on these boards, BTW?), none of this should ever get in the way of just enjoying the wine.  That's why we're here. That, and the level of conversation.


Reply by dmcker, Mar 25, 2012.

Rereading your original post, Fox, I'd always thought true blind meant that you:

  1. didn't know what the list of wines was in the first place,
  2. couldn't see any tell-tale, whether that meant baggy brownbagging or decanting or whatever, as to what bottles were poured into each glass, and
  3. didn't know how your peers were rating and guessing until afterwards when all results were more-or-less pooled.

Whether that's double blind or triple blind, who knows, and of course it's different from the use of double-blind in clinical trials. Anyone either know or want to coin a term for the above, or any variation of same?

Reply by JonDerry, Mar 26, 2012.

There's so many variables to blind tasting, i'm content saying it was a blind tasting and qualifying it from there. Open to suggestions or common names for future reference on the board...

Definitely would like to hear the results of that tasting Outthere, especially since a CA Pinot/ Burg tasting is something Fox, GdP, and I have talked about doing. 

Looks like I'm going to accept an invite to an Amarone tasting next weekend, should be good since I've never tasted one before. 

Reply by GregT, Mar 26, 2012.

D - clinical trials are far more formal and I wouldn't presume to opine on those, but I believe that when people talk about wine, single blind means you may know what the wines are but you don't know which is which, whereas double blind means you don't know what the wines are either, so obviously you can't know which is which.

At least that's how I've usually heard the terms. For learning purposes, single blind makes more sense to me. I have identical bottles for that purpose, so the bottle shape doesn't give anything away. Double blind is more random and I've never set up nor attended a tasting structured that way, but sometimes it's very illuminating. 

For example, a few years ago a guy comes up to me with a wine in a brown bag and he asks me to taste it. I said it seemed like an overdone CA mess that was even starting to fade.  That was what he he thought too.  It was 2000 Pavie.

Fast forward a few years and a couple weeks ago I run into the same guy at a dinner. I pour a wine I've bagged and ask what he thinks of it.  Wasn't asking him to guess anything, was just asking for an opinion. Instead he asks me if it's a N. Rhone from the mid-90s. It was indeed - 1995 Chapoutier.  My take-away was that this guy really knows his French wines and I don't know squat.

The PN/Burg tasting is more the type of thing I'd do.  Have done a number of those and in general it's not that difficult to distinguish because if it's actually good, it's usually a safe bet that it's from CA!  We have 2 Burgundy tastings coming up in the next 4 weeks.  Same format as always - everyone gets 12 glasses, pours 12 wines, and doesn't talk about the wines until everyone has rated them all. The idea is to figure out which is from where. It's a region of very little interest to me actually but hey, it's wine.

Anyway, what I've learned about Burgundy is that there is drinking window of three microseconds.  It's really hard to catch that window.  When you miss it, and you will, you're supposed to say, "it's not quite ready yet.  Great structure and you can tell it's going to be great, but it needs a few more years."  Alternatively you say, "This would have been better a few years ago.  It's still good, but it really was much much better a while ago. Too bad."

Reply by dmcker, Mar 27, 2012.

I pass the Mantle of Bierce back, with respect.

Reply by GregT, Mar 27, 2012.

But  I was merely relaying the facts.  Without commentary!

Reply by JonDerry, Mar 27, 2012.

Interesting thoughts on Burgundy v. CA Pinot Greg, it's something I found I had to adjust my expectations with. One of the more polarizing regions just on personal preference that I've seen.

Reply by outthere, Mar 27, 2012.

Anyway, what I've learned about Burgundy is that there is drinking window of three microseconds.  It's really hard to catch that window.  When you miss it, and you will, you're supposed to say, "it's not quite ready yet.  Great structure and you can tell it's going to be great, but it needs a few more years."  Alternatively you say, "This would have been better a few years ago.  It's still good, but it really was much much better a while ago. Too bad."

Thats funny Greg. I know squat aboout burgs so when I was to buy one for this upcoming tasting, double blind, I sent pictures of what I had found to a winemaker acquaintence of mine who likes burgs. He gave his suggestions on which one to buy but finished with;

 "Make sure not to decant these as they will all tighten up on you with air with maybe the exception of the 06 Torochot."

Plays right into your observations. I'm pretty sure I'll be able to distinguish between the Ca and the French wines but beyond that will be the fun part for me. At least on the Cali end of the spectrum.

Reply by GregT, Mar 28, 2012.

There you go.  I don't mean to bash on Burgundy but it's the region people make the most excuses for.  I can't begin to count the number of times people have made comments like the ones above and I'm always thinking "Dude, you didn't make the wine!  Don't sweat it."  I think they're actually trying to convince themselves but frankly, I also think they should give it up and look elsewhere for those sublime experiences. Old Rioja, old Barbaresco, hell, old Chianti - all of those can be quite wonderful.

Seriously - as a joke, whatever Burgundy is poured, nod and knowingly make some comment like those.  Then report back here on the reactions!!  I bet you'll have a lot of people nodding in assent. It'll be your little in joke. And hey, the wine might actually be really good.  I'm tasting a lot of Burgs this month in the search for that elusive wine . . .

The CA Pinot thing is really a polarizing issue too. Doesn't need to be but it is since people always compare CA to their benchmarks in France.  Mistake I think.  Cheers! 

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 28, 2012.

Just checked back in on the ol' thread.  What I missed!  Dueling Bierces!

GT and JD were there back in October when I said that I just wasn't getting the hype about Burg.  I can't say what it is, too all over the map, and the great examples GdP poured tasted of oak and winemaking to me.  But I love pinot as I know it, in many guises from Oregon down to Santa Barbara, and a few from NZ.  Sure, there's crap, mostly cheap but some expensive, in those regions, but no one gets as sniffy as Burgophiles for wines that don't seem all that transcendent--from super thin to oaky, tired things. But I'm on the hunt still--bought a few Burgs at N. Berkeley's Warehouse sale on dmcker's suggestion that I check it out. 

On the other hand, my first RdD wines knocked me over backward, and they were bought on the cheap.  Turns out I like RdD a lot. 

Yeah, the terminology is open for users to define.  I think it's okay to be kind of loose about it--I like JD's blind-plus-other-qualifications as just a good place to start to stay clear.  I've done lots of those Cal Syrah vs. N. Rhone/CdP knockoff vs. the real thing/Cab v. Left Bank tests, or "Which of these 3 2004 Cabs is best in your opinion?" tastings.  Brown bagging bottles is fine for most amateurs of my level (unless the bottle is covered in raffia or is fish-shaped ;-)) , but if it's just two bottles and can stand a decant, I have identical carafes for the purpose.  (Another favorite: Super discounted bottle against $40+ name wine.  That can be a gestalt changer sometimes.)

Reply by edwilley3, May 19, 2012.

I think that some of us are more likely to be influenced by the label. I know plenty of people who love Veuve Clicquot even though I think its quality has cascaded. If I tasted them blind with a variety of bottles that I know to be better, but I told them that one or more bottles was VC, they surely would claim that the best bottles is VC.

There is a twist, however, to blind tasting that should not be overlooked.  If I were to match up a cheap California merlot, a Spanish Reserva rioja, and a Bell Wine Cellars Clone 6 cab, I surely would be able to select the Bell since it's far and away the superior wine. Yet would my rating be as accurate as, say, a test of 2007 small production cabs?  In the latter case, the comparison allows us to measure like type.  But what if I mixed regions (Napa and Sonoma)? 

I remain suspicious of the ratings after I have discovered that so many 90 point wines just were not that great.  I wonder if an experience taster who can easily pick out wines from his favorite producers will not act with bias toward those producers. 

Just some thoughts....

Reply by GregT, May 19, 2012.

:If I were to match up a cheap California merlot, a Spanish Reserva rioja, and a Bell Wine Cellars Clone 6 cab, I surely would be able to select the Bell since it's far and away the superior wine. "


Reply by JonDerry, May 19, 2012.

Wasn't sure about this either, what the heck's a Bell Wine Cellars Clone 6 cab? Have to believe you like this wine, but you'd also have to assume that you'd just be tossing in any Rioja Reserva off the street, and not a well selected one from a good vintage.

So anyway I went and looked, and it seems interesting, even if a little unusual if what the website claims is true this Bell has plenty of qualifications. Sadly, only 349 cases (698 half cases) produced of this Clone 6 in 2008, I must get one!

Looks like a can grab the 2007 for $60, but in 2008 there's only one local in wine searcher in Upland who wants $80 for it.

And finally, some good love from a few off-broadway CT'ers:

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