Wednesday, August 29, 2012

On the blind tasting bandwagon

Yesterday, W. Blake Gray (why the W, Blake?) wrote a blog post about blind tasting. The piece was presented as a review of his two-part interview with New York Times wine critic Eric Asimov. In the interview, Asimov stated that blind tasting is infantilizing and "dumbed down way of looking at wine." Gray strongly disagreed with Asimov on the issue of blind tasting. His post was well presented and provided a very interesting discussion on the merits of reviewing wines via blind and non-blind protocols. However, one little line sparked a bit of consternation from a few of his readers (including yours truly). Gray's statement, "Wine Spectator says they blind taste, but nobody believes them" even elicited a response from Wine Spectator's executive editor. I don't know if Blake truly believes his own statement (he said he'll post on the issue soon), but blind tasting methods seem to be a bit controversial and thus deserve a more attention.

If you happen to also read Steve Heimoff's eponymous wine blog, you may have noticed that Steve often claims that he tastes and scores California wines in a blind setting; in accordance with Wine Enthusiast's tasting policy. I've confronted Steve a few times on the issue and he has mostly resorted to ignoring my comments. Personally, I couldn't care less if a critic reviews wines with the labels visible or with no information except what's in the glass in front of him or her. There are advantages and disadvantages to both techniques. Honestly, I think a critic must taste in both settings to successfully evaluate wines.

Now, what I do care about is when stated policies are not followed, misleading or falsely attacked. I have no reason to doubt that Wine Spectator indeed rates wines in a blind setting. My only beef with Wine Spectator is that tasting flights are organized in such narrow terms that preconceptions may influence scores. If you knew that you were tasting a group of wines that cost more than $100 from a prestigious region, you might tend to give higher scores based on expectations. The same can be said about if you were tasting wines from "other" wine regions such as Colorado, New York or Virginia. Ben O'Donnell had a great article on the perceptions many consumers have about American wines not from California, Oregon or Washington. Why should critics be excluded from having the same perceptions? Knowing that you are tasting such wines might affect critical analysis. Now if a flight of wines was not qualified by price or region but by only one factor, such as American red Bordeaux blends, the results *might* be much different. I've seen it happen many times when a Colorado wine outshines more prestigious and expensive counterparts. I've also seen Colorado wines go down in flames against much better competition. Can't win them all... unless you stack the deck.

Steve Heimoff's approach is a bit different. He organizes his own tastings by placing bottles into brown bags, closing his eyes and magically forgetting which wines he is tasting. Now, I like reading Steve's blog and I admit that I sometimes taste wines in the same way. But the difference between Steve and me is that I'm not awarding wines with high scores and claim to move markets. Steve's level of influence (and he is a very influential and respected critic) is in a state of disaccord with his methods. I would think that someone that sees Antonio Galloni and James Laube as peers would have a bit more of a rigorous tasting technique.

Now, you may ask why is it ok for me to occasionally "blind" taste the same way? I don't write short reviews on thousands of wines as if they existed in a vacuum. I don't have a databse of all of my tasting notes. Most of my reviews are focused on one, or just a few wines and how I experience them. I don't focus solely on the subjective traits of a wine, but more often than not write about the story behind the wine or something more personal. I would love to taste wine blind more often, but because I am not a professional critic it is not that easy for me to do so. Tasting with the label visible is also ok, because that is how almost all consumers experience wine. In fact, I mostly just open a bottle of wine to drink with dinner with my lovely wife. This way, I am able to experience wine a normal consumer would. I just pay more attention to the qualities and how the wine changes through the evening and then write about it.

So if consumers don't drink wine in a blind setting, why and how does one drink blind? Gray proclaimed three reasons, with which I don't disagree. Really though, they all boil down to one reason: to eliminate bias. If there is a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle sitting in front of you, you have information that can affect your assessment of the wine. You might expect it to be a perfect wine and score it according to expectations. If you are let down by the wine you might score it lower. But of course you can't possibly score it below 90 points because it is worth thousands of dollars after all and nothing that expensive could possibly be less than 90 points. Aren't all 89-pt wines worse than feed lot runoff? If you don't know what you are drinking you are able to evaluate a wine purely on its qualities presented in the glass. You don't know if you've had a bad experience with the wine before. You don't know if it is from a region that you may think can't produce excellent wine. And finally, you won't be swayed by a wine's $500 or $5 price tag.

A blind experimental design is done by concealing information from participants that could introduce bias or somehow skew the results.  Blind wine tasting isn't exactly conducted according to scientific standards, so the terms single-blind and double-blind tasting mean different things than to academics. In a single-blind tasting the critic should be blind to all but one piece of information. You are tasting white Burgundy. You don't know if there is a Montrachet or a Pouilly-Vinzelles in the lineup. This way, you have some knowledge on what you should be looking for in the wines. If one of the wines tasted like grass and grapefruit, you'd know something was wrong. In a double-blind tasting a reviewer shouldn't know anything about what they are tasting. Often times a mix of different varietal wines and blends are lumped together. This method is more directed at assessing the critic than the wines, and is really only useful for parlor tricks or Master of Wine exams.

Does Steve Heimoff taste according to either of these designs? No. Does Wine Spectator? Yes, but with a bit more detail than just variety or region. Where Steve has intimate knowledge of what is in each bottle (he may or may not know which bottle is in which bag, but he has admitted that he can sometimes instantly tell which wines are which), Wine Spectator tasting coordinators set up the tasting so that the editors do not know which specific wines are on the table. Though by setting up flight of Oakville cabernet sauvignon that cost more than $75, the editor probably has a good guess which wines might be involved.

Now, if I were a professional critic, this is how I would set up a blind tasting. I would pick a broad, yet specific, range of wines (how's that for contradictory?). Perhaps I'd select rieslings from a recent vintage. I'd have my tasting coordinator (congratulations honey, you've got the job!) select a handful wines from a variety of regions and a range of price points. I'd ideally like to have California, Washington, Michigan, New York, Colorado, France and Germany represented. I wouldn't need Austria because we know that no Americans drink Austrian wine ;). This might require two or more flights. I'd have the wines poured in identical glasses, but I'd make sure not to see or touch any of the bottles. Who knows, maybe a heavy bottle would give away the producer or insert a bit of bias with regards to the quality of wine contained within. I'd spend a few minutes with each wine, getting to know it before moving on to the next. I'd also go back and forth amongst the wines to be able to compare and contrast the best that I could. I'd describe the characteristics I find in each wine and how those wines made me feel. After all isn't that why people drink wine; to feel something in their mouths and their minds (even if that feeling is numbness).

Despite my complaints, I truly believe that there is no perfect way to evaluate wine. As long as methods are clear and truthful, consumers can make determine which critic is best suited for them. However, people should always trust their own palate and never blindly follow even the most highly esteemed wine writer. The most important thing that Blake's post did yesterday is increase the dialogue. Wine is too often seen as an elitist commodity because people are sometimes afraid to talk about wine. Let's more talking about wine (anyone who has lived in Japan will get it....).

Friday, August 24, 2012

A lesson to be learned from Continuum Estate

Earlier this summer I was lucky enough to visit a winery in California with a pedigree unparalleled anywhere in the U.S. After driving up a long and winding road high in the Vaca Mountains on the east side of the Napa Valley, I found myself exploring vineyards with Tim Mondavi. In 2005, the year after the family's eponymous winery was purchased by Constellation Brands for over $1.3 billion, Tim, father Robert and sister Marcia launched their next wine endeavor. After making dozens of different wines for Robert Mondavi Winery for over three decades, Tim and his family decided to make just one wine that would be recognized amongst the best in the world. In honor of his family's winemaking past and looking forward to its future, Continuum was born.

Monday, August 13, 2012

From the cutting room floor...

A few months ago, I wrote an article about five female social media personalities who are important to the Colorado wine industry. The list caught Wine Spectator's editor Thomas Matthews' eye. He asked me to sit down with meteorologist Jennifer Broome to talk about her thoughts on the local wine wine industry. How awesome is it that the country's most influential wine periodical is interested in Colorado Wine! I spent several months working with the magazine's editors polishing the piece and last week Wine Spectator published the highlights of the interview on their website. Please check it out and share it with people you know who share your love of local wine!

As it happens and as I knew would happen, only a handful of the questions were selected to be published. I want share the rest of the interview with you here.