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How Critics Taste Wines - On Blind Tasting

You’ve read thousands of wine reviews. But what do you know about the way wine critics perform their evaluations? Frankly, even wine writers don’t always know how their fellow reviewers conduct tastings.

This is the first in what will be a short series of articles revealing how several respected wine critics go about their business. My inspiration was a panel discussion at the 2014 Symposium for Professional Wine Writers held last week in Napa Valley. Moderated by Alder Yarrow of Vinography, Ray Isle of Food and Wine magazine and Lisa Perotti-Brown of The Wine Advocate described their processes in substantial detail. Other writers chimed in. I’ve interviewed still others.

Wine Reviewing Makes You Go Blind. Or Not.

320px-Blindfold hatThere is ongoing debate between wine reviewers on the pros and cons of tasting wines blind. Newsletter reviewers, such as Antonio Galloni, Doug Wilder, and those at the Wine Advocate, do not taste blind. Critics for top wine magazines—Wine Spectator, Wine & Spirits, and Wine Enthusiast—do.

In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”

In a recent blog of his own, Steiman suggests that even knowing the stated alcohol level of a wine prior to evaluation can color one’s opinion. “Some high-profile wine writers are suggesting that that they shouldn’t have to taste blind, that it’s unnecessary unless you have an agenda. I would submit that a preference for low-alcohol wines is an agenda. Just how much alcohol is present is not so obvious when you can’t see the label.”

Alcohol isn’t the only bit of information that might sway an opinion. Reviewers could potentially be biased with regard to price point, producer or certain varieties in a particular region. Even bottle weight and label design could sway perception.

Joe Czerwinski, managing editor at Wine Enthusiast where he also reviews wines of Australia, New Zealand and the Rhone, tells me that he knows what countries might be involved in his review tastings due to his beat. When tasting for a particular feature article, he may also know the specific region and varieties. He never knows the price or producer though.

At Wine & Spirits, reviewers have three pieces of information. They know the region, the variety and whether or not the wine costs less than $15. The latter helps them earmark wines for “best buy” designations. Knowing the region and variety lets them judge typicity, eg. does a particular Dry Creek Zinfandel meet expectations as such.

Some reviewers, myself included, often taste blind but don’t do so exclusively. In an email to me, Jon Bonné of the San Francisco Chronicle said, “I’m increasingly of the opinion that blind tasting isn’t really that useful when tasting critically.” The Chronicle’s panel tastings are typically conducted blind but, when tasting on his own, Bonné usually sees what he’s pouring. This is common with solo reviewers. The logistics of managing the blind tasting of a multitude of wines by one’s self makes it highly impractical.

Bonné also poses the question, “Why shouldn’t a critic evaluate a wine the way his or her readers do?” I’m sympathetic to that view and try in other respects, such as selection of glassware, to taste wines the way I think enthusiasts might. Perhaps more importantly, Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate suggested (in that same article by Jameson Fink) that he believes blind tasting removes important context from the evaluation process.

What context matters? Knowing the vintage can help you judge whether a wine is an excellent 2011 or a lean 2009. Region, even vineyard, and variety can indicate typicity. Knowing the producer, and their track record, provides important clues as to the likely aging profile.

Context is, along with practicality, the primary reason given by critics for not tasting blind. At the Symposium, Lisa Perotti-Brown said she tries to ensure her tastings at wineries are under controlled conditions, but she always tastes non-blind and with the winemaker. She asks a lot of questions as she tastes. One of her main goals is to get as much information as possible for her vintage reports.

In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.

As important as context is, the issue of reviewer bias always arises when discussing non-blind tasting. Can critics completely divorce themselves from prejudices of any sort? The mind is a sneaky thing. Objectivity can be easily, and stealthily, clouded. There’s a reason why doctors aren’t (officially) allowed to treat their family and why judges recuse themselves from cases.

Even if one can be totally objective, non-blind tasting creates doubt in the mind of consumers, wineries, etc. For example, going back to that Jameson Fink article one more time, Hedges assumed Wine Spectator didn’t taste blind and that Steiman’s reviews might somehow be biased against them. Neither was true, but the doubt and perception affected Hedges’ own behavior.

On the other hand, blind tasting tempts one to make guesses which may also be a distraction. Unless the tasting is not just blind but double-blind—when the reviewer has no idea whatsoever which wines are in the tasting—there’s a natural tendency to look for hallmarks of the known regions or producers in various bottles. That can lead to false assumptions that skew results more than non-blind tasting would have.

That’s why magazines’ office-based tastings are generally double-blind. They also have enough staff to be able to receive, catalog and pour bottles without involvement from the reviewers. Home-based reviewers can’t do that unless they have a part-time helper. [Reviewers may taste 50 wines per day, six days per week. Setting all that up is very time-consuming and even the most gracious spouse or friend won’t want to spend 20 hours a week doing that over the long term.]

Jon Bonné adds this on blind vs. non-blind, “One significant thing: When I looked at how Robert Parker and the Advocate was tasting, it was clear that they increasingly opted for non-blind tasting, often with the producers themselves. Context seemed to be more important. Over and over again, my conclusion was that non-blind tasting led to better criticism.” Bonné and Wine Advocate are famously at odds with each other. His praise for their methodology therefore speaks well of that system and Bonné’s own objectivity.

In reality, neither tasting method is perfect. What we see is that the method used depends on the practicality of tasting blind, the intended use of the evaluation and the intended audience.

If the critiques will be going into a large compendium of capsule reviews without much context, such as those found at the back of magazines, then blind tasting makes sense. It evens the playing field, creates the perception of fairness and most readers are simply looking for a list of solid wines from which to select a few bottles for purchase anyway.

The newsletters address a different type of buyer. These subscribers may be purchasing in case volumes or higher. They are looking at more expensive wines on average and have more concerns about aging potential, resale value, etc. Such readers are also more likely to be using their wines for formal tastings, perhaps verticals or horizontals. Then, the added context provided by a Galloni or Perotti-Brown educates and provides creates discussion points.

Wine evaluations for inclusion within a regional or producer profile are different still. This is the type of writing Ray Isle typically does for Food & Wine. In this case, readers are primarily interested in the story or learning about the overall topic. Notes on the wines are used almost adjectivally, adding color or supporting a broader point. Tasting non-blind does no harm and is often essential.

The good news is that, regardless of their tasting methodology, the vast majority of professional critics are just that—professional. They do very the best they can in every circumstance to be objective. Personal taste, be it for intense, mouth-filling wines or lithe, high-acid ones, plays a much larger role in the scores than does knowledge of producer, price point or region.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2014. Photo of blindfolded woman by Isarra. All rights reserved.