Sunday, February 12, 2012

The tasting game

The blind tasting is the classic test of an oenophile's expertise. The drinker swirls the wine in his glass, sniffs it intently, takes a swig and gargles it, gulps it down or spits it into a bucket, ponders, and then writes a few notes and perhaps a number on a pad. When the drinker describes his conclusions, the truth about both his taste and the beverage is revealed.

But what if it's all a fraud? Less dramatically, what if the components of sensory perception are so numerous and intimately related that the blind tasting is a pointless exercise for all but the most expert, or for those in the business who have to make decisions about what to put on their shelves or their wine lists? 

MFWC has stuck his tongue into the blind tasting waters twice in the last month thanks to invitations from a former co-worker - call him the Scholar of Private Equity (SPE), a generous, genial man whose great passion is wine. He collects it, reads about it, structures many of his vacations around it, and bases much of his social life around it. Had Nicholson Baker seen SPE's apartment, Baker might have written "Wine Bottles as Furniture" instead of, or in addition to, his 1995 New Yorker piece "Books as Furniture." SPE fell in love with wine as a college student at Berkeley in the 1970s, when college students could still conceive of shopping at Kermit Lynch's shop in that academic Shangri-La, and has continued to deepen his knowledge. Tasting groups are one way SPE continues to learn about wine. When he moved to New York from San Francisco in the mid-1990s, he immediately set about joining one, and it was a descendant of this group that MFWC joined for two recent monthly tastings, one of 2006 Brunellos, the other of 2009 red burgundies.

SPE's group is impressively sociable. The ten or so guests talk and munch on bread and the occasional nibble of cured meat or cheese as they sniff and taste. SPE noted that the group once displayed a much more puritanical discipline, though the focus remains firmly on the eight wines featured at each tasting. The bottles are opened a few hours before the event to breathe, and tasters record the appearance, aroma, taste and finish of each 55ml sample before ranking the wines in order of preference from one to eight. The scores are tallied and the wines taken out of their paper bags in reverse order from worst (highest cumulative score) to best.     

MFWC had some confidence in his ability to distinguish among the wines, though that confidence dissipated as he moved from wine to wine and discovered that his initial impressions changed. That's a fundamental sign of a good wine, of course, but it's disconcerting when you're confronted with eight of them that must be evaluated in relation to one another. And since on both nights the wines were from the same location and vintage, they naturally showed only modest variation. MFWC begged off ranking the Brunellos, which even the veterans said were a hopeless muddle, but took up the challenge with the Burgundies, where his rankings bore a reasonably close resemblance to the cumulative group rankings - a product of dumb luck, MFWC would hasten to add.

The best of burgs to the palate of both MFWC and the group as a whole was a $55 wine from the producer Simon Bize in Savigny-les-Beaune, a small town in Burgundy's Cote d'Or. MFWC liked it, but he wouldn't have paid $55 for it or, honestly, suspected it sold for $55 had he not been told. It's possible, though, that MWFC would have enjoyed the wine a lot more had it been the only wine on the table and he been able to focus on it over the course of a meal.         

Critics of blind tastings say they deprive drinkers of that prolonged exposure and lead them to favor wines with bold flavors and higher alcohol levels. Despite my ambivalence about the value of blind tastings, I wouldn't agree. They expose even neophytes to the subtle differences among wines and the varying ways that different people respond to them. Counterintuitively, they may force drinkers to recognize the limits of their palates and thus push them away from more expensive wines. And they inspire serious thought about wine - including the thought that such musing has its own limits.     

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