Eyes Wide Shut – The Skill of Blind Wine Tasting

This story originally appeared in the Napa Valley Register.

Tasting wine uses all our senses. We use our eyes, our nose and our palates. But most of the time, we see the bottle first and conjure up pre-conceived notions of what we will find in the glass.

Too often, we make assumptions about a wine based on everything we have ever tasted, and before we even taste a wine, we jump to conclusions. If it is a sauvignon blanc, we might expect notes of green grass and citrus; if it is a pinot noir, we might expect cranberries, cherries, mushrooms and earth; if it is a cabernet sauvignon, we might expect aromas of dark black fruits, tobacco, chocolate and brown spices.

But what happens if we do not know what is in the glass? What if we just see a white wine or a red wine? Can we make an educated guess as to what is in the glass based on how it looks, smells and tastes?

At Pebble Beach Food and Wine last month, four Master Sommeliers stood in front of a room full of wine enthusiasts as we all tried to guess the eight wines we had in front of us. Master Sommelier Shayn Bjornholm explained that this was not a magic parlor trick, but rather a way to help us be better tasters.

Tasting blind takes away the subjectivity in wine. Master Sommelier Gillian Balance explained that blind wine tasting “allows us to assess the quality to accurately describe a wine. If you understand how to deduce what you are tasting, you can be a better taster, a better sommelier and can better pair wine with food.”

Even if we are not sommeliers, tasting blind is a great exercise. It encourages us to remove any prejudices or pretenses. It forces us to use as many senses as possible. As Master Sommelier David Keck described, it is “like being an investigative reporter. We try to use deductive reasoning and try not to draw conclusions first.”

If you have ever taken a class on wine, you have been taught the following steps on how to properly taste wine:

1) Look – We look at the wine. What color is it? Is it a light color or a deep color? If it is a light straw color, perhaps it is a young white wine but if it is a darker golden color, perhaps it is an older white wine. If it is a red wine, is it getting lighter or have brown around the edges? If so, perhaps it is an older red wine.

2) Smell – What do you smell? Fruit, earth, spice, funk? All of these things tie into what type of grape it is but also where the wine is from.

3) Taste – Does the wine taste the same as it smelled or is it different? Is it sweet, dry, spicy or fruity? What about the structure, the acid, the alcohol, the mouthfeel?

With this explanation, the four sommeliers were then put to the test. Along with the audience of wine enthusiasts, they too were tasting the wines blind.

The first wine was a straw yellow color, clear and bright with bubbles, from which we deduced that it was a sparkling wine. The wine had aromas of citrus and apple and there was just a hint of yeastiness. Gillian Balance guessed it was a high quality domestic sparkling wine, as did David Keck. But Master Sommelier Jim Rollston declared it was a blanc de blanc Champagne because of the high acidity and chalkiness. And, he was correct as it was the Delamotte Blanc de Blanc NV Champagne ($45).

The second wine, a clear pale yellow color with a bright herbaceous nose of pineapple, tart green apple and high acidity, salinity and a long finish, had the sommeliers debating between an albariño from Spain and a sauvignon blanc from California, which it was. Whereas the third wine, a straw yellow color with a subtle nose of chalk, oyster shell and minerality, led them to guess a Chablis. It was the 2015 Domaine Laroche Chablis ($23).

The pale ruby color, youthful notes of bright, fresh red fruit, such as cherry, pomegranate, wild strawberry and cranberry and a velvety finish of one of the red wines was unanimously agreed upon that it was a pinot noir. But, the debate was then over where the pinot noir was from. The sommeliers all agreed it was from Northern California but did not agree where exactly. While they debated Sonoma Coast and Russian River, I personally felt that red fruit notes and high acidity made the wine come from a cooler, foggier region. And, I was correct! It was the 2014 Gallo Signature Series Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($29).

Blind tasting wine is an excellent exercise. Not only does it remove the pretension of wine, but it challenges you. It is OK to guess an incorrect answer. The point is to focus on what you are tasting and to understand how you come to the conclusion you have made. Tasting wine blind will humble you but hopefully it will help you become a more open-minded and better taster. After all, there is a world of wine to discover and so much to taste. We should be open to it all as we never know what we will learn if we remove preconceptions.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.