The other night, one of my accounts spontaneously invited me to a blind tasting party at her house. It was a flattering gesture. I guess once people start inviting you to parties you really are part of the “industry.” Honor aside, I always jump at the chance to blind taste some wine. There’s a certain thrill in being able to determine more or less what’s in your glass based on nothing more than the sight, smell and taste of what’s been poured, especially if there are other people in the room and you’re determining it better than them.
Of course, like any test of wits, you can hedge the bets in your favor if your clever.
This particular party was set up according to “brown bag” rules: we all showed up with a bottle, immediately stuck it in a numbered paper bag, and set it on a table with all the other anonymized bottles. A trusted party member quickly tasted the wines, arranged them in a rough tasting order from lightest to boldest, and then one by one the bottles were brought out, poured into everyone’s glass, and a free-for-all of oenological speculation commenced. Once the cacophony settled down into something resembling consensus, the bottle was unsheathed and we all groaned in disbelief at how absolutely obvious the right answer was now that we knew what it was. This process was repeated 25 times.
25 anonymous bottles, and much of it exceptional and well aged. I’d like to say my palate leveled up a few times as a result of the party, but mostly I just had a great time.
Leveled up or not, I am very pleased with how (relatively) well I fared in the deductive process. While I guessed incorrectly almost every time, I did manage to nail 3 of the 25 wines, and I consider that a substantial victory. The first was a rosé , which I (somehow) immediately identified as coming from the Provence region of France. Then there was a red that I determined was a Super Tuscan from Italy, and finally a Columbia Valley Cabernet that I alone correctly identified as coming from Washington.
Now, I’d like to say that the sheer breadth of my palate and the magnificence of my wine knowledge lead me to those correct assessments, but that would be egotistical and for the most part untrue. My palate has certainly gotten better over the years (considerably better in the last few months), but it’s still nowhere near as fine tuned as a Master Sommelier’s. It’s certainly not good enough to reliably survive a no-holds-barred blind tasting. My knowledge still needs development too, and while a good deal more fussed over than the “average” wine drinker, it still has a long way to go before I can confidently assess a wine and put all the pieces of the puzzle together.
What I do have, though, is a degree of intuition, something that’s very important in wine and very easy over-think as you start to build up a real bank of wine knowledge.
In the case of the rosé : there were a few things that clued me in to it’s origin. The color was light, and more of a salmon-copper tone rather than a purplish pink, which suggested to me that it probably wasn’t a domestic rosé and was probably a Grenache heavy blend, which is consistent with France. The flavor was not overly fruity, but rather more on the lean and acidic side, with nice tangy berries instead of big, fat, juicy ones. Also (and this is the real secret to narrowing things down in a blind tasting) I could see through the bag that the bottle was unusually shaped, again reaffirming that it was probably not domestic. Guessing “French rosé” at that point was a pretty safe bet, but then I figured: heck, if someone brought a rose to a tasting, chances are it would be from Provence, since that’s where most of the French rosés you find in American stores tend to come from. Turns out, I was right.
So while wine knowledge and trained senses certainly got me on the right track, it was a bit of guts and good old fashioned deduction that edged me over the line into the realm of “precision.”
With the Super Tuscan, I must admit: I think someone else had thrown that term out before I’d thought of it. Once it was in the air, though, the wine clicked into place for me. It certainly had an Italian air about it: red berries, cherry, nice acidity. But the body was full, and the wine dark, and the flavors verging somewhat towards less traditional black berry, currant, and a subtle but unmistakable note of French oak. It suggested the presence of Cabernet and Merlot, hallmarks of a nontraditional Tuscan blend. My instincts lit up. That’s what it was, or at least, that’s what I’d decided it was, and in this case I was correct. Again though, in a vacuum, without a room full of people throwing out a bunch of wine regions, I might not have gotten it, and even having guessed it this time, there were 21 other attempts that night where I landed on a similar degree of “certainty” and ended up being completely wrong.
In the case of the Cab: that was just pure instinct. I knew it was Cabernet, but in spite of everyone else universally declaring it Californian, some part of me was sure that it was from Washington. And that’s all it was really: an inkling of a notion, a subtle tickling of memory, an unverifiable sense of familiarity. I trusted those instincts, stood my ground, and came away with the satisfaction of having been right.
The greatest thrill of the night came with the first red, though. The entire room was convinced it was a Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, and I was among them. I mean, it was an absolute no brainer. Pinot all the way. The bottle was revealed, and it turned out to be my own contribution: a 2013 Faury Syrah from Northern Rhone. I had picked the bottle specifically because it is an extremely light expression of Syrah (and a beautiful one at that) and I knew it would completely fool everyone who tasted it. And I was right, it fooled every single person in the room. Including myself.
I’m still new to this industry, and that night the room was packed with veterans who have considerably more knowledge (and certainly experience) than I do. So it was a great feeling to be able to meld in among the Old Guard, keep my head up right along with them, and blind taste wine with the best of them. By the end of the night, one of the most venerable guests (who had correctly assessed more wine than anyone else) told me as he left that I was “all right, kid.” It was a fantastic thrill to have earned his respect, and to have never required it in the first place.