Blind Drunk

Hints for hosting a blind tasting event

On a recent trip to New York, a group of wine collectors and some of the most knowledgeable sommeliers in America held a blind tasting event. No, we didn't wear blindfolds or even close our eyes -- we just experienced the wine without knowing beforehand what it was.

Master sommeliers and masters of wine make a game of this. And why not? First, it's just plain fun. It's a good theme for a party (I'll explain how to do it later) and snobby "wine experts" can be brought to their knees quickly. Second, you won't be influenced by reputation, label, or price -- the only true way to judge a wine. Third, it should help you develop your enjoyment of all the elements of wine, because you have to really focus on what you're drinking.

That said, it still isn't easy.

I taste about 2,000 wines a year and I only get three or four of them "totally right." That is, grape variety, vintage, and maker. So don't expect instant success.

So how do you taste "blind"? First, someone has to know what the wines are. That person, the facilitator, puts them in paper bags or aluminum foil to cover the label. Next, pour the wines into the same type of wine glass. If you use a Pinot Noir glass for Pinot Noir, that's a big tip off. Now, it's time to evaluate.

You have three senses to go on, plus intuition. The color of the wine (visual) is your first clue. White wines color will vary from white to yellow. The color will give you a hint as to grape and age. Remember, all white wine gets darker with age. Riper fruit is usually darker than less ripe fruit. (Northern climates have ripening challenges that southern climates don't.) With practice you'll be able to identify a new world Chardonnay (Australia, United States, South Africa, etc.) almost by sight. The same is true for reds. A dark red wine might be Cabernet, Syrah, or Zinfandel. The masters of this art ask themselves at each step what it can't be. For example, dark red wine probably isn't old world Pinot Noir.

The second sense for evaluation is smell. If you do this at home or at a party, ask the participants to leave the perfume and cologne at home. So what do you smell? It's simplistic, but white wines usually smell like white fruit: apples, pears, peaches, melon, pineapple, and so on. They also often smell like white flowers or honey, sometimes nuts, even petroleum or diesel. Red wines smell like -- you guessed it -- red fruit. Sometimes they smell like leather, dirt, cigars, cedar, or even road tar.

If you want to improve your recognition of these smells, both white and red, then go to the produce section of your grocery or better yet, to the farmer's market and wander around sniffing the produce. Really.

So you've eliminated what wines aren't in your glass based on sight and smell. It's time to taste it. Naturally, there's a right and wrong way to go about this. The wrong way is to gulp it, or taste it with strong flavors in your mouth. The right way is to sip it, draw air over it (this enhances the flavors), and then swallow it. Now comes the fun part.

There are at least three parts to the taste: the initial impression (the attack), the middle palate, and the finish. The attack will tell you about the sweetness of the fruit, the middle palate about the complexity and acidity, and the finish about the structure and tannins in the wine.

Is it expensive to blind taste? It can be, but in my monthly tasting groups we usually taste 30 wines by category (California Chardonnay, for example) and most are under $15 a bottle.

Here are some tips:

Use a white background to look at the wine -- it shows the wine's color better.

Conduct the tasting in a well-lit room.

Start with the wine varieties you're most familiar with.

Swirl the wine in the glass -- it makes the smell of the wine come into your nose better.

Really stick your nose down into the wine glass -- don't be shy.

Swish the wine in your mouth to get a lasting impression and to touch all taste buds on your tongue.

Don't taste around food -- the smells will mix.

And most importantly, don't bet any money on your guess.

Above all, don't get discouraged. I have seen the greatest wine experts in the world stumped. One must be intimately familiar with the wine to name it correctly. For a real challenge, use a covered glass so you don't know the wine's color, then guess. A wine buddy once told me that 60 percent of wine students at the University of California-Davis couldn't tell red from white blind. Sixty percent! Can you beat that?

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