After all these years in wine country I was finally invited to a blind wine tasting.
It was a simple exercise, I was in a group and five different glasses of pinot noir were put in front of us. We had to determine where each glass was from, not whether or not we liked the wine. That’s when the fun began because none of us liked any of the wine. In fact, it was awful. All of us were spitting like crazy and all of us admitted we were not spitters.
As the wine expert and group leader tried to facilitate the discussion he asked what special flavors and senses we tasted. One of my colleagues said he detected a hint of a burnt buttered popcorn jelly belly. There was a murmur of agreement because we all know how that one jelly belly can ruin the entire batch that’s popped in the mouth. Another of the tasting group thought he felt the gestalt of World War II in one of the wines. The sentiment was not based on strolling through the French countryside.
We weren’t quite done. Another taster talked about those big bins of just picked grapes that we see spilled on the side of the road this time of year as catching the romance of one of the wines. Yet another said the wine conjured up images of making out in front of the Chi Omega house in the front seat of a Camaro. We weren’t sure if that was good or bad.
When the results were given, none of us guessed correctly on the source of the pinot, not even the right continent. Turns out, the wine we tasted was reasonably expensive and well known but the price and brand had no bearing on whether or not we liked it better.
It didn’t take long to find some wine that we did like and that’s when the questions and discussion really started. The big questions were related: Are we such a bunch of goofs that we can’t tell a cabernet from a Chevrolet? And, related to that, are there really people who can identify the square mile in France that a wine comes from without so much as a hint? We agreed the answer was probably that everyone’s palate knows what it likes and that some have a palate that is beyond belief. With resolve, we promised to bridge the gap and reconvene sometime later when our palates grew larger.
Like most of us, I stand in awe when someone can identify graphite, wet stone or white truffle in a glass of wine. Then there is forest floor, quince, hawthorn and cigar box that others can find. That can’t be a big number of people who can taste all of those nuances. I think my palate stopped developing just a little beyond, “tastes good to me.”
Someone recently asked me, “How does one start to build a proper wine cellar?” My response was, collect what you like and learn from others. The “others” are those that really can taste white fleshy peach as well as those who know what they like and what they don’t.
Living in wine country is the perfect Petri dish for tasting and going to a blind tasting might be the ultimate litmus test of what one likes. A blind tasting is a test unencumbered by the price or the label which is still, I think, the criteria on which most people buy wine. My favorite local events are ones where real wine guys bring bottles along with no label, or at best, a yellow sticky on the side and a date scribbled on the cork. Wine making is truly an art. Wine tasting is a way to exercise your palate and your imagination. It’s good to be around artists and imaginative people.
Rich Moran owns a winery and writes for wine country newspapers.