Should Wine Critics Always Taste Blind?

This is a subject of endless debate in the wine world. The argument for tasting blind is that wine tasters are influenced by the price of the wine, the reputation of the label, previous experience with the wine, their relationship with the producer, or the pleasant atmosphere of the winery if the tasting is onsite. So if tasters don’t have any information about the wine, or the information they have is generic and limited to type of wine or region, they can give consumers more objective information without the distorting influences.

And there is a good deal of evidence that wine drinkers are influenced by price and reputation although this is more true of non-experts than of experts. Here is a Freakonomics podcast discussing some research on this.

Two highly regarded wine critics—Antonio Gallioni and Allen Meadows—address this issue in a fascinating series of interviews hosted by Steve Heimoff, wine critic for the Wine Enthusiast.(Here is Meadows, Parts 1 and 2. Here is Gallioni, Parts 1, 2, and 3.) Allen Meadows, whose expertise in pinot noir can be found in his highly regarded Burghound newsletter, and Antonio Gallioni, the recently installed California specialist for the influential Wine Advocate, both taste blind only occasionally and both have interesting things to say about the limitations of blind tasting. Meadows argues:

…if part of what my clients are paying for is the benefit of my perspective and my, in many cases, intimate knowledge of ageability and style of a given domaine or winery with that particular terroir, to taste blind is to deprive the readership of that perspective. Now, am I influenced by the label? Perhaps. It’s impossible to know for sure. I try and step back and judge that vintage against what I have tasted before.

Meadows is right that when tasting blind the accumulated knowledge and taste memories from years of experience is short-circuited. It makes no sense to isolate an evaluation from one’s prior judgments if the point of evaluating a wine is to see it in light of those prior judgments. Some of the virtues of a wine cannot be tasted without bringing to the wine a conceptual framework that allows the flavor components to be put in a context. Not all pre-judgments we bring to a wine are inherently misleading.

Some of the empirical data linked to above suggests that wine drinkers will evaluate more favorably wines that are expensive or highly-regarded. But Gallioni doubts that his scores are influenced by these factors.

I would say, When you go to an estate like Harlan, it’s like eating at a three-star restaurant. Your expectation is extremely high. And people have a view that tasting a wine unblind, that there is a bias that is favorable. Nobody ever thinks, Could there be a bias that’s negative? Because your expectation at a top domaine is of outstanding quality, and therefore the margin for error is humungous.

This is a point that does not receive enough attention. When we have very high expectations, we are more likely to be disappointed, diminishing our assessment of a wine rather than inflating its score.

Although it is clear that wine evaluation is a highly subjective matter, I doubt that the most experienced critics are subject to the same biases as a non-expert. Gallioni, Meadows, and Heimoff taste thousands of wines every year. Among them are the most prestigious, priciest wines on the market. Why would the price or reputation of a particular wine impress them, when they routinely taste wines of such distinction? A non-expert who shells out $200+ for a highly-regarded wine has every incentive to want to view it favorably—to justify the expense, to flatter her palate, or enjoy the status that comes from the association with luxury. Gallioni, Meadows, and Heimoff have no such incentives.

Of course, even established experts can be influenced by personal relationships, financial incentives, and the peculiarities of their personal preferences. Financial incentives to give high scores must be minimized—they are inherently distorting. But the (well-informed) personal preferences of wine critics are precisely what their readers are interested in. There is no need to try to eliminate that sort of subjectivity from wine criticism.

The more difficult issue is the personal relationships that experienced critics develop with wine producers. If you have a long-standing friendship with a winemaker, can you objectively evaluate his/her product? I doubt it.

However, I think we need to be careful about making a fetish of objectivity. The relationships that critics have with producers also enable them to acquire information and perspective that would otherwise be unavailable. It is helpful to view a wine through the “eyes” of the people who make it. And that perspective can only be gained if critics develop relationships with producers. Judgments made on the basis of that information may not be objective, but objectivity isn’t the point. We all view the world from a highly personal perspective, and it is that perspective with all its biases intact that writers express and readers enjoy.

There are many areas of life where objectivity is out of place. Love when encumbered by the demand for impartiality will surely dwindle. Those who demand too much objectivity with their wine may well find Love’s Labour’s Lost.

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