Blind tasting, in which the person tasting the wine is prevented from knowing the producer and/or price and in some cases the variety and region, is thought to be the gold-standard of wine criticism because it preserves objectivity. But some features of a wine cannot be evaluated without knowing variety and producer. You can’t evaluate whether a wine is typical of its variety or consistent with a producer’s style without knowing these facts.
Fred Swan at Norcal Wine produced a terrific summary of the pros and cons of tasting blind. Some critics taste blind and other’s don’t
In a note to Jameson Fink, Harvey Steiman, who reviews the wines of Australia, Oregon and Washington for Wine Spectator, said, “At Wine Spectator every review in New Releases is the result of a blind tasting. We believe that blind tasting insulates our judgments from any bias that might result from knowing producer or price. It’s the fairest and most objective way to allow every wine to show its true character”
Steiman is worried that a critic with an agenda or theory about what wines are best is likely to be biased if tasting non-blind.
But other critics are concerned that blind-tasting excludes important information that users of the criticism want to know:
In a past interview, Antonio Galloni told me, “I generally prefer not to taste blind because the questions readers ask of me require some context.” Reader questions he fields include comparisons of different vintages of a particular wine, wines made by different producers from the same vineyard, differences between vineyard blocks, etc. Therefore, he likes to taste three successive vintages of each wine: the one being reviewed, the preceding vintage and a barrel sample of that upcoming. He, and other reviewers at wineries, will also taste a variety of vineyard designates side-by-side.
I have found blind tasting to be important in training one’s skill as a wine taster. It forces you to really concentrate on what you’re tasting because you are grasping for any scrap of information your senses give you. But I have also found that when tasting blind, I devote so much attention to trying to guess region and varietal that I focus less on quality, which is not a good thing for criticism.
In the end, whether blind tasting is useful or not depends on the purpose of the review. As Swan notes, consumers looking for a good buy benefit if the critic is blind. On the other hand, high-end collectors looking for age-ability and the track-record of a wine need reviews that are non-blind, as do consumers who want to know the story behind a wine.
As for me, on this blog I taste non-blind. That is in part for logistical reasons. It’s a huge challenge for one person to set up blind tastings, not to mention the cost involved in opening 5 or 6 bottles simultaneously.
But more importantly, Edible Arts considers wines as works of art. And I’ve never heard of a film, art, or music critic who evaluates works without knowing as much as they can about the object of their review. All art evaluation requires judgments about how a work compares to others in its genre, how successful it is as a manifestation of its style, what it says about trends, and most importantly what the work means and how the aesthetic features of the work contribute to its meaning. None of these judgments can be made without knowing who produced the work and what the appropriate categories are for understanding it. Knowing what the work is attempting to achieve is essential for judging whether it achieves it aim or not.
The same holds for wine. Without knowing the varietal, the region, and the producer it is hard to know what the wine is aiming for and what the flavors and textures mean. The winemaker’s vision will in part be a product of where the grapes are grown, the style in which she chooses to make the wine, etc. Whether the wine is successful or not depends on knowing those facts.
Furthermore, unlike most critics, I do not taste many wines in one day. I focus on one wine and how it evolves over the course of an evening and how it drinks the next day as well, and always in a quiet place with no distractions. I want to see the wine from as many dimensions as possible. It is not at all clear to me how this tasting regime mitigates worries about objectivity. It seems to me the more you taste a wine, the better your chances of uncovering mistaken impressions one gets from an initial tasting.
But at any rate, for my purposes, this multi-dimensionality is more important than objectivity. And that requires non-blind tasting.
I’m with you on this one: it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that some (but not all) of the things we are trying to achieve (and should be trying to achieve) in tasting are better served by tasting sighted than by tasting blind. Eg, there are some interesting features of wines that, because they are less easily detected by creatures with our kind of sensory endowment, tend to get lost among the sensory jumble unless we direct attention on them — which we can’t do when we taste blind and so lack the knowledge about where we should be directing attention.
However, just wanted to mention that there are plenty of film/art/music critics who have tried to do their evaluation in a way that prescinds from the background features of the object, its cultural context of its genesis, etc. Indeed, I take it that that’s exactly what so-called New Criticism was about. (And I think it is crazy for exactly the reasons that uniform insistence on blind tasting of wine is crazy.)
Also, if you’ll permit me a shameless plug, I had a sort of recent essay on just this topic that appeared as “On the limitations of blind tasting,” World of Fine Wine 41: 74-81, September 2013. End shameless plug. Now I feel so ashamed….
No shame necessary. I’m glad to hear the paper was published.
I agree that formalist criticism ignores social and psychological context and focuses on the work itself. But even formalists make reference to genre–which arguably is part of the work’s formal properties. And they had trouble maintaining a rigorous adherence to formal properties only since they often spoke of how the form of the work influences meaning. My comment was intended to point to the fact that even formalist critics know who the artist is and where he/she fits in the spectrum of other similar artists, despite abstracting from artistic intent.
I’m in a tasting group that blind tastes through a different grape each month. So, while we know the grape, we try to determine the region and the age, etc. There are nine of us and we each bring a bottle from a different region to keep costs reasonable. It is interesting to identify not only the differences between old world/new world regions, but also to see side by side the similarity of the grape across regions. It has been a great learning experience for me. And Nebbiolo night was heaven!