The Limitations of Blind Tasting

blind tastingIn the wine world, blind tasting is the principle methodology for judging wines. Ideally, wines should be tasted without knowing the producer and often without knowing the region or varietal. The purpose of blind tasting is to eliminate sources of bias that might shape our judgments. Students being trained by the main certification agencies must devote endless hours tasting wines blind and learning to identify via the flavors and textures the origin of the wine.

But while blind tasting has its value, and is certainly useful in sharpening one’s senses, it seems to me to harm aesthetic evaluation. In fact it makes aesthetic evaluation impossible.

In the aesthetic evaluation of any artifact, the success of a work depends on how the materials that make up the work are used.  Aesthetic judgment is a matter of recognizing the degree to which a work realizes the potential of its materials. Great works of art have a sense of completeness about them; poor works leave us with a sense of something missing and incomplete, a use of those materials that lacks expressiveness.

Wine evaluation is no different. A wine is good to the extent it realizes the potential of the grapes, available oak treatments and other processes that go into making the wine. Great winemaking unlocks the hidden potential of the grapes and vineyard and makes that potential available to us.

The problem with blind tasting is that if you don’t know the geographical origin and varietal of the grapes used to make the wine, you have no way of assessing the degree to which the wine realizes that potential. You have no way of identifying what that potential is. In fact, I would argue you need to know the aesthetic aim of the winemaker before assessing whether the wine accomplishes that aim or not.

Evaluations of wine based  wholly on blind tasting by necessity never reach the level of aesthetic evaluation because there is no way to assess the degree of compliance to an ideal without knowing what that ideal is.

Of course, in many contexts we can taste wines blind, and then once the origins of the wine are revealed go on and complete a genuine aesthetic evaluation. But in too many contexts, such as competitions, reviews by magazines, etc. the brunt of the evaluation is based on tasting the wines blind. And sommelier certification agencies devote most of their attention to an evaluative practice that leaves aesthetics out of the picture.

Aren’t we therefore creating a wine culture incapable of aesthetic judgment?

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