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What's My Wine? | Blind Tastings

How hard is it to identify a wine if you can't see the label? Lettie Teague and her husband try to make it very hard indeed as they strive to stump one another with nightly blind tastings.

Generalizing about the ways men and women are different is always a dangerous thing to do. (The president of Harvard University, for example, got into a lot of trouble for speculating on why men are more successful in science than women.) And while my husband and I don't spend much time discussing string theory, we do test one other regularly in a Guess That Wine game. As a result, I've learned as much about how we approach game playing as I have about blind-tasting wine.

Our rules are pretty straightforward: One of us will pull a bottle from the cellar and the other has to guess what it is—including, if possible, producer and vintage. We play the game before dinner almost every night that we're home. I know several people in the wine business who do much the same thing, though some on a more impressive scale. One prominent wine educator, for example, claims she and her husband go through "a case of wine a night" in their guessing game (presumably tasting, not drinking). And while I admire their stamina, I think that by the 10th bottle or so, I'd care a lot more about eating dinner than I would about whether the Pinot Noir I was tasting came from Martinborough, Marlborough or, for that matter, Morey-St-Denis. Besides, I can't imagine piling up 84 empty bottles a week and explaining to the garbage men they were all the result of "a game that my husband and I play."

The British and Australians have a version of this game called Options. The first question, for example, might be "Bordeaux, Burgundy or Rhône?" and from the next few that follow, the guesser might deduce that the wine was a 1986 Château Kirwan from the Margaux commune of Bordeaux. Of course, this is an impractical variation if, like the wine educator, you're tasting a case of wine every night. Who has the time to ask some 60 questions, let alone the patience to listen to the replies? This version also strikes me as somewhat arcane, dating back to the 1970s when there weren't as many important wines or wine regions to know. Today, of course, there are tens of thousands and I think more than five questions would be required to come up with a 2001 Tenute Rubino Salento Torre Testa from the Italian region of Apulia.

I like our game the way it is, even if it can be, at times, a little cutthroat (on the part of my husband, not me). Suffice it to say my husband's method is different from mine. While I tend to choose wines that I actually want to drink, ones that I think will be interesting and good, my husband is motivated by just one thing: the desire to win. He'll choose wines not because he hopes they'll be good or educational or even harmonize with the meal, but because they're so weird they're sure to stump me.

"That's what makes the game fun," my husband will say when once more I've guessed wrong about some wine I didn't even know we had—like a Rkatsiteli from New York's Finger Lakes region. (A spicy Gewürztraminer-like grape native to Russia, Rkatsiteli is produced by only a couple of wineries in New York.) Each time my husband makes me blind-taste a wine like this, I vow to do the same to him. But when it's my turn to produce some off-vintage, impossible-to-place South African Pinotage, I can't bring myself to do it. That sort of victory just seems too cheap.

"What you call bad wine, I consider interesting wine," my husband counters whenever I complain about the quality of his choices, particularly after I give him yet another good wine to try, like the $100 California Cabernet Sauvignon I opened one night. "This is really delicious," he said. "I'd guess it's pretty young; a 2001." He correctly declared it to be Cabernet. Although, he added, "it could also be a Cabernet blend because it's so complete." He tasted it twice more before deciding it was Australian because "the flavors are so ripe" and because it had such a pronounced bouquet. "The ripeness says California but most California Cabernets don't have a bouquet," he declared.

Although I agreed with his point about the aromatics, or lack thereof, in the case of young California Cabs, this wine was six years old. I showed him the bottle: 1999 Spottswoode Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. "At least you got the Cabernet part right," I said. My husband shook off my attempt at consolation and stalked down to the cellar—clearly a man in search of revenge.

A few minutes later, he returned with another wine and poured me a glass. "Try this," he said. It too was red. In fact, most of the wines we blind-taste are red. That is because we have a lot more red wine in our cellar than white and also because white wines can be easier to identify than red. (Unless, of course, they're obscure white grapes from Russia grown in New York.)

I examined the wine. "It looks pretty old," I ventured. The color was a pale orangish-red. "I think it's at least seven or eight or maybe even 10 years old." My husband nodded. I gave it a good whiff and found an unpleasantly bitter aroma. The taste was even worse: The tannins were green and hard and whatever fruit it once possessed was long gone. "I don't like it," I said—a phrase I uttered frequently when my husband was choosing the wine. "It's so unpleasant, it's hard to tell where it's from," I added, a touch defensively, before declaring myself stumped.

My husband tasted the wine and even he seemed to shudder a bit. "It is pretty bad," he conceded, and admitted that when a wine is unpleasant, it can be hard to figure out where it came from. All the characteristics that point to one place or another or to a particular grape can be obliterated by off aromas or bad flavors. (The wine, by the way, turned out to be a 1994 California Syrah from Santa Barbara.) "Weird things happen with old California wine," my husband observed. "And they're hardly anything good."

He was right about that, at least when it came to our old California wines. For instance, one week my husband opened a string of Matanzas Creek Winery Merlots, all in their mid-teens; each wine had aged less attractively than the one before. And yet my husband insisted he didn't find pleasure in stumping me with all these bad wines. "I really thought this would be good," he said, holding up his glass of Syrah.

A few days later he presented me with another red, though this one was deeply colored, with a lovely bouquet. Was he contrite over that California Syrah or had he done this accidentally—was this something odd that was actually delicious? "This wine has a very pretty aroma of red berries and spice," I said. In the mouth there were lots of lush, ripe, sweet fruit and soft tannins. "I think it's a young California Merlot or Merlot and Cabernet blend, maybe from the 2001 vintage," I ventured. "Is that a guess?" my husband asked; he liked to maintain a certain formality in the guessing procedure.

If so, then I was right about the grape and the year but not the origin. "Pay attention to the bouquet," my husband instructed. "Think outside the box." (Since when had he started using marketing jargon?) "Well, then I'd guess it's from Bordeaux but from a new-world sort of producer because of all the rich, forward fruit. And I'd guess the appellation was Saint-Émilion because the wine is so soft and round," I replied. Unlike my husband, who advanced cautiously from one fact to the next, I liked to guess everything at once. In fact, the wine was a Saint-Émilion, the 2001 Château Magdelaine, a premier grand cru, and a blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. At $85 a bottle, it cost more than the wines my husband usually chose. Had he, I wondered, changed the tactics of his game?

But the next few rounds made it clear that the Magdelaine had been an anomaly. My husband's subsequent selections were the usual oddballs: California Malbecs and Chilean Carmenère blends. (Where in our cellar did all these wines come from anyway?)

Sometimes the wines we both selected were so anonymous, so "internationally" styled, it was hard to guess their origin at all. (My geographic default for these wines was Tuscany, as that region seems to produce many such wines. And I turned out to be right more often about this than I was wrong.) Sometimes the wines were overlaid with so much new oak, their varietal character was effectively smothered. One highly oaked Italian Barbera (2001 Pio Cesare "Fides") tasted and smelled just like a minty Napa Cabernet.

In fact, it was after tasting several weeks' worth of such wines, with each of us stumped an equal number of times, that I decided we should stage some sort of tie-breaking tasting. (I wondered what the wine educator did when she and her husband reached an impasse. Did they just keep opening cases till their garbage man complained?) We decided to take our rivalry public at Montrachet restaurant in New York City, where wine director Daniel Johnnes has his own guessing game called What's My Wine.

In the Montrachet version of the game, customers are invited to choose a wine by price range and color; then the sommelier will select something that they have to taste blind. Players are handed ballots with six categories to fill out: the wine's country of origin, region, appellation, major varietal, vintage and producer. The more correct answers, the greater the discount. Anyone who gets all six is given the wine for free—something Daniel said has only happened once. In fact, only a handful of customers have gotten even five right.

I asked Daniel to pour us a white wine, since we'd been tasting so much red. In my excitement, I forgot to give him a price range. "How did you forget to give him a price range?" my husband asked nervously. (The Montrachet list includes several four-figure wines.) "I thought it would be a good motivation for us to answer all six correctly," I said.

Daniel was gone for what seemed like a very long time, but he eventually returned bearing a decanter of a golden-hued wine. "This is going to be very hard," his deputy sommelier Troy Kinser whispered fearfully after Daniel had poured us glasses and left. "Do you want me to give you a hint?" We declined his offer, explaining the seriousness of our purpose. Troy shook his head in pity and walked away.

Daniel had looked a little smug as he'd poured the wine into our glasses. "If either one of you gets this, I'll really be impressed," he'd said. My husband and I exchanged challenging looks—the sort I imagine must have passed between Joe Frazier and his nemesis Muhammad Ali. We started tasting. We tasted over and over again, carefully concealing our ballots from one other. Daniel came back several times to see if we were finished.

Finally we handed Daniel our ballots, which he carried off to the bar to read. He was back within seconds. "Did you two collaborate?" We shook our heads. What an idea! This was, after all, the ultimate test, the tie-breaker of our guessing game. "Well," Daniel said, "you both have almost the same answers. You both said France; the Loire; Savennières as the appellation; and Chenin Blanc as the grape. But only Lettie got the vintage, 1996, right, which means she answered five out of six questions correctly!" And he gave me a high-five. My husband looked on, astonished. "What about me? I got four!" he protested. (The answer to the sixth question, the producer, was Nicolas Joly; the wine was Coulée de Serrant, the most famous of the entire appellation. I'd considered putting it down but decided it was simply too obvious.)

Meanwhile, Daniel was still exclaiming over our correct answers. How had we identified such an obscure wine? he wanted to know. I couldn't say. Perhaps it was because the wine was so unique, of such a particular place (however obscure), and had such a strong personality, especially compared to all those "international" wines. Maybe all those oddball wines we'd tasted at home had finally paid off. Or maybe we'd finally perfected our guessing game and reached such a pinnacle of performance that we should finally stop.

I looked at my husband, who was still examining his ballot in disbelief and I realized that, like Frazier, he'd soon be demanding we stage a rematch.

Published June 2005
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