It was supposed to be a fun meal with a couple of friends at a trattoria in the hills of Alba, Italy. But the waiter also turned out to be the owner, and when he heard us arguing about different styles of local Piedmontese reds, he surmised, correctly, that we were “in the business”—the wine business. Instead of bringing us what we’d asked for—in fact, before we’d even had a chance to ask for anything—he presented us with two carafes of red wine and challenged us to tell him which was the local rosso and which was from Tuscany. Suddenly, he’d turned our friendly meal into a blind-tasting Game of Thrones, with everyone at the table vying to be king.
For the uninitiated, blind tasting means identifying a mystery wine without looking at the label—grape, region, producer and even vintage. The pourer either decants the wine in advance or hides the bottle in a bag, and the taster, by assessing the color, aroma, texture and body, tries to guess the wine’s “story.” It’s somewhere between a parlor game and a blood sport for collectors, sommeliers and other wine obsessives.
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I have conducted, as well as participated in, dozens of blind tastings. When I studied to be a sommelier 20 years ago, under the terrifying tutelage of the legendary Master Sommelier Roger Dagorn, I had to blind-identify wines to get my diploma. But there’s a big difference between blind tasting for professional reasons and doing it to show off, which lately seems to happen at every dinner party I go to.
I’m also seeing more and more blind tastings in surprising places. In the past few months, I’ve been invited to observe or help organize a half-dozen blind-tasting events specifically for people who aren’t in the wine business—even people who have never been to a wine tasting before in their lives. These ranged from seminars and classes on “How to Taste Like a Sommelier” to marathon-style contests with elimination rounds.
My fear is that this geeky fascination with blind tasting will end up intimidating ordinary wine drinkers, instead of inspiring them to try something new. If I really stretch my imagination, I can envision reality shows in the style of Top Chef, pitting exuberant wine tasters against one another in off-the-wall challenges—blind-identifying $100 worth of wine from a supermarket, say, in less than 30 minutes.
That’s an alarming prospect. What I’d rather see is an approach like that of Master Sommelier Sabato Sagaria, who runs the food and beverage program at Aspen, Colorado’s The Little Nell Hotel. Often, Sagaria says, guests ask him for a glass of wine but balk at making a choice, daunted by the number of options. “You pick it,” they tell him.
“That doesn’t give me much to work with,” Sagaria says, “so I like to turn the tables on my guests and do a kind of ‘Pepsi Challenge.’ I bring them two wines poured blind—one more mainstream and one a bit more eclectic, maybe a California Pinot Noir and a Sicilian Cerasuolo di Vittoria.” But here’s the key thing: Sagaria doesn’t do this to put diners on the spot, or to size up their wine knowledge. Instead, his goal is to help them answer for themselves the simplest and most important question: Which wine would they prefer to drink? “This way, their decision isn’t based on price, grape, region, producer or hype, but on what’s in the glass,” Sagaria says. “Trying two wines side by side, blind, lets people begin to articulate differences between wines, using their own vocabularies.”
To me, this is what blind tasting ought to be. Otherwise, one might end up at a restaurant in Alba, quibbling over nuances with friends and missing the real point—not which wine is from where, but which wine does each person prefer. Without answering that question, nobody wins.
Author, sommelier and educator Anthony Giglio has written three editions of Food & Wine’s annual Wine Guide.