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Woman on the Verge of a Glass of Wine

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Blinded By the Light

If there is one thing in the realm of wine that I have always been completely scared of, it
is blind tasting. Nothing makes me feel like more of a vulnerable loser than having to identify a wine's variety, region and vintage from taste alone. I think it's because deep down I'm afraid of looking like I don't really know what I'm doing and in the end, coming off like a complete fraud. You see, blind tasting is a learned skill, one that takes many hours of practice, trial and error. Some of my colleagues do this on a daily basis. I do not. In the world of palate fitness, this is one type of training that I just don't do and like any unpracticed, untrained athlete, I'm pretty out of shape.

So, when Bonnie Graves, a Los Angeles wine gal contacted me to join a men vs. women blind tasting panel at the Taste of Beverly Hills event last weekend, I immediately told her that there was no way in hell that I would do it. The other people on the panel were going to be individuals who I completely respect and who get loads of practice tasting blind. I told her that I would provide a personally embarrassing amount of comic relief and would basically end up looking like a complete idiot. Of course, after about seven emails and even a personal visit at Lucques, Bonnie managed to persuade me to do it with promises of a fun, light-hearted event, a potential bottle of Krug for the winning team and loads of p.r. for the restaurant. And, like any savvy business person, I caved at the prospect of good dose of public relations for the restaurants, even at my own expense. Needless to say that from the minute I accepted her offer, I regretted it like crazy.

With only a week to go before the event and determined not to enter this challenge totally unprepared, I enlisted some of the staff members at the restaurants to indulge me in a few rounds of "let's see if Caroline can get this one" throughout the week. My employees were all to happy to indulge me, a fact that I actually found slightly unnerving. Richard, our new Lucques manager lined up five whites and five reds for me to taste on the first day, five of which stumped me and five of which I actually got right. As I had truly expected to get them all wrong, I felt a wave of confidence roll over me. In the back of my head, I heard a voice say, "Hmm, maybe I'm not so bad at this after all." Richard lined up eight more wines for me the next day, only three of which I pegged correctly. My batting average was going down...not good.

The next day, I asked Amy Christine, a good friend and Master of Wine candidate to come to my house for a tutorial. Amy literally blind tastes wine every morning in practice for the tasting portion of her exam. She's got so much experience in this, I figured that there was no one better to work with me. Her husband Peter filled seven or eight small bottles with a selection of white and red wines and packed them up for her so that not even Amy would know what they were. We went through each one, meticulously analyzing their colors, aromas and flavors. We discussed each in detail and came close to the same conclusion on all of them. We were wrong six out of eight times. In Amy's defense though, I think that it was my overly anxious self that led her down the path of failure that day. But really, how on earth did that Gruner Veltliner taste so much like white Burgundy?

With the days flying by and my newfound confidence waning, I headed to Tavern and a fresh group of wines by the glass to blind taste through. I told John our bartender to just hand me wines throughout the night to keep me on my toes. One after the other, small tastes were handed over the bar to me at moments that I least expected them. Let's just say that it wasn't my night, or maybe that I was just caught off guard, as one by one I failed to identify any of them but one. Since when does Bandol Blanc taste like California Sauvignon Blanc? Zinfandel that tastes like Meritage? After another round of low scoring, I was beginning to consider a last minute family emergency scenario to get me out of this predicament.

Now, to give me just a little but of credit, what I was experiencing here was an example of what happens when the international wine community strives to market themselves to the global population. Many of the world's great wines start to taste similar and regions and grape varieties lose their individuality. I play a role in this as well. I don't love a lot of the Zinfandels that are on the market right now, so I tend to buy the ones that are more restrained and subtle. The result is that the Zinfandel that I pour by the glass doesn't necessarily taste like Zinfandel. All of this is fine and well, until I need to blind taste it. Clearly, I've been doing myself a disservice here.

On the morning of the event, I awoke with a butterflies in my stomach, knowing that I was inching minute by minute closer to my fate as the laughing stock of the wine event. I figured that I was just going to have to just go for it and laugh it all off in good fun. Each team of four was given the same four wines to blind taste, so that a man and a woman would have to face off on each. I decided to rip this thing off like a band aid and volunteer for the first wine. To be honest, from the moment I smelled it I knew it was Sauvignon Blanc, so I knew I would be safe. I described in detail the notes of guava, passion fruit and grapefruit on the nose and the touches of deep meyer lemon-like citrus. The wine had bright acidity and tart freshness as well as a slight hint of green grassy herbs. I confidently identified the variety as Sauvignon Blanc, the region as Loire and the vintage as 2008. My male counterpart agreed wholeheartedly. The reveal: 2009 Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand! Of course, grapefruit and guava equals New Zealand. Urgh. Oh well, I earned the team one point. Could have been worse.

After three rounds of misidentifications from almost all of the members of the panel, and with a particularly embarrassing reveal of the 2009 Charles Shaw Merlot, I was starting to feel slightly better about myself. It was actually incredibly funny to see all of us flailing around in our search for the answers. We were basically all in the same boat. None of us was doing well and none of us cared. I think that our lightheartedness at being wrong was the most entertaining part of the whole thing.

In the end, we ladies redeemed ourselves with a totally right-on identification of a 2006 Rioja Reserva and won the match. We left the event holding our heads a little higher while laughing at ourselves a little louder. It was reassuring to know that we were all in the same boat, putting ourselves out on the line and having a ball. I'm now determined to blind taste at least once per week to hone my new-found skills, and to accept that I may not have all of the answers, but at least I'll have a good time trying to find them.


  1. Caroline - you are far too modest!!!! You are an amazing taster and far more descriptive than me... The gruner really did taste like White Burgundy that afternoon and Peter gave us some hard wines!!!! BTW I did that blind tasting again this morning - Gruner vs. White Burgundy and this time it was obvious what was what...

    Rene Rostaing says when it comes to blind tasting we are all children. I have no idea what that means, but I like it!

  2. Blind tasting is hard! We did a blind, 15 wine tasting for my wife's birthday recently and if you got 5 right, you were doing well. There were a hand full of winemakers there who have spectacular palates and I don't think they did much better than 5... if that.
    If the glass was opaque, it would be pretty easy to guess the wrong color! Thanks for your notes, it sounds like it would have been fun to be at the event.