Can you tell a $15 wine from a $60 wine? A cabernet sauvignon from a zinfandel? If I poured you a glass of wine, and you tasted it, and 10 minutes later I poured you a second glass out of the same bottle, could you tell it was the same wine?
Neither can most other people – including veteran professional tasters. At least that’s one side of an argument that’s lighting up the wine blogosphere and wine writers’ columns recently.
“Wine Tasting: It’s junk science,” says an article in the British newspaper The Observer. In one test, professional tasters – given the same wine three times 10 minutes apart – gave it scores that varied by as much as 4 points on a 100-point scale.
Other tasters described a wine far more favorably when told it was expensive than when told the same wine was cheap.
Of course, veteran wine tasters are pushing back. VineSleuth, a Texas blog that creates wine-choosing smart phone apps, says its tasting experts are rigorously trained to use objective criteria, not facile quality judgment, in their work.
What do you think? Let’s do a simple home test. If nothing else, it’s a good party game.
Read my wine descriptions below. Label two wine glasses No. 1 and No. 2. Have the friend pour the $18 zin into one glass and the $15 cab into the other, not letting you see which is which.
Taste each. Take notes on which you think is the more tannic cab, which is the softer zin. Ask your friend if you’re right.
Ten minutes later have your friend pour you another glass – labeled No. 3 – of the $15 cab or the $18 zin. Write down which wine you think it is. Did you discern whether No. 3 was the same as No. 1 or the same as No. 2?
Now try it with the two white wines.
So now what do you think? Can you identify wines by their characteristics? Pick out the same wine twice?
If you want to take it further, do a blind tasting of the $15 Concannon cab versus the Grgich Hills cab, which sells for four times the price at $60. Can you tell the expensive one? Did you like it better?
Retaste them. Be honest: Does knowing which is more expensive change your opinion as to their quality?
It shows, in my opinion, that wine tasting is very subjective. I’ve been on dozens of five-person tasting panels in wine competitions in which one taster wants to give a wine a gold medal, one wants to give it silver, a third wants bronze and two say no medal at all.
That’s why in my wine column I don’t give precise scores like 85, 89, 94 and such. I use only two categories: recommended or highly recommended. If I can’t recommend it at all, I just leave it out.
So why do you need wine columnists? Well, I’ve been writing about wine for 30 years. I believe I can discern its flavors, its weight, its major flaws. I can share my experience about wine-food matches.
I’ve come to some conclusions. Lightly sweet wines go well with spicy food. A delicate poached Dover sole needs a delicate white wine, not a powerful red one. Sparkling wine with its scrubbing bubbles cuts through the fat in fried chicken and such. Brie and chablis is a cliché, but it’s true.
Still, my philosophy is that, despite others’ advice, you should eat what you want and drink what you want with it.
So I guess my advice is to listen to what others say and write about wine, take from it what you can, but in the end – as in politics, religion and baseball – choose for yourself.
• 2011 Rancho Zabaco “Heritage Vines” Zinfanfel, Sonoma: aromas and flavors of blueberries and sweet chocolate, big and rich and smooth, with soft tannins; $18.
• 2010 Concannon “Conservancy” Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley: aromas and flavors of vanilla and black cherries, powerful, with firm tannins; $15.
• 2010 Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley: hint of oak, flavors of black cherries and dark mocha, firm tannins; $60.
• 2012 Nobilo “Regional Collection” Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborouth, New Zealand: light and crisp and lively, with aromas and flavors of herbs, minerals and green apples; $14.
• 2012 Hardy’s “Nottage Hill” Chardonnay, South Easters Australia: hint of oak, full-bodied, aromas and flavors of ripe peaches; $14.