Thursday, July 3, 2008

Biased notions

Something can be said for the fun of that parlor game when you single out the wine know-it-all and get that person to taste a wine—blind—to try to guess what it is.

It’s fun to serve a wine that is close to a certain other wine that you know this person will have tasted before and so is likely to be fooled this time around.

It’s even more fun when you throw in a $5 cheapie and this knowledgeable fool proclaims it Pavie or Cheval Blanc or something else of high esteem.

The above may be fun, but it has nothing to do with blind tasting wine, and I was particularly amused (and somewhat surprised) to discover that there are people out there who consume a lot of wine and spend a lot of money every year on it, but they don’t know the value of a truly blind evaluation and comparison.

Recently, I got into a discussion about the attributes of Finger Lakes Riesling. It was the same old discussion of how Finger Lakes Rieslings don’t hold up against German or Alsatian counterparts, a belief that I am convinced is of questionable merit.

The reason I think that consumers who make the claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings, though good, are not world class, is because I have numerous times sat in on blind evaluation comparisons. Finger Lakes Rieslings easily held their own.

The kind of evaluation I’m talking about is when the tasters know only that the wines are Riesling and that each flight of wines is within a certain stylistic parameter and vintage. We know nothing about their location, winemaker, producer, and price. That’s a blind tasting.
A double blind evaluation means that the taster knows nothing about the wines, not even the grape variety. That method is best used for training purposes, to hone one’s sensory abilities.

The task in a blind tasting is to evaluate each wine on its merits, to see if it lives up to varietal character and to stylistic parameters.

A blind tasting is not when a bunch of geeks bring bottles of their favorite wines and then someone puts them into a brown bag and the tasters don’t know which wine is in which bag. Just knowing that your wine is in the bunch will either expose or shatter your bias. It’s human nature to look in every glass of wine served for the one you brought. It will confuse the hell out of you. You may find it, or you may think you ha found it. (Not to mention that bottle shapes can give a lot of information.)

A blind tasting is not when the people selecting the order, opening, and pouring the wine also serve it to the tasters. To remove all bias, even the servers shouldn’t know what they are pouring. That way, they can’t give something away with unconscious body language.

In a well run blind tasting, the wines are poured in a back room or kitchen. The glasses are numbered to correspond with numbers that have been assigned to the tasting sheets. The pourers give the glasses to the servers and they take them to the tasting panels to serve.

Tasters are free to taste in whatever order they want, but they must be sure to correspond the correct glass numbers with the tasting sheet numbers.

The evaluation can be done with scores, verbals, or both. But everyone should conform to a pre-established set of scoring rules.

I and two other fellows proposed to the unbelieving that if they claim that Finger Lakes Rieslings do not belong in world class status with their beloved European products, then they should be willing to compare the wines in a completely blind tasting setting.

One geek said I was a chicken, apparently meaning that I was using the blind tasting as a way to back out of proving my point, which is that Finger Lakes Rieslings are likely to surprise those geeks.

His childish chiding, however, illuminates to me that he hasn’t a clue what the purpose of a blind evaluation is. More important, he seems to think that he has super-human talent, that he can remove all bias by simply willing himself to do so. I’m worldly enough to smell the bullshit in that concept.

I’ve seen too many so-called unbiased wine tastings in my day. The main purpose is to prove an already expressed opinion and to have fun while doing it. That’s a parlor game.

The truly blind tasting method is closer to science, and we all know that science is supposed to search for answers—not validate preconceived notions. Well, maybe all but the biased wine geeks know that.

I'm unsure if the blind evaluation will take place, but I know that I am willing to take the risk. I believe that tasters would find many Finger Lakes Rieslings to be world class wines, especially since they won't know that they are tasting Finger Lakes Rieslings.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
July 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. Bravo. I admit to having a bias about Finger Lakes Riesling versus German Schloss Volrad/ Johannisberg Riesling. So when's the blind tasting? Aside, I just read that "The Name of the Rose" was filmed at Kloster Eberbach.

  2. Marco,

    What's interesting is that every German Riesling bias seems to cite a different German producer as the benchmark.

    To me, that means the bias really seems rather personal and not exactly based on merit. But I could be wrong, and the blind tasting would help discover whether it is my bias at work and not the bias of others!

    Alas, I doubt the blind tasting will take place, at least not the one that I was talking about to others on that Web site. I'm unsure whether the group accepts my blind parameters. I know that one guy doesn't give much weight to the possibility that wine is a profession, and that such evaluations can be accomplished on a professional level.

    The proliferation of self-proclaimed professional wine critics seems to have also spawned self-proclaimed consumer wine critics--training and knowledge be damned!!!

  3. We could always drink the Rieslings till we were blind!

  4. Reminds me of a sentence in Last Exit to Brooklyn, but my blog is too polite for me to quote it...

  5. I visited my first Finger Lakes winery June 31st ( and was taken aback at the high quality of wines across the board. The Rieslings held their own against those from Alsace and Germany that I am familiar with. Having said that, I will still be searching for a "dry" NYS Riesling, a challenge not uncommon when seeking analogous Rieslings from Alsace and Germany. What really stunned me were the Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc offerings !! I fall into the "perplexed by Pinot" camp, probably because many might be over-chaptalized; not so for these Wiemer offerings. I'll be back !

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  7. Jay,

    You were in the Finger Lakes and didn't let me know!

    I'm crushed. But I have a question:

    when did June get that extra day?

  8. Finger lakes riesling - even given my relative lack of experience I've tasted enough to know that they are the best rieslings of the US, no question there.

    Do any producers release library bottlings? I'd really like to see how these wines taste at 15+ years old.

  9. Joe,

    That's a good question. I don't know the answer, but I do know that some producers release special editions.

    If you are in B-more, it's probably hard to find any FL Rieslings. But then, you've got fresh soft shell blue crabs...

  10. b-more joe and Thomas,

    The Wine Source in Balto actually carries some Hermann Wiemer wines (C. franc at least). I bet Ian would be able to score some Riesling if they don't carry it already. The Wiemer Riesling I tasted recently in the FL was off-dry but nevertheless well-made.