Wine Talk

Snooth User: Really Big Al

Have you taken a blind wine tasting class?

Posted by Really Big Al, Feb 8, 2015.

Sandra and I were fortunate yesterday to attend a quickly sold out (57 minutes after the e-mail went out to the RdV Ambassador members, it was fully booked) 'Introduction to Blind Tasting' class at our favorite Northern Virginia winery, RdV.  Getting our two slots in this class was tough, as we didn't call them until 5 or 6 hours after their e-mail was released and we therefore ended up on a waiting list - along with about 100 other wine lovers.  So we figured Saturday (07 Feb 2015) was going to just be a day of visiting a few wineries in the Northern Virginia area and we were on our way to Glen Manor near Front Royal when Sandra decided to give RdV a call.  Nope, they were still booked but they did expect to hold more of these classes in the future.   Fifteen minutes later RdV called us back (we were still driving to Glen Manor) and said they just had a cancellation, so we were in!  Talk about luck (good for us, not good for the couple that cancelled), so we first went to Glen Manor and then we headed for RdV to see what this class was all about. 

Upon arrival, I asked Sandra to get a picture of yours truly in front of the winery building.  Since we were about 30 minutes early, I headed down to the fermentation room (which doubles as the tasting room for the class) and got a nice picture of their custom table - six pieces of cherry wood that looks like a snake from above.  Soon the class attendees were arriving and we started taking our seats.  The couple across from us took our picture and we took theirs.  Later on I got another one of them but I was really taking it of our Master Sommelier - Jarad Slipp.  He would be our teacher on this adventure and he has a great sense of humor.

Soon the class began and we started with three white wines, which would then be followed by three red wines after a short break.  Jarad began with a discussion on things to look for - clues as it were - to help you identify the wine you are about to taste.  We looked at color (using a piece of white paper for the background) to see if it was light or dark and if it was consistent to the edge as you tipped the glass.  We looked at the legs as you swirled the wine, which might be an indication of alcohol level (although this can be affected by how the glass was washed).  Smell was a big thing of course - lots of fruit might indicated a new world wine, while minerality could indicate an old world wine.  We smelled for floral character and other aspects, then tasted to determine if there was any oak, muskiness, etc.  He would focus on one table for each wine, trying to see if they could identify the grape, the region, and even the year.  On several of the wines, folks were getting pretty close.  Sandra got the first one right - a German Riesling.  I was fooled on all of them I hate to admit, but then again I know that I have a hard time detecting minor nuances that others easily recognize.  

The wines we tasted were (in order of tasting):  a German Riesling, a French Sancerre, a French Chardonnay, a New Zealand Pinot Noir, an Italian Chianti Classico and a French Syrah

It is interesting to note that not one of the wines in the blind tasting were from RdV, nor were there any Virginian wines.  Most of the wines were old world (German, French, Italian) with one being new world (New Zealand).  The one that fooled all but the lady across from me was the Italian Chianti Classico.  In the end, we all had a wonderful time.  There was just enough food to keep your stomach happy - olives, cheeses and salami - and we had a simple dinner of more charcuterie at home.  Of course we purchased a few bottles at RdV, two of their 'Friends & Family', one Rendezvous and one Lost Mountain.   Together with the two wines from Glen Manor we ended up with six bottles of wine to add to our wine cellar.

Have you attended a blind wine tasting class?  If so, what were your experiences?

Replies

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Reply by outthere, Feb 8, 2015.

Riesling, Sauv Blanc, Chard, Pinot, Sangio, Syrah - Distinctly different varieties make it a good starting point for a blind tasting as there is little similarity between the grapes. I'd expect that Crozes to drink New World as the style from there is big and ripe. Blind tastings are the ultimate field leveler. Easy to determine afterwards if you prefer a particular variety characteristic or rather a winemaking style.

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Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2015.

Al - blind tasting is a great way to learn. However, it's better if you know a bit beforehand and have some kind of theme. When I do blind tasting, it's usually about tasting, not food. For example, I would never mix white and red wines as that can't serve any purpose. But you might have say, four Cabs each from Rutherford, Oakville, and Howell, or four Chianti/Sangiovese wines each from say, Classico, Ruffino, and Carmignano, or like the tasting I did last week of Ribera del Duero vs Napa.

One of the reasons I don't think many people who talk about Burgundy are particularly astute is when you put those wines into a tasting, most of the time they can't distinguish one cru from another and sometimes not even Oregon from Burgundy. In fact, there have been very few people who were even able to consistently distinguish Pinot Noir from Tempranillo when you give them 12 wines with 20 years on.

So keep doing blind tastings. It's a fantastic way to check on your own palate. I'm happiest when the cheapest wine is my favorite wine.

Oh, and one other thing. There's some assumption that certain wines "show" best - like big, ripe, oaky wines, and therefore they overwhelm more nuanced wines, dare I say, wines with "finesse"?

That's nonsense. The people who claim that either haven't done any blind tasting or they just aren't very astute tasters, or perhaps, like some writers, they just have some kind of agenda that they want to push, experience be damned.

Best way to do it is not to do flights. Just pour 8,10,12 wines into 8,10,12 glasses for each person and have them figure out whatever it is you're trying to find out. Don't talk about the wines until everyone is done. It allows you to taste the wines in any combination you want, so you don't get influenced by the wine just before.

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Reply by outthere, Feb 8, 2015.

"For example, I would never mix white and red wines as that can't serve any purpose. But you might have say, four Cabs each from Rutherford, Oakville, and Howell, or four Chianti/Sangiovese wines each from say, Classico, Ruffino, and Carmignano, or like the tasting I did last week of Ribera del Duero vs Napa."

Seeing that this was a Beginner/Introduction to blind tasting I'm nit making judgements about the mix. You have to start somewhere and understanding varietal differences before vineyard characteristics is probably a good starting point. Otherwise I agree that putting all those together can mess with your palate.

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Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2015.

Yeah you're right.

But then I'd taste them non-blind first, give people a few minutes, and then do them blind.

There has to be something challenging about it after all!

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Reply by napagirl68, Feb 8, 2015.

Al,

I do all of my dinner party/ appetizer parties as blind tastings.  I do stick to a theme, and set up no more than three per course.  I do a lot of research about what wines should pair with my menu beforehand, so all the contenders SHOULD have a decent chance.  Sometimes I will do different varietals, for example a chenin from Loire, a CA Viognier, and a NZ SB say with an asian food theme.  I tend to stick to red or white for the challenge, not both at the same time.  If I do that, I will do whites with appetizers (assuming they will pair correctly) and reds with the appropriate main dish. 

I have also done tastings with, say, different styles of one region- like CA chards.  Or different regions of one varietal.  I find it all very interesting as I think I know my friends' palates, and usually am not surprised.  But many times, THEY are surprised.  I usually provide all the wine for these get togethers, as it gives more control over the choices and quality.  One of the worst blind tastings I attended was a friend who did a rather large gathering, had everyone bring a bottle of their "fav" wine, and opened everything.  Needless to say, it was chaos, and you couldn't begin to taste all these competing varietals, some of high quality, many of low quality.  It made for a nasty headache the next day.

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Reply by EMark, Feb 8, 2015.

Sounds like it was a fun event for you, Al.  No, I can't say I've ever attended a blind tasting class.

A question to the group.  In a few wine tasting sessions in which I have been in the audience, the leader has obsessed about the the "legs" running down the sides of the glass.  More than once I have been instructed that the legs are indicative of the alcohol content--"slow" legs indicate low alcohol, faster legs indicate high alcohol, and I may have that backwards.  Frankly, I have never been able to distinguish "slow" from "fast."  So, this has been a worthless bit of information for me.  

If somebody sad that the legs were indicative of the viscosity of the fluid, I guess that would make some sense.  The question then would the be, "What does the viscosity mean to me?"  I agree that alcohol content could be indicative of variations in viscosity, but so, I would think, could sugar, or, perhaps, some other compound.

In reading reviews and TNs on lots of wines on multiple web sites the last few years, I've never seen any comment about the legs running down the side of the glass.  My suspicion is that the legs don't mean a damned thing.  Does anybody have a better insight for me?

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Reply by napagirl68, Feb 8, 2015.

Emark,

I've heard alcohol content too.  Here's an explanation I found.....

http://wine.about.com/od/winebasic1/a/winelegs.htm

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Reply by Really Big Al, Feb 8, 2015.

It made for a nasty headache the next day.

NG - You crack me up.  I suppose a wild mixture of wines could lead to a hangover the following day, but so does mixing spirits and wines in my case.  I think OT hit the nail on the head regarding that this was an 'intro' class to blind tasting, not an advanced one.  Jarad told us that he has seen experienced sommeliers in France able to identify just about everything related to a particular blind tasting of a Bordeaux wine, but then they are totally lost when it comes to some new world wine.  We all need to expand our horizons and 'drink outside the box' as it were.  I was pleasantly surprised by the New Zealand Pinot Noir.  I need to look into this one as my focus had been on Oregon.  I have tried several Pinots from France too, and they were delicious.  

My blind wine tasting parties (two so far) have been a mixture of whites and reds.  The first one was 'your favorite wine' but the second party was 'west coast USA'.  Our next wine party will probably be in May 2015 and we have not yet considered a theme for that.  

Thanks everyone for all the good comments.  Keep them coming, especially if you have been to blind tasting events.

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Reply by GregT, Feb 8, 2015.

Al - I've been in many dozens of tastings with somms and MWs and it's always the case. Those designations don't mean that you will be able to identify every wine. They just mean that you've learned whatever the organization wants you to know. But you really only learn by tasting and tasting and tasting. So it's not a knock on those guys and gals at all, it's just that if they don't know a region or wine, they're not going to do a lot better than you or I.

Emark - you nailed it. The legs don't really mean a damned thing. As pointed out in the article, they have much to do with viscosity and alcohol and surface tension, but also with the glass itself. Glasses that look smooth to us may not be all that smooth at the microscopic level.

Fact is, there's a lot of info that doesn't matter unless you're doing a blind tasting. Color for example.

:Uh, my wine is purple."

OK. How could you even tell?

If you're trying to figure the age of a wine, or maybe even the grape, vintage, or winemaker, then that info may be relevant. But not in most cases. If you're just drinking it, who really cares if it's lighter or darker than the last bottle?

In a blind tasting however, if you have several whites and you know a little about them, you may be able to distinguish one from another because it's got a deeper hue or is more yellow than green-gold. It can help clue you into age, oak, grapes, etc.

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Reply by dmcker, Feb 8, 2015.

Blind tastings are essential to take your wine appreciation to the next level. They focus all your senses (including sight) more than they might otherwise be, sharpen your memory (recall and storage), engage your competitive spirit to further heighten most everything, and provide entertainment when you see others (and yourself) making fools of them/yourselves.

You certainly don't need to pay real dollars to take 'lessons' at them. Do them at home, do them with friends, do them in gatherings with people in the industry. I started the last way, myself, but there's no reason you can't just start at home. And yes, do them themed for maximum data acquisition from the exercise.

Had fun over Christmas at a mixed gathering of pros and amateurs of all levels where a supposed 'expert' was seen to call a Pommard something from the Left Bank. But then Pommards are often the jokers in the Burgundy deck....

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Reply by napagirl68, Feb 8, 2015.

Al,

The fact that your tasting was a class, led by someone with some knowledge, I assume, makes a world of difference.  You could easily start with some whites, move on to reds, etc.  Your instructor had control over the wine that was chosen. Yes, as I mentioned, I do mix white/red (with different courses), but massive numbers of questionable quality wines is never a good idea, IMO.  There needs to be control over the experiment, or at least some sound level of guidance.  And you don't want to saturate your palate so that you cannot discern differences.  With just "tastings", you can get by with more choices.  But I like to do my blinds as pairings for foods-  not  just tastings.  That requires a more substantial pour to enjoy with the food, at least a half glass if not a small glass.   Therefore I limit the number in the experiment.

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Reply by Really Big Al, Feb 8, 2015.

Yes, there needs to be a limitation in both the number of pours and in the amount in the pours.  I think we had the right amount, although a few people were getting a little loud at the end.  The real treat here was having a Master Sommelier leading the event.  He clearly knew what he was doing and he knew the wines but he did not try to force someone's assessment to fit his own.  I think Jarad Slipp did an excellent job. 

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Reply by GregT, Feb 9, 2015.

Come on out to CA one day and we'll do one Al. Usually you can get up to 15 people and 10-15 wines, but I'd rather keep it to 12 because if a bottle has sediment, you don't dump that into someone's glass. And you run out of space on the table if you get more glasses for everyone! Been doing these for a long time and it's the source of much of my cynicism regarding certifications. But good for you - keep learning. Nothing negative to say about that!

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Reply by BarcelonaWineGuide, Feb 9, 2015.

As a wine educator, I don´t normally do blind tastings with beginner students as they don´t have enough references.  But with advanced students it is useful for all the reasons DMCKER pointed out.  As a learning experience for them, I hold a blind tasting of sparkling wines:  Champagnes from the 3 regions of Champagne, and then other areas that make sparkling wine (e.g. Spanish Cava, German sekt, or Italian Franciacorta).  I pass out general descriptions before the tasting starts to give them some indication of what to look for. There are enough differences between all the types of sparkling wine for it to be an interesting exercise.  And it is a helluva a lot of fun, especially on Spanish hot summer days when you don´t want to drink reds.

But my favorite exercise for the advanced students is a workshop I call "El Juego del Enólogo" ("Let's Play Winemaker"):  I provide 5 monovarietals, have them individually analyse pros and cons, group them into pairs and get them to make their own blend, then the group blind tastes each couple`s blend, rates them from best to least best, and declare a winner!  A terrific learning experience.

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Reply by EMark, Feb 9, 2015.

Very interesting perspective BWG.  Thank you for your contribution.  Now I want to attend one of your classes.

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Reply by BarcelonaWineGuide, Feb 10, 2015.

Next time you're in Barcelona...www.bodegatours.com

Cheers.

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Reply by Really Big Al, Feb 10, 2015.

We were in Barcelona back in 2008.  What a great trip that was!  The Gaudi museum was so beautiful.  I will look you up if we get over there again.

http://www.bigal-computers.net/spain.php
 

Thanks GT for the invite.  It's more likely we'll get back to CA soon, since we visited Napa in 2012 and 2013.  We used to live in Southern California back in the mid-seventies through the 80's.

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Reply by BarcelonaWineGuide, Feb 11, 2015.

Al, since you´ve were here, the still unfinished Sagrada Familia cathedral is a lot less unfinished--at least now there is a roof over your head, and they actually hold masses there.  The Pope "prior" to Papa Frank visited the cathedral and seems to have given his blessing, although the low-down hearsay is that it's Japanese money thats finishing God's work; they just love that Gaudi.

For wine lovers, the biggest changes are a lot more wine bars in Barcelona, even a couple of 100% "natural wines" bars.  I have a pretty mean Tapas and Wine Bar Crawl I offer clients that is a lot of fun.  And no-one calling themselves a wine lover can miss the world-reknowned Monvinic wine bar, perhaps Europe's best.

Salut!

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Reply by outthere, Feb 26, 2015.

Here's a blind wine tasting experience for you. 

A friend of mine has a teenage Son named Jack who is blind. He suffered shaken baby syndrome at his daycare when he was less than a year old. He has grown into an exceptional young man who mentors blind youth as part of the National Association for the Blind's STEM Program which is also sending him to Boston soon for higher education. Jack's sight teacher is also the parent of a blind child. That child, Hoby, now in his 20's who recommended him to the STEM Program has exceptional sensory skills and along with attending UC Davis also runs a blind tasting program at Francis Coppola Winery called Tasting in the Dark.
 
Check out this Sac Bee article about Hoby Wedler and watch the embedded video. What a great story. Local Sonoma County success story.
 
 
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Reply by Really Big Al, Feb 26, 2015.

What a great story.  I am super impressed with both of those men who were able to overcome a handicap and excel where others without handicaps could only wish to achieve.


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