Michael Fridjhon: On blind vs sighted tastings

GlassesIt’s a bit of an old chestnut, but every time a well-known wine performs badly at a properly managed blind tasting, there’s no shortage of otherwise intelligent people wishing to take a tilt at the process or the judges, but never at the wine.The whole point about a blind tasting is that the wine is being rated on its perceived (or perceptible) merits, not on the brand attributes, or the presumed pedigree. Its potential to express secondary or tertiary characteristics at some future date is information that is unavailable to the judges, and is excluded from their assessment. However, when a wine – whatever its provenance – does badly, whether because of perceived faults or simply the absence of discernible virtues, the knee-jerk reaction is that the panel was at fault.

Let’s reflect on this for a minute. What the punters are saying is that their sighted opinion of the wine’s quality is better than the view of a panel tasting blind. If we accept that some judges are better than others, and some judging processes less prone to error than others, then we must make our case on the basis of the best panel, working with the best practice methodology. This isn’t fail-safe but it is a working assumption for the discussion.

Now, when such a panel hammers (or merely fails to perceive the presumed merits of) a particular wine, consumers who know the label and believe in the brand attributes will still choose to condemn the panel, rather than re-think their view of the wine. They’re free to believe whatever they like, but why, then, do they bother with anyone else’s opinions?

The whole point about a blind tasting – properly managed, and with competent judges – is that it strips the brand attributes from the actual content of the bottle. A wine, from an organoleptic perspective, is what you taste blind: either it is seamless, or it isn’t; either it has ample fruit, or it is thin; either the oaking is integrated, or it isn’t. And either the panel is capable of arriving at such judgments fairly, or it can’t. But, always assuming that it has done its job properly, the panel is telling you what the wine really tastes like, once the pretensions and hype have been disregarded. If a pricey trophy wine consistently performs badly in such an environment, it is fair to ask whether the wine, from a quality perspective, lives up to its claims. It is also wiser not to take aim at the panel, which is simply the messenger.

However, there is another angle on the discussion, and it explains both the dichotomy and the heat which informs the debate: much of wine buying is not objective, and the business of marketing wine involves persuading people to substitute emotional for objective purchase criteria. When there’s a bottle of Mouton Rothschild on the table, it arrives with centuries of accumulated brand attribute to seduce you. When you buy the wine, you are buying the whole package. Why would you ever want to taste it blind?

A friend of mine – who knows a fair amount about wine and about art – recently observed that much of the pleasure comes from knowing what it is that you are drinking. His analogy was based on the world of art and in it he posited a purchase of an old painting – for very little money – at a country house sale. Years later you discover that your acquisition is in fact a Rembrandt, worth a thousand times your original purchase price. “Nothing has changed,” is his comment. “It is still the same painting hanging over your mantelpiece.” However, you feel different (and much richer). You are now the owner of a genuine Rembrandt and this fact alone enhances the way you feel about yourself. The effect is emotional, and it relates to the brand attributes of a Rembrandt, possession of which raises your self-esteem.

This, I suspect, is why a lot of us buy luxury goods as well as works of art. You wouldn’t conceal the ownership of an Old Master from yourself – why pretend that you care about the taste of a trophy wine? However, once you abandon interest in a wine’s organoleptic virtues, don’t pillory those who are concerned with this slightly less subjective “truth”.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including: Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. The above article was originally published in 2006.

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3 Comments

  1. Pierre RabieJune 23, 2016 at 5:57 pmReply

    This is why I love Winemag. Constructive debate to revel in. Well done to all the contributors some valid points made on both sides!

  2. Tim JamesJune 23, 2016 at 12:28 pmReply

    Too often, those who make a lot of money out of competitions, or those who win medals in a particular one, assume that critics of the results are scornful of the blind-tasting procedure. But this is seldom the case.

    The problem that many people find, and is behind their observations of the nonsensical results of some competition tastings, is not the blindness of the tasting or the competence of the judges. It is that, usually, an absurdly large number of wines has been tasted. The process makes it impossible (I would argue) to adequately distinguish between the wines or to give each of them sufficient consideration.

    While sighted tastings have obvious problems, they could, I suppose, alert tasters to certain factors which might prompt them to look harder for subtle virtues, or to discount some obvious but perhaps shortlived or superficial charms. But a sighted tasting of 150 wines would lead to just as much nonsense as a blind tasting of the same number.

  3. KwispedoorJune 23, 2016 at 11:56 amReply

    Ah, the forever trending topic. I mostly agree with you, which is why I prefer to taste blind. The benefit of most blind tastings is that you get to see the bottle afterwards. This allows you to mix in a bit of track record and previous experience to form your final opinion (this generally doesn’t happen at competition tastings, of course). One can argue that this shouldn’t be done, because you dilute the impact of the blind tasting results, while you may assume inaccurately perceived properties in the process. One can also argue that this should, in fact, be done because of the omnipresent prevalence of human error when tasting.

    One problem with only tasting blind becomes clear when we rate the same wine differently ourselves. I suppose the Vilafonté scores from the recent Riscura tasting are a clear case in point. This is bound to happen though, considering all the variables at play when we taste.

    I suppose a method approaching some sort of accuracy, would be for a competent, experienced taster to taste a wine blind on different days in different circumstances, at different temperatures. Then this person also has to DRINK the wine, with and without different foods, as well as have the wine next to others of its type – including a great benchmark one. But never too many, to avoid palate fatigue. Then this experienced taster must be allowed to see the label, in order to make small adjustments to his/her opinion. See? Easy! :-)

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Wine magazine was published from October 1993 until September 2011 & now lives on in digital form as Winemag.co.za. We cover everything to do with SA fine wine.

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