Originally published in Food Republic
When someone hands you a glass of wine and says, “Here, try this Cali Chardonnay,” it’s hard to be objective. Without realizing it, you’re already judging the wine based on all the Cali Chard you’ve had in the past, or what people have told you about it.
That’s partly why, hands down, the best way to get to know wine is to blind taste on a regular basis. It’s easy. You don’t need a blindfold, though some ultra-literal types do, in fact, go for the bondage look. All you really need is some way to conceal the labels (wrapping bottles in foil is one method), so everyone can sip without any hints of what’s to come. This is how sommeliers train and educate their staff, and how wine retailers check their knowledge. Thomas Pastuszak, wine director of New York’s NoMad, uses blind tasting in two different ways with his staff. First, he conducts a weekly hour-long tasting with all the sommeliers on his team, where each of them brings a wine priced no higher than $200 on the menu. Then, he does a separate, “more approachable” tasting with the servers and kitchen staff. Ideally, your own tasting group has a fairly even level of knowledge.
Whether you’re a formally educated expert or just a normal guy or gal who likes grape juice, the results of tasting blind are usually pretty interesting. Even the most esteemed sommeliers get tripped up from time to time. And, that’s what makes it fun. “Sometimes you think it must be Chablis, definitely premier cru, super minerally — and then it’s Greek Assyrtiko,” Pastuszak says. “But it’s not like, ‘Oh, you suck, you didn’t get it right.’ It’s, ‘How cool! Now, we can tell our guests, if you didn’t know what it was, you might guess that it’s this.’”
Indeed, the general idea of a blind tasting is quite simple: mask the label, sniff and sip, then start guessing. But, as I’ve learned after several months of weekly blind tastings with a group of dedicated wine professionals, there are some “best practices” that will help ensure that the experience is as educational as possible.
Start with very general categories of wine, picking a different one each week. Start with, say, Italian whites, then move on to Italian reds. Italy has many varieties, so it’s good to split them up. French and Spanish wines each deserve their own week. But, staying within national borders doesn’t always make a good grouping. Alsace is a great example. Though the region is geographically part of France, the wine arguably has more in common with stuff from Germany and Austria. Likewise, New Zealand and Australia generally make a good pair. If regionality isn’t your thing, you could also group by style. For instance, devote one week to sparking and the next to rosé. Continue Reading »