Tag Archives: blind tasting

Winebits 617: Blind tasting, campaign cash, grape glut

This week’s wine news: The perils of blind tasting – even for experts. Plus cash and the three-tier system and too many grapes to harvest

Whoops! What happens when a high-end sommelier does a blind tasting for an audience? Check it out in the video at the top of this post, part of an advertising campaign on the 750 Daily website. Let’s just say it was not pretty – identifying a 2018 Italian pinot grigio as a high end white Rhone blend. The Wine Curmudgeon, who is one of the worst blind tasters he knows, has much sympathy for the sommelier.

Follow the money: What happened after the Pennsylvania legislature voted to allow limited supermarket wine sales in 2016? Several legislators who played a key role in the bill’s passage went to Europe, courtesy of “campaign donations.” The story, reported by three Pennsylvania newspapers as part of a year-long investigation, shows just how prevalent cash is in oiling the three-tier system and why reforming it is so difficult. The donations paid for “overseas and cross-country travel, sports tickets, limos, dinners, cuff links and country club memberships. Among the hidden spending, however, the European trip stood out.” Best yet, the trips and money may not have been illegal.

Too many grapes: What should do California grape growers do when they can’t get a fair price for their grapes? Leave them on the vine to rot. That’s the advice from two University of California viticulture experts. In other words, the predicted California grape glut seems to be underway. Western Farm Press reports that the extension agents say “in this market, the prices offered are likely to be less than the cost of production. Allowing unsold fruit to remain on the vines may seem unthinkable, yet with no income from those blocks, it makes sense. This means not dropping clusters by hand and not running a harvester in the vineyard to get the berries off.”

Dallas men, an attorney and a sommelier, win U.S. Open wine tasting championship

U.S. Open wine tastingU.S. Open wine tasting winners will lead U.S. team at world championships in France

This year, the winning team at the U.S. Open wine tasting championships scored 101 points. That’s one more point than the U.S. team scored in the 2016 world championships, when it finished a best-ever third.

So does this mean Dallas residents Taylor Robertson and Jacob Fergus, the winning team, have discovered the secret to blind tasting?

Not exactly.

“To be honest, we weren’t sure how we did when we saw the wines,” says Robertson, 34, a Dallas attorney who worked in the restaurant business before going to law school — but who never lost his appreciation for wine. “The wines this year were much more difficult than last year, and we were worried about how we did.”

This year’s wines included a South African chenin blanc, a Portuguese touriga nacional, and a French white grenache – hardly the sort of thing you’ll see on most wine lists.

But no need to worry, apparently. Tournament director John Viljus called their performance a very strong one, and is optimistic about the U.S. team’s chances at the 2019 world event this October in France. Belgium won the 2018 world competition, followed by Finland and France. Robertson and Fergus will be joined by Gwendolyn Alley and Sue Hill, who finished second in thee U.S. competition with 92 points.

Last weekend, a dozen two-person teams blind tasted six red and six white wines, getting points for correctly identifying the wine’s producer, its varietal, vintage, and region. They had just eight minutes to taste each wine, something Robertson says presented one of the tournament’s biggest challenges. At some point, tasting fatigue sets in, and it becomes more difficult to tell which wine is which.

They key to winning, says Fergus, who works at Savor Gastropub at Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park, was understanding the difference between the U.S, Open tasting format, which is more open ended, and the way blind tasting works for wine certification programs like master sommelier, which focuses on identifying specific wines.

And as for the world competition?

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” says Fergus. And why not, with a score like that?


U.S. Open wine competition returns this weekend

U.S. Open wine

Byanca Godwin

Top two teams will represent U.S. in world championships

Byanca Godwin didn’t expect much when she entered the U.S. Open wine tasting championship last year. All she wanted to do, she says, was to get a little blind tasting experience in as she prepared to take the various certification exams she had scheduled.

So how did she end up representing the United States at the 2018 World Wine Tasting Championships in France?

“I tried it just to have some fun blind tasting, instead of practicing like I usually do,” says Godwin, a wine retailer who will compete in this year’s U.S. Open on Sunday in Ventura, Calif. “I thought it might be interesting to compete. And then I finished third, which I didn’t expect.”

The Wine Curmudgeon has always thought blind tasting should be a competitive sport. Blind tasting is difficult enough, but imagine it with the pressure amped up – an audience cheering (or booing) as the contestants sniff, swirl, sip, and spit. Talk about grace under pressure.

The U.S. Open offers all of that. Two-person teams work their way through a dozen wines, getting points for correctly identifying the wine’s producer, its varietal, vintage, and region. And they have just eight minutes until another wine comes along. The top two teams will compete for the U.S. in the world championship in October in France. Belgium won the 2018 competition, followed by Finland and France.

“You really have to approach this like an athlete,” says Godwin. “When you’re competing, you have to stay focused on the wines and pay attention. You have to find the answer in the glass. Being distracted by the audience does not help your performance.”

One addition this year: Event organizer John Vilja says audience members can taste the wines as the contestants taste them in a sort of mini-competition. There’s also a blind tasting app.

wine accessories

The U.S Open – wine tasting as a competitive sport

U.S. open wine tasting

“Oh wow.. did you see that swirl and spit?”

The U.S Open wine tasting offers wine drinkers a chance to see how good their palates really are

One of the things wine has always lacked – no matter how much else it has to offer – is dramatic tension. Now, though, we’ve got just that with next month’s upcoming U.S. Open wine tasting championship.

Imagine a blind tasting, and watching teams of wine drinkers sniff, swirl, and spit as they try to identify the wine in their glass. Does competitive sport get any better than that?

“Blind tasting is really hard,” says John Vilja, who is organizing the event on Aug. 11 in Marina Del Rey, Calif. “That’s what makes it fun.”

And it should be even more fun with an audience and cheering. Even booing, maybe? Can you imagine Hall of Fame baseball announcer Harry Caray shaking his head in disgust? “Boy oh boy, how did they screw that one up? You know, anyone should be able to smell that oak and know it’s California chardonnay.”

Who needs the World Cup? We’ve got competitive wine tasting.

There is a serious side to this: The winning team will represent the U.S. in the sixth annual World Wine Tasting Championship in France in October. Sweden won the 2017 event, while France finished 11th and the U.S. tied for 15th. In 2016, Vilja helped the U.S. finish third.

How does a competitive tasting like this work?

• Teams of two people will blind taste six white and six red wines from around the world.

• Teams score points by identifying the primary grape, country and region of origin, vintage, and producer.

• The teams are allowed to discuss the wines among themselves, but that’s it. No phone, no Internet – just their palates.

The competition is open to anyone, whether a wine professional or consumer. In addition, spectators will be able to blind taste along with the competitors.

Winebits 488: Cheap wine quality, nutrition labels, restaurant wine

cheap wine qualityThis week, three of the WC’s favorite topics – cheap wine quality, why nutrition labels matter, and restaurant wine prices

Bring on the taste test: An English wine shop hosted a blind tasting, and the £5 bottle (about US$6.50) beat four more expensive wines, including a $40 red Bordeaux. This does not surprise to the Wine Curmudgeon, of course, who has been advocating these sorts of blind tastings for years. The winner was a Spanish verdejo, Abadia Mercier, which is not available in this country. But almost any verdejo – a white wine that is fresh, crisp, and lemony – should do the trick if you want to try a similar blind tasting with your friends. Verdejos, like the Blume, have been the wine of the week on the blog for years, and almost all have cost $10 or less.

Bring on the nutrition labels: Millennials, who are supposed to the future of the wine business, like nutrition and ingredient labels – so much so that a recent study of snack foods should be a “wake-up call” for brands. “When you see a majority of that size say, ‘Fewer ingredients means a snack is healthier,’ that’s a pretty massive shift for the age group, said one of the men who did the study. “Being health-conscious is a smart move and it is transcending the generations right now.” Unless, of course, you’re the wine business, where telling us what’s in our wine is heresy.

Bring on the wine list: A journalist turned wine geek says restaurants charge more for wine that people are more familiar with, like cabernet sauvignon – “a ‘gimme tax’ on glasses of brand-name grapes like chardonnay and malbec. They could charge more because most drinkers see a familiar grape, go on autopilot, and think, ‘Give it to me; I don’t care what it costs.” I’ve never heard this before, though it does seem to explain why some familiar brands are marked up more than wines made with the odd grapes that I like.

Winebits 280: “Value” wine, blind tasting, wine scores

? Missing the point:The Wine Curmudgeon does not like being cranky all the time. I would much rather be happy, secure in the knowledge that the wine world ?s foolishness is a thing of the past. And then I run across stuff like this, which explains why a $200 bottle of wine can be a value. So can a Ferrari, I suppose, if it ?s the previous year ?s model with low mileage. The point, of course, is that blog posts and stories like these scare the hell out of most wine drinkers, and particularly those wine drinkers who are just getting started or haven ?t really started yet. They see advice to buy $200 wine and run, in panic-stricken terror, for the soft drink aisle of the supermarket.

? The power of blind tasting: Mike Veseth at the Wine Economist talks about several recent tastings, where ?where the wines easily fooled us (or perhaps we just fooled ourselves). .. ? The point being that the tastings were done blind, and the results did not jive with what was expected. Wrote Veseth: ?Our perception of wine is sometimes less about truth and more about  context and expectations than we might want to think. That ?s not the conclusion I thought I would find when I set up this tiny experiment. ? He also writes interestingly about the power of cheap wine (in this case, Two-buck Chuck) to skew the results. This is why blind tasting is the most powerful tool the reviewer ? or any wine drinker, for that matter ? can use.

? Coffee-flavor those wine scores: W. Blake Gray, who isn ?t thrilled with wine scores but long ago made his peace with them, can offer a much more refreshing take on the subject than those of us who think scores are the spawn of the devil. He analyzed the scores that 29 California cabernet sauvignons and red blends received in a recent Wine Spectator, and found that that the wines that mentioned mocha in the tasting notes got at least 92 points; those that didn ?t didn ?t break 89. Yes, it ?s a small sample size, and so on and so forth, but telling nonetheless.

Winebits 190: Liquor laws, wine tasting, winery websites

? Utah's barriers: Those of us who think our state's liquor laws are the worst need (that includes you, Pennsylvania) to check in with Utah. The New York Times reports that "Stiff drinks and doubles are illegal in Utah. Bars and restaurants must use meters on their liquor bottles to make sure they do not pour more than 1.5 ounces at a time. Other liquors can be added to cocktails in lesser amounts, not to exceed 2.5 ounces of liquor in a drink, as long as they are poured from bottles clearly marked 'flavoring.' " What's even weirder is that the state's laws are much more liberal than they used to be. I did a story about Utah's liquor laws in the run-up to the 2002 winter Olympics, which saw the state suspend some of its laws to accommodate European visitors and then un-suspend when the Olympics ended. Needless to say, bar and restaurant owners were less than thrilled.

? Blind tasting trumps all: Not that we needed any more evidence that we're predisposed to like wine if we think we know something about it, but researchers have found that telling someone where the wine is from influences their opinion. What makes this study interesting is that consumers were asked which bottle tasted better — one from India or one from Italy — and their perception of quality seemed to depend on where they thought the wine was from. The kicker? There was no wine from Italy or India, but an ordinary bottle of $16 wine that served as the wine from India and Italy.

? Winery websites stink: Or, to be more accurate: "Unfortunately, 90 to 95% of winery websites stink." That's from Sean Sullivan at the Washington Wine Report, and Sean knows his stuff. The post is must reading not only for winery owners, but for consumers who go to a website to find information about a wine or winery and find only boilerplate about the winery and almost nothing about the wine. My favorite? Sean writes that many sites have a line like "We are dedicated to producing super premium wine from Washington ?s finest vineyards." No kidding. Says Sean: "First, almost no one knows what super premium means. Second, you ?re in luck! Everyone else is looking to make plonk from vineyards that are producing 20 tons an acre!"