Blind tasting is, to the perception of the masses, the most exciting magic trick sommeliers perform. How many times have friends outside the industry brought you a glass of wine and demanded that you get to grape, region, and vintage on the spot? They believe in us and are fascinated by blind tasting—but few understand what it takes to get to this level.
Whether you are studying for a Court of Master Sommeliers exam or any other tasting exam, you must taste classic wines regularly, often, and with highly focused attention. It is possible to maintain that discipline by opening bottles alone, but most people seek out tasting groups. There are myriad ways of organizing and maintaining these groups, and this article summarizes some of them, focusing on advice from Master Sommeliers on starting a group, obtaining wines, and executing a study program that benefits all members.
Beginning a tasting group can be very similar to starting a romance. If the group progresses successfully, you will be spending several hours every week together, often at your most vulnerable. “We always teach about tasting with like-minded individuals,” explains Melissa Monosoff, MS, Education Director of the Court of Master Sommeliers.
It’s important to have a group of people who are disciplined, show up when they say they will, understand the requirements of the exam, and give honest feedback that helps advance the group. They could be your coworkers or people you meet at exams. The GuildSomm Study Forums are a great resource as well.
A large group isn’t necessary. Austin-based Devon Broglie, MS, Associate Global Beverage Buyer for Whole Foods, notes, “St. Louis became St. Louis—with the energy it has now—not because eight people decided to do it, but because two people got together and started studying in earnest. You just need one other like-minded person. For me, the commitment was to prepare Craig Collins, MS, and the commitment for Craig was to prepare me.” While his tasting group was important, the key for Brogile was having that one committed partner. He met with his group every week but communicated with Collins daily.
However, not everyone is geographically situated to have access to even one other peer candidate. Monosoff was studying for the exam in a small Pennsylvania town. She enlisted the aid of those around her. “Everyone had to be part of it. My bartenders were part of it, my French maître d’—he would say, ‘Let’s stump Melissa!’ And I loved it.”
On the other side of the spectrum is Las Vegas. LSG, MS, of Charlie Palmer’s Aureole Las Vegas said that many people studying for Court exams move to Vegas because it is an ideal place to study. “The strip is only two miles long. It is so easy for us to get together. Everyone’s schedules are similar as well. There a lot of great teaching Masters here: Ira Harmon, Thomas Burke, Jason Smith, myself. Around November, they start scheduling one-on-one tasting sessions, and everyone knows.” The Master-level tasting group there has between 10 and 16 members, and it’s a rite of passage to be invited to join.
It's often possible to join an existing group. Start by contacting a current member to ask about their requirements. If you are invited, be sure to respect any established guidelines. Speaking about her Las Vegas group, Geddes comments, “You have to have [a high] level of commitment. If you don’t, we’re not going to ask you back. The third time you’re tardy or not there, you’re not coming back.”
After assembling a new group, the next step is determining logistics. The first few meetings will likely be fairly unstructured, with members bringing a bottle or two each and taking turns analyzing elements of the wines, followed by a discussion about how to run the group moving forward.
There are many ways to structure a tasting group, including—but not limited to—the following examples, which are identified by the city where they were developed or perfected. It’s important to note, however, that while there was a time when cities had distinct tasting group styles, as the sommelier community grows both larger and more mobile, the lines of difference are becoming increasingly blurred.
Alexander LaPratt, MS, started in Michigan and then moved to Napa, where he was invited by Dennis Kelly, MS, to join its premiere tasting group. That group, started by Master Sommeliers Geoff Kruth and Emily Wines, produced a number of Masters, including Yoon Ha, Chris Blanchard, and Jason Heller. LaPratt explains, “I learned a lot—about the format, the advanced system, tasting orally, talking about the wines and describing them and what makes them different. And that was my first tasting group, so I hit the jackpot.”
The wine: All members bring a classic white and a classic red that retail at about $20 each, or two white and two red if less than six tasters are expected.
The format: Early morning tasting. Tasters pours their wines out of sight of the other tasters. Members pair off, and each tastes a full flight (in this and following examples, this means three classic white and three classic red wines) out loud while a partner takes notes.
After a few years in Napa, LaPratt moved to New York, where he began tasting with people like Yannick Benjamin, Hristo Zisovski, Michel Couvreux, and Master Sommeliers John Ragan and Pascaline Lepeltier. When Dustin Wilson, MS, would come out from the West Coast, he would sit in as well. LaPratt combined his Napa perspective with ideas from the New York group. After a couple of years, the group grew to include people like Jeff Kellogg, Jack Mason, MS, Morgan Harris, and Mia Vandewater. New ideas emerged, described below as NYC Style B.
The wine: There are two rotating captain positions. Each week, the two captains assign wines to their teams such that each team will have one full flight. For example, one member of a three-person team might be asked to bring German Kabinett level Riesling and a Left Bank Bordeaux.
The format: Early morning tasting. Each team goes to a different area and quickly tastes through their full flight to ensure the wines are sound and classic examples, then pours full flights for the other team. Tasters pair off with members from the other team. All members taste a full flight out loud and take notes on a partner's tasting.
The wine: There are two rotating captain positions. Each week, the two captains obtain one full flight each. Before arriving, they taste all of the wines to ensure they are sound and classic examples, fill in printed grids with descriptors for each wine, and make copies of the grids.
The format: Captains arrive at the venue at 8:45am, and each pours one full flight. The first two tasters arrive at 9am and pair off with the captains. The 9am arrivers each taste a full flight poured by a captain, who grades based on the prepared grid. Captains then taste the other full flight (brought by the other captain), with the 9am tasters grading in the same fashion. Then, the captains are able to leave. The next two tasters arrive at 10:30am. The 9am tasters grade them, then leave as the next two tasters arrive. The cycle can be repeated as many times as necessary, with no one required to be there the whole time.
The Master-level tasting group in Las Vegas has been meeting for years. Master candidates are admitted, as well as Advanced candidates who have proven themselves. The group has been very successful, with Master Sommeliers such as Geddes, Nick Hetzel, and Will Costello emerging from the group.
Group members pitch in to purchase wines that will be tasted over a predetermined time period. Members can offer appropriate bottles from their own collections as well, and distributors sometimes contribute. The money is used to purchase a spectrum of classic wines, including older bottles. Ideally, one member has convenient personal storage or restaurant space where the wines can be kept.
The wine: Members contribute money to the purchase of a library of classic wine. There is one rotating proctor position. Each week, the proctor pulls 12 wines (two full flights) from the library, brings them to the venue, and pours the wines for all members of the group.
The format: Early afternoon tasting. Members pair off. Each person tastes a full flight out loud while his or her partner fills out a pre-printed blank grid. The proctor does not taste blind that week.
Austin is now known as a great city for studying sommeliers, but it wasn’t always that way. Broglie recalls, “When Craig and I started back in 2005, there was nobody else here studying for the Master exam. We had some folks in Dallas and Houston, but Austin [is] three hours away from those cities. Our group right before we passed tasting was Mark Sayre, June Rodil, MS, and Christopher McFall.”
The wine: Each member brings three wines. One member is responsible for ensuring that half of the members bring white and the other half bring red, unless the group has chosen to focus on one color or style for the week.
The format: Early afternoon tasting. Each taster who brought whites pairs with one who brought reds. The two taste through their full flight to ensure the wines are sound and classic examples, then pour full flights for another team. Alternately, some weeks, group members will taste all of the wines together, then blind one another on various flights.
Perhaps you’ve unsuccessfully scoured your community for an existing group, tried your best to inspire coworkers to taste with you without finding anyone like-minded, and reached out on GuildSomm only to find that the nearest person is a two-hour drive away. Are you out of luck? Destined to never be a Master? No! Melissa Monosoff found herself in exactly that situation. She supplemented the wines she had collected over the years by giving a list of “classic wines of the world” to her local wine shop, where they selected bottles for her and boxed them so that she couldn’t see the labels.
Monosoff explains, “I think this is crazy, but I taught myself to do this: I could go in the closet, close my eyes, open the door, pick a bottle, and wrap it in a towel to disguise the bottle shape the best I could. I taught myself to open the bottle, pour the glass of wine, and then put the bottle, corkscrew, everything in the refrigerator—all with my eyes closed—and then turn back around to the counter and taste the wine. I’m not making it up. You gotta do what you gotta do! What else was I going to do?”
Whenever she had visitors, she would request that they go into that closet and pick anything to blind her—which once resulted in her sister pouring a 1986 Chateau d’Yquem!
At Savona, the restaurant where she worked, Monosoff taught Friday night wine classes that she structured around the wines she needed to taste. “[Guests] loved being part of the process,” she says.
While Monosoff’s situation was not ideal, she appreciates that she was forced to think for herself and couldn't rely too heavily on the opinions of others.
The wine: Find a trusted source that’s willing to choose bottles based on requested styles, varieties, and regions.
The format: Use everyone around you! Ask friends, coworkers, and anyone who is willing to pour for you when the occasion arises. Take advantages of opportunities at work to practice and expand your knowledge. Learn how to choose, open, and pour a bottle without looking at it.
There are many effective ways to develop blind tasting skills. If you have been meaning to join a group but haven’t yet taken the leap, don’t hesitate any longer! If you have a group but it has fallen into a rut, switch things up by trying a new format, paying close attention to the results. Invite candidates visiting from out of town to join you, and ask them how they do things differently. Share your innovative successes in the comments below.
Above all, remember that the only true requirements are dedication and commitment to the process.
This is great, thank you Dana!
I fully agree with Jason Heller, just blinding is half of the equation, tasting in context is very important. Learning how to be able to distinguish and compare in order to create that olfactory and palate memory are crucial. I have recently started a tasting group and we have discussed different formats, themes in order to try to get the most out of it. These formats listed here might get put in practice at some point as well.
Next step is to be able to find a MS that has some able free time to taste with us whenever they are available.