Blind tasting. For those who have taken the types of wine exams that require it, these two little words conjure up a mix of emotions: fear, excitement, frustration, and, for those who’ve succeeded at it, elation. Most wine professionals with blind tasting experience have a story at the ready about some exceptionally difficult blind tasting scenario wherein they correctly identified an iconic wine, right down to the producer, or nailed an utterly “un-gettable” wine. (Note: We certainly remember the ones we got horribly wrong, but those are much less fun to talk about.)
For those outside of the industry, there’s a fascination with the process. Highly accomplished professionals in other fields seem amazed by the concept that a person can correctly identify a wine’s variety, origin, vintage, and winemaking process, all by simply smelling and tasting it. It’s always made me chuckle. Here I am, sitting next to a physician who has recently performed open-heart surgery, and blind tasting wine seems impressive. Go figure.
For many students, there is an interest that borders on obsession when it comes to blind tasting. As a Master of Wine, I’ve witnessed debates over whether American oak smells more like dill or coconut, helped dissect the tannic structure of a Pommard versus a Volnay, and engaged in many a discussion about the level of detectable autolysis that directs to a vintage Champagne over a high-quality, non-vintage example. All of these topics are interesting, not to mention helpful, for correct blind identifications.
Yet amidst the minutia, it is easy for students to lose sight of the most important questions of all: What is the purpose of blind tasting? How can these skills be practically applied to the wine industry?
These are important questions, because no wine job that I can think of requires someone to stroll in and blind taste wines in timed conditions like the WSET, CMS, or Master of Wine exams. Some establishments even view blind tasting as a popularized parlor trick—a perception I’d like to see diminished. That said, more students studying for these wine exams should consider why tasting matters above and beyond passing any exam. It will make for more successful students and more versatile professionals.
Whether beginners or seasoned professionals who taste regularly for work, students who consider the broader implications of blind tasting from the beginning of their studies will find the process far less intimidating and gain much more from its practice, both during the examinations and beyond. Thinking beyond the test gives wine study relevance and direction, and it prepares wine professionals to apply what they’ve learned to current or future employment. Ultimately, the practical use of tasting skills gives wine certifications more value and credibility within the industry.
Blind tasting in an exam setting serves a simple yet important purpose: it removes any bias tasters might have toward a wine and allows them to show that they can evaluate that wine accurately and objectively. In other words, tasting blind allows students to show whether they truly understand a wine.
“Understanding a wine” is multi-faceted. For almost any exam with a blind tasting component, understanding a classic wine most certainly means correctly identifying its origin and variety. This emphasis on typicity and identification is important because it shows that candidates understand how classic wines should display themselves in the glass. Beyond this fundamental purpose, understanding a wine also means being able to correctly describe it (within reason) in terms of its production, overall style, purpose in the global market, and ultimately, its quality within the context of its region.
It’s these last few aspects that are most important to keep in mind, because blind tasting must go beyond identification for it to become broadly applicable in the wine industry. The skills gained by learning how to blind taste should open doors to bigger-picture thinking when it comes to how style, typicity, quality, and drinking pleasure matter in the world of wine.
In the Master of Wine program, there is no grid or required approach to tasting. Student answers are written arguments, of course, but they are written after a conclusion about the wine has been made. Students write their notes in whatever way works best for them. This is daunting for some and freeing for others. Though I was originally trained on the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting, my shorthand notes for the MW were concise and built around an observation-conclusion analysis. Essentially, I would strive to make accurate observations about a wine in one column (for example, 14.5% alcohol and ripe, lush fruit), which would lead me to a logical conclusion in another column (this wine is likely from a warm climate). I would narrow it down from there.
I still write my notes this way and only take note of the most critical attributes of a wine, not every single aspect. This method allows me to quickly gather information about a wine’s structural elements while also considering other aspects, like quality. A wine that is well balanced, but with a short finish, simple fruit notes, and moderate intensity might be of good quality, but most suitable as a by-the-glass pour at a pub or casual restaurant.
I hesitate to recommend this approach for students studying for other exams like the WSET or Court of Master Sommeliers, since those exams are tied to a grid or systematic approach (and rightfully so, as this system gives structure). That said, it might be invigorating for all students to incorporate more exploratory tastings in conjunction with tastings strictly for identifications. Questions about commercial placement come up frequently on Master of Wine exams, and discussions tend to be refreshing diversions from identification drills. These questions can be applied across all programs, be it WSET, CMS, or MW, because they incite thoughtful conversations that enhance understanding of a wine’s purpose. In fact, they can help with identifications, too, because they put the wine in context and make it relatable. And for some students, these types of questions are their occupations, so it brings studying and work full circle.
For example, a study group could make it a point to correctly identify a wine, and then take the conversation a step further, answering the “So what?” about each. Yes, this is a Sancerre. But is it a commercial example of Sancerre, which is essentially a regional brand, or is it a boutique producer striving to make a more nuanced, ageworthy expression, like Domaine Vacheron’s Les Romains? The two styles appeal to very different consumers and would have very different placements in both the retail and restaurant sectors. There are so many iterations of wines from classic regions in today’s world. Regions like Barolo and Rioja have modern and traditional expressions, some with more liberal uses of French oak, yet there are still aspects of any wine from either region that showcase a sense of place. Thinking about these styles, why they exist, and where they fit into the broader landscape gives these wines more context.
It is this type of critical thinking, and this type of analysis, that drives the wine industry forward. It also gives blind tasting more meaning. Honing blind tasting skills helps wine professionals become better tasters in general, blind or not, because it teaches how to critically evaluate every glass of wine.
The real-world applications for skills learned from blind tasting are endless, whether one actively blind tastes or simply incorporates lessons learned from blind tasting into daily decision-making—in retail, restaurants, production, journalism, or beyond.
Arguably every job in the wine business is consumer driven, since without selling wine, the industry would fail to fuel itself economically. And consumers come in all shapes and sizes; they purchase everything from mass-market, commercial wines to iconic, cellar-worthy bottles. Within each category, there are stylistic preferences, price point considerations, qualitative thresholds, and much more. For retailers and restaurants who directly engage with their customer base, understanding the type of wine that will work in a given setting is crucial.
In restaurants, a wine list can showcase why the skills learned from blind tasting are so important for a sommelier. Blind tasting teaches sommeliers what to look for in a glass of wine, and it can help them best select wines for their guests. For Master Sommelier Matt Stamp, co-owner of Compline in Napa, blind tasting is not something that he usually does when buying for the restaurant. At the same time, he says, “Blind tasting makes you think about attributes a wine of one type should have, and I use the skillset I learned from blind tasting to think about whether wines are good representations of type.” I’ll shamelessly admit that this is one of my favorite spots in Napa for a glass of wine for this very reason: the list is tight yet comprehensive, with the perfect mix of unique and reliable options.
What’s more, sommeliers must be able to describe how a wine will taste to a guest who may have never had such a wine or even heard of it, an art that requires the utmost understanding of the styles of the world and how they truly taste. For industry professionals, wine lists can read like old friends, each bottle capturing a memory from travel, study, or tasting. For guests in a restaurant with no wine education, wine lists can be minefields. With only a list in front of them, they must select a wine that meets their expectations in terms of taste, price point, and “wow” factor for others at the table. Great sommeliers are translators and storytellers. In the end, they must be able to select the right wines and then explain the wine’s story to its final recipient in a way that is accurate, objective, and hopefully a little exciting.
Tasting does not start and end with sommeliers, though. In almost every aspect of the industry where the end-consumer is concerned, blind tastings often take the shape of controlled blind tastings that seek to evaluate quality and typicity—two of the most important aspects to gauge accurately in a wine.
Doug Frost, MS, MW, still incorporates almost every aspect of the CMS grid when he tastes, but he expands it to consider the bigger picture. In his many consulting jobs, one of which is the wine and spirits consultant at United Airlines, Doug takes the opportunity to blind taste frequently.
According to Doug, “I need to determine how the wine is going to strike a wide variety of people. With many labels and brands, there is already a reputation that pre-determines the customer’s response. But lots of customers are not going to look at the label or have no preconceptions of that brand, so I need to make sure that my own biases don’t muddy my understanding of the wine.” He also points out that for United Airlines, he must consider how a wine will evolve over the next 12 to 24 months, since some of the wines may be available for that long. Tasting without knowing producers or brands allows him to, within categories, determine which wines fit best and where.
At Balthazar in New York City, the wine team, which existed behind the scenes and not directly on the restaurant floor, historically blind tasted selections from distributors before purchasing them for the list. I remember participating in these tastings; part of it was fun, but most of it was determining whether the quality and style of the wine matched the price point. Rebecca Banks, a WSET Diploma-holder and current wine director at Balthazar, says they blind taste now less than in years past, but she still conducts blind tastings for by-the-glass selections as time allows. While these are technically controlled blinds within genres, the same strategy for evaluating typicity and quality applies.
This thread runs through retail settings, both online and in-person. The wine buying team at Wine Access, which includes Master Sommelier Sur Lucero and Vanessa Conlin, a WSET Diploma graduate and second-year student in the Master of Wine program, holds weekly tastings wherein a team of judges evaluates wines being considered for offers. If a wine does not match their perception of quality-to-price ratio, it won’t be featured.
The list of consumer-driven tasting exercises could go on and on. Tasting for quality-to-price ratio, typicity, and style happens on every level of the supply chain, and is something in which importers, distributors, merchants, and private consultants partake in globally.
Small or large, producers taste regularly for a variety of reasons. Sometimes these tastings are conducted blind or partially blind. Finding the perfect blend, determining a closure preference or effect, or in comparative tastings, tasting with some or all elements blind is used for quality control, quality assessment, stylistic direction, and much more.
Large producers like Gallo blind taste all winemaking trials using either triangle or duo-trio preference tests, according to Nigel Sneyd, MW, Director of International Winemaking. They also blind taste for blending purposes, often to find the best blend without being influenced by cost. Other producers have noted that they blind taste for packaging decisions, such as determining whether to shift to screwcap.
Wine producers often blind taste to decide on a final blend. Distinguishing quality without personal bias is of utmost importance for the final product. Tasting in blending trials requires a different mindset than the one used to evaluate a finished wine; winemakers must taste individual pieces first, then decide how to best fit them together to create a superior finished wine. This involves understanding how those elements will ultimately blend together and evolve over time, be it six months or six years. Blind or not, it requires a similar level of focus and attention to detail to properly evaluate each component. Of course, there are also less glamorous considerations, such as blending away faults or trying to find them, which many producers of high-volume wines or bulk shipments must consider free from preconceived notions.
Producers in all sectors of the marketplace engage in comparative tastings as well to see how a wine reveals itself among wines of similar style and quality. To better understand their terroir, the winemaking and vineyard team at Domaine Bonneau du Martray in Corton-Charlemagne has semi-blind tastings that include their own wines alongside other grands crus in Burgundy. This is undoubtedly a practical use of blind tasting skill; it encourages tasters to understand type, style, and quality.
Though not producing or selling wine, wine writers and judges taste regularly. Some publications and critics do so completely blind, arguing that it allows them to see a wine free from bias and evaluate it accordingly. Those that taste non-blind or partially blind argue that part of their job as a writer is to fully understand the context, history, and category of wine they are tasting—also a valid and important point.
Regardless of approach, writers of all kinds can and should exercise the skills garnered from tasting training. In her candid and rather entertaining ethics of wine writing piece found on her website, Jancis Robinson, MW, states, “When doing comparative tastings such as those of the Bordeaux primeurs, I try to taste blind as much as possible. I don’t think there is much point in tasting random wines that are completely new to me completely blind, but I seize on any opportunity to compare like with like under blind conditions.” As a reader, a tasting note or article feels much more authentic when I am offered specific evidence from the glass supporting the perspective of the author, or when I can see that the author clearly understands how to properly evaluate a wine. Surely this segment of the industry, as well as others, can only benefit from the voices of those who have been trained in how to objectively decipher a glass of wine.
Blind tasting finds its way into the world of educators and trainers as well, since many wine professionals who make a living educating teach certification programs. Master Sommelier David Glancy runs San Francisco Wine School, which features workshops and training programs for those studying for a variety of wine credentials, including a course that examines the MS and the MW approaches side-by-side. Napa Valley Wine Academy offers a similar array of certification programs, and employs Masters of Wine and Master Sommelier Tim Gaiser to teach workshops on blind tasting and test preparation. Mary Ewin-Mulligan, MW, who heads the International Wine Center in New York City, has trained countless WSET certificate holders how to properly taste and analyze wines. These avenues directly connect blind tasting training to students.
There are also a multitude of wine professionals who make a living by training sales teams, either as consultants or within a larger company. Master of Wine Peter Marks has run the wine education programs at Constellation for a decade, including WSET courses and one-off blind tasting training courses. In his mind, the courses add value to the sales staff because they teach the deductive tasting process. Most importantly, Peter notes, “The blind tasting courses help participants understand how to evaluate quality without seeing the label, which is such a valuable skill to have as a wine professional.”
The wine industry benefits from successful students that in turn become versatile professionals. Years before I became a Master of Wine, my experience in education taught me that one of the most important aspects for adult learners, in any genre, is relevancy. When adults are students, they are more likely to invest in education when they understand why it matters in the short and long term.
Blind tasting matters, but it cannot be approached in a vacuum. The more students think about its practical applications—that it is the skillset one learns from blind tasting that relates to the real world, not always the blind tasting itself—the more successful they will be as both students and industry professionals.
MMM-as usual, you're writing style is clean, to-the-point and relevant. Cheers!