The Dark Side of Wine Tastings

March 21, 2015

When I was just getting into wine – I’d try to go to just about every wine tasting I could find and afford. I strongly recommend any novice to do the same. But…

At one point, some years later, while reviewing my old tasting notes, I was surprised to discover that I had no recollection whatsoever of some wines tasted in the past. Far from being able to boast an exceptional memory, I’ve always been relatively good in remembering the wines I drank. So to look at my handwritten notes on a flight of serious Bordeaux or SuperTuscans and draw a complete blank on some wines came as a surprise.

This incident planted the seed of considering that there might be a negative aspect to tastings.

Simplifying the issue:

  • on one hand serious tastings allow for deeper understanding of the wine.
  • on the other hand, when multiple wines are tasted during one event, inevitably there will be “winners” and “losers”.

The higher the class of the wines tasted, the more serious those “losers” will be. The result could be that the wines, which, if drunk on their own, would be very good, highly appreciated, and, memorable, become overlooked and, perhaps, even forgotten when/because of being put side by side with other wines.

I pondered on the best way to resolve this dilemma and failed miserably to arrive at one solution. However, this failure could, arguably, be the solution in itself.

Below I share my key thoughts and arguments on the topic.

Thought 1: To get something, you must give something

One way to look at the dilemma is that “sacrificing” certain wines by not giving them proper respect of being considered individually is, in effect, an additional cost (on top of monetary and opportunity costs) of being able to try more wines and/or to try them in a different context. Accepting this notion leads to two ways of what you’ll do with it.

On one hand – such tastings could be viewed as zero-sum game with either definitive or conditional “winners” and “losers”.

On the other hand (mostly applicable to vertical or horizontal tastings) – the cost of overlooking a few bottles is justified by the gain of understanding the producer’s style (in a vertical tasting) or understanding the various styles of a certain type of wine/grape (in a horizontal tasting). Unfair as it may be to the “lost” bottles, if the sole purpose of the tasting is to focus on an issue entirely different from each individual bottle (i.e. style of the producer, character of the vintage, various style of same type of wine by different producers, characteristics of a cru, etc) – then this sacrifice/cost is justified.

Thought 2: Apples to apples

Provided a carefully considered selection of the wines to be tasted, it is very useful to understand which wines perform better against their peers (or similar). By “carefully considered selection”, I mean choosing wines which are conceptually similar. Whatever the concept might be. Some example of such would be a horizontal (same vintage) of traditionally made Brunelli, Cabernet Sauvignon-based SuperTuscans, Gevrey-Chambertan Premier Cru or Bordeaux-blend of New world vs. Old World, etc.

Alternatively, by either stepping outside of the horizontal selection or adding a “modern”-style Brunello (or a Merlot-Based SuperTuscan) in the mix, the additional variables could automatically handicap (positively or negatively) certain wines simply because the “outlier” wines will be considered out of context.

Thought 3: Challenge yourself

Disregarding the risks of “careful selection” from Thought 2, from the academic perspective and, for those who are keen on really training their palate, tastings without a theme or set criteria are great. They’re more challenging, but are also more fun.

Without any context of what’s being tasted, one really has to listen to his/her palate AND to trust it. The hurdle in this setting is not just to identify the wine, but to recognise it while being bombarded by potentially very different aromas and flavours from glass to glass. A GSM will probably taste slightly different when sampled after 10 Pinot Noirs than it would by itself. It is an interesting exercise to learn how your tasting perception changes depending on the wines you drink.

Sounds a bit masochistic, I know. But sometimes a good challenge is critical to help keep one on his/her toes and to reconfirm or adjust the system of coordinates used to understand and/or “judge” the wine.

Thought 4: Sometimes less is more

Although originally a productivity concept – law of diminishing returns applies to tastings as well. Adjusted to our subject, the general concept states that adding more bottles/samples to the tasting, while holding everything else constant, at some point will yield lower incremental value (knowledge/enjoyment) per each sample tried.

I remember my first relatively long tasting – a 10-year vertical of Brancaia’s Il Blu. I was exhausted by the end of it and remembered very little in terms of specifics a few days after that event. More than that, I remember walking out of that tasting with all the impressions turning into a slurry. It was a mess. In my case not only the law of diminishing returns was in play, it’s older and meaner brother names- law of negative returns – joined in.

I was simply not ready mentally to focus in detail on so many similar wines and I my palate did not have the necessary stamina and memory to process the nuances properly. I would’ve probably been happier and gotten more out of that tasting if I tasted only half of those 10 wines. A clear case of “too much of a good thing, can be a bad thing”. I am just glad it was Il Blu and not a Monfortino.

While going through the same tasting wouldn’t be nearly as challenging for me now, we all have our own limited capacity of analysing wine. For some it could be three samples, for others – 30. Whatever your perception threshold is – know it. Or at least have an idea of what it is. Otherwise, potentially fantastic tastings could end up being a disappointment.

Conclusion: To win, we must know which game we’re playing

I try to play the devil’s advocate on both sides of the arguments about the pros and cons of the multiple-wine tastings. This might stance might make my thoughts appear as criticism. They are not. Instead they’re part of critical debate.

Going forward, I will probably continue to do all of the things, which I argue are sub-optimal. I will also not do enough of the things which appear optimal.

Why?

Because tastings are very rarely a purely scientific experiment. Majority of the time they are much more than that. They are social events with your friends or fellow wine lovers, with all the joys and shortcomings this format brings.

Wine is never really ONLY about wine. I would actually argue (perhaps unsuccessfully) that wine is rarely just about wine, and, truly great wine is NOT about the wine AT ALL. That is its beauty and genius.

So all the points I voiced above are there to help acknowledge the particulars of various tasting contexts. For me, once consciously accepted, this approach helped derive more enjoyment and enabled me to learn more in the less-than ideal tasting formats by simply knowing the playing field and approaching it accordingly.

I hope it does the same for you.

I also urge you to share your thoughts on the subject, because, certainly, there are many other ways to look at it and I am very curious as to the way you do.

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