In every blind tasting there is secret hope for fresh discovery and the eradication of closely held biases like perpetually ignored regions, varieties, producers, or vintages. While the blind tasting experience is completely unrelated to luxurious enjoyment of wine with a meal, they serve as uniquely productive platforms for continuing wine education. Recently, I shared a Paul Bloom pleasure theory video here at WineZag to illustrate my primary motivation behind organizing this 90+ Cellars blind tasting format two weeks ago at the Boston Wine School.
A well deserved shout out goes to Jonathan Alsop of the Boston Wine School for providing the school’s casually elegant space and service, giving our tasting proper airtime on his weekly Saturday night Boston 96.9 FM wine broadcast, and then running back from the studio just in time to contribute his palate to our tasting experiment. If you live in Boston and have an interest in learning more about wine in the most practical non-intimidating ways, then it is worth looking up Jonathan and his school. I never leave his side without learning something more about my great love and passion for fine wine.
Also on hand to join our group of twenty tasters was Brett Vankoski, co-founder of 90+ Cellars and fellow tasting buddy. Brett donated the couple of cases of his wines that we measured against the producer branded wines I selected for blind comparison. The tasting was not a promotional event for 90+, but instead a risky venture that could have easily left the wine company holding the short end of our stemware. Could a group of discerning wine enthusiasts get as much pleasure from wines of unknown origin as from known producers if both were paired blind?
Rich Auffrey, author of the very fine Passionate Foodie blog, participated in the tasting and then shared this Paul Bloom quote in his recap post titled “Fooled by a Blind Tasting”:
“…part of your response to wine is based on its chemical properties. But how you experience it will always be affected by your beliefs about what you are drinking. Now this opens you up to being fooled…”
Having variety, vintage, and regional details of the 90+ wines in advance, I attempted to acquire wines with similar credentials that approximated original producer or discounted 90+ price points. My primary filter for acquiring the wines was the belief that I would pick these producer branded wines from a wine list over any of the 90+ wines, mostly because I knew their histories and origins. Here are the wines we tasted (with prices…for 90+ original producer price precedes 90+ discounted price) in like pairs, blind:
Lot 67 Chardonnay Russian River 2011, $22/16
Lot 69 Sancerre, Loire Valley 2011, $25/18
Lot 70 Rosso Maremma Toscana 2009, $59/26
Lot 56 Pinot Noir Russian River 2008, $40/21
Lot 27 Barbera d’ Alba, Piedmont 2010, $25/17
Lot 53 Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza 2008, $25/16
Lot 21 S/G/M, Languedoc 2010, $18/12
Alois Lageder, Alto Adige Chardonnay 2008, $18
Henri Bourgeois, BB, Loire Sancerre, 2011, $23
Rocca di Frassinello, Maremma, Toscana 2009 , $18
Thackrey Andromeda, Marin, Pinot Noir 2008, $56
Cantina Del Pino, Barbera D’Alba, Piedmont 2010, $23
Catena Cabernet Sauvignon, Mendoza 2010, $18
Chateau de Caladroy, S/G/C/M, Roussillion 2009, $20
Of the seven pairs, 90+ received the most votes three times for Lots 70, 27, and 53. Producer branded wines won four of the pairings. The widest margin of victory in any one pair was 12 votes and it turned out to be the group’s almost-unanimous favorite wine of the night; 90+ Cellars Lot 70 Rosso Maremma Toscana 2009. Two votes determined the winners in three separate pairs of wines. The 2008 Sean Thackrey Andromeda Pinot Noir defeated the 90+ Cellars Lot 56 Pinot Noir by four votes and both the Lot 53 Mendoza Cabernet and Lot 27 Barbera d’Alba defeated their producer branded counterparts by four votes as well.
Thin voting margins demonstrated that knowing more about one wine’s origin and history offered inconsequential advantages for prejudging a wine’s pleasure profile. Relying on my human bias for more information, three out of seven times I would have picked a less pleasurable wine from a restaurant list, and in at least three other cases the results could have gone either way. While we did not run the control exercise of tasting these wines un-blind, I will speculate that the results would have been different with more of us leaning to the producer branded wines in tightly contested pairs. On this night 90+ Cellars’ portfolio supported Paul Bloom’s theory about essentialism, and that the playing field for pleasure becomes leveled when history and origin are masked to the human brain.
As with all blind tastings, the experience produced layers of unanticipated discovery. Without any surprise to himself, Jonathan Alsop ended up picking all seven 90+ wines as winners in their pairs. His palate is aligned with Brett’s, 90+ Cellars’ very own Alexa Hente. Four of the tasters that registered for the event came because they are fans of 90+ Cellars. Their demonstrated enthusiasm for the brand approached “groupie” status. To them, the brand that bottles wine from undisclosed quality producers has its own story of origin and history. Their local wine merchants taught them about Brett’s desire to put “well made”- reliably good wine in a bottle; searching for and tasting wines across the globe so consumers can benefit from his palate’s discernment without worry nor need for more knowledge. Brett has created and nurtured a wine brand with its own level of style consistency and reliability that consumers can actually anticipate. Does 90+ Cellars now offer its own bias of origin for those in the know? Did their fans that showed up for the tasting believe 90+ had its own edge going into the competition?
It all gets very confusing to me when it comes to the human brain. What was crystal clear on this night, though, was the amazing beauty, nuance, and elegance in the bottle of Lot 70. The wine is actually profound; a $59 wine from the coastal Tuscan region of Maremma discounted to $26. It is a complicated wine, all in the most pleasurable sense, with a big fat nose of tar, earth, and tobacco and deep rich cherry flavor. You can read more about this wine on 90+ Cellars’ website. While it remains uncertain whether we actually proved or disproved Paul Bloom’s theory, buying Lot 70 by the caseload is the one clear certainty we all took home with us.