During the final week of every “old” year I head to the same, sun scorched lazy Puerto Rico beach to give my peripatetic brain enough space to subconsciously prioritize and ponder only the most important issues. Blind wine tasting made the cut this year, triggered by some catch up reading of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink. If it is any wonderment how blind wine tasting surfaced above career, family, children, friendships, money or any of the other things we are preoccupied with all year long, the answer lies in the fact that I have been staging blind tastings for brethren winos every month for most of the last twenty years as a way of learning about fine wine and discovering what I want to drink. As an example, this weekend’s blind tasting will focus on the old and new of Italy featuring Frank Cornelissen’s wines from Mt. Etna and wines from the venerable Barolo producer, Brovia. But why taste them blind? Are blind tastings really a valuable indicator of what you want to drink or the best way to learn about wine for practical consumption?
In his book Blink, Gladwell recalls the Pepsi Challenge. Remember? In head to head taste comparisons by consumers asked to take sips from two different blind glasses, 57% preferred Pepsi. The results were significant and real, and the whole experiment was turned into a series of Pepsi commercials featuring consumers picking Pepsi, blind, over Coke sip after sip. With dominant, but now declining market share, and brand history, the folks at Coke were spooked enough to believe that tastes and patterns for quenching thirst had changed. This begat a new product formula; New Coke. In behind the scenes blind taste tests involving hundreds of thousands of consumers taking a few sips from each cup, one holding Pepsi and one holding New Coke, New coke dominated over Pepsi by six to eight percentage points. The Coke team thought they had, inarguably, figured things out. Coca Cola’s CEO, Roberto C. Goizueta, said the new product was “the surest move the company’s ever made.”
Tasters can also reach confidence driven conclusions during blind wine tastings. Sips from six glasses from peer groups, but different producers, of Bordeaux, Chenin Blanc, Barolo, California Chardonnay, Cote Rotie, Champagne or any other wine you can think of will always surface a favorite. Participants can detect minute flavor and aroma differences between wines that have been placed on a level playing field without bias for pedigree or packaging. But does an instantaneous and comparative sip, swirl, or aroma provide the evidence for which bottle someone would prefer sitting with through an entire meal or evening? Does it have enough weight to inform a buying strategy for leisurely drinking? Just because a taster prefers one wine’s components over another, does it mean that it is the wine to buy a full case, above all others, for future real world drinking? Consumers liked the New Coke over the Old Coke, so New Coke should persevere in the market, right?
Coke learned, the hard way, that a sip is different from drinking a whole bottle. New Coke failed miserably in the marketplace. New Coke, in what the soft drink industry calls CLT (Central Location Testing), actually performed different in sip tests than it did in non artificial settings such as sitting on your couch with a bag of chips while watching a football game. Could the same hold true for blind wine tasting? Maybe critics that award scores in artificially staged blind tastings are less useful to consumers looking for advice on what they should drink in a restaurant? Are my twenty years of organizing peer group blind wine tastings an exercise in futility?
It turned out that Pepsi, and then New Coke, had preferential flavor-burst elements that fared well in a sip, but did not stand up over the course of a can. The full can left consumers with too much or not enough sweetness to quench their hankering. Also, the packaging and brand associations turn out to be an important part of the pleasure quotient in real life consumption. So, does a wine’s pedigree and packaging also enhance enjoyment levels during real world drinking that blind tasting only masks? As Gladwell put it, “We have one reaction after taking a sip and another reaction after drinking a whole can….We shouldn’t at all be surprised that Pepsi’s dominance in blind taste tests never translated to much in the real world. Why not? Because in the real world, no one ever drinks Coca Cola blind.
I like to think that I know what I prefer in a wine that I will drink with dinner. And, I assume I am looking for those elements in a wine when I taste blind. But, is my palate trained, disciplined, and educated enough to know? Do professional wine tasters really transcend the artificial blind tasting experience and understand which bottle will drink better than another in real life? Or are they giving “sip” advice to a following of real world drinkers. Could blind tasting, something that critics claim as “seals of approval” for themselves and cast stones at others who don’t employ it as a basis for their own reviews, be more than it’s cracked up to be for consumers looking for bottles to luxuriate over with a meal? What do you think?