The Importance of Objectivity
Was it the wine or the experience? Some exciting wines from Mersel winery, Lebanon
Last November, I presented a blind tasting masterclass at the Amsterdam Natural Wine Festival. The idea was to convince people that tasting blind is vital and beneficial, and to debunk a few notions. It shouldn’t be about gloating when you correctly guess the bottle was a 1961 Château Cheval Blanc (lucky you if you have friends like that), but rather about removing distraction and subjectivity.
So many factors can influence our perception of wine. And in many conditions, it is absolutely fine that they do. Let’s say you are with your best friends in a cosy restaurant. The sommelier lays on the charm - they happen to be rather good looking too - and leads you through the list to an exciting sounding bottle. There is a very high chance that the wine will taste delicious. The conversation and the endorphins flow. Life is good. You are primed not just to like, but probably to love what gets poured into your glass.
Confirmation bias is more pernicious. If you knew that bottle was a Cheval Blanc, one of the rarer Ganevat cuvées or [insert your own unicorn wine], it would be hard to sit there and pronounce it disgusting. Most people would make allowances, willing the wine to be transformational. Even if, in truth, it was nothing more than ordinary.
Even those of us who believe we are wine-educated are prey to an extraordinary array of distractions. My neuroscientist friend Gabriel Lepousez talks about the predatory influence of sight, and my goodness, is that phrase deserved. Recently I participated in a now classic neuroscientific tasting experiment, where we were served a red wine and asked to individually describe the aromas in the glass. Our descriptions were collected in real time, and then broadcast onscreen as a tag cloud, a couple of minutes later.
Our group of 15, including wine educators, WSET diploma alumni and MW students came up with the following descriptors:
All quite plausible as descriptions of a red wine. But then came the reveal. The sample was a white wine (a Saint-Péray to be precise) that had been adulterated with tasteless, odourless food colouring. We were all completely fooled by the colour. Including me, who had been implicit in organising the session, and who knew that this experiment would crop up at some point during the day.
Colour influences us to an inordinate degree, and so can factors such as label design - or pre-existing information we might have about the wine. It’s for this reason that Božidar Zorjan chooses not to display the vintage anywhere on his labels - he even obfuscates it in the lot number. Preferring to release his wines when he deems them ready to drink, he doesn’t want his end customers to have preconceived ideas when they see that the wine might be five or more years old.
Location is another infamous form of distraction. Perhaps you visited a jaw-droppingly beautiful estate whilst on holiday. You drink in the views as you listen to the charismatic vigneron. You leave clutching a carton of those delicious wines, faithfully transport them home and then weeks later uncork them to discover that the charm and excitement never left the winery.
This is one reason why I’m sometimes on my guard when I taste with winemakers. It‘s too easy to fall in love with the environment, the moment and the story. But those factors won’t be present when you try the wine on your home turf. Or worse, if you work in retail or import, when you attempt to sell your amazing new discovery to your clients.
Which brings me back to why I love blind tasting. Learning what objectivity feels like, and how wine tastes when you remove all distraction is a valuable exercise. With practice, it becomes possible to be more objective even when you know that circumstances are manipulating you. Go ahead and embrace the moment, just avoid returning home with a six-pack of bottles that only made sense in loco.
These thoughts crossed my mind when a winemaker named Eddie Chami visited me in Amsterdam last December. Eddie makes wine in the Lebanon, and we knew each other only from meeting online during the pandemic. I was excited, because I knew Eddie wanted to show me a side of his country that I’d never seen. But that also made me fearful. What if the wines weren’t any good? I don’t like looking people in the eye and lying to them.