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Editor's Letter


Tasting Blind Is Not Just for Critics

February 2010
by Jim Gordon
Do you as a winemaker hope that wine writers and trade buyers taste your wine blind? Do you want them to base their decisions on what’s in the tasting glass, or do you want them to carry along their prejudices against your AVA, your brand, your price-point or, God forbid, your personality?

I am guessing that most winemakers would say, “Yes: I want my wines to be judged blind.” Those who don’t agree probably figure that their brands and their personalities already carry positive connotations, and that most of the prejudices by reviewers and buyers would lean in their favor, not weigh against them. Whereas a blind tasting might result in a lost sale or an 82.

But even so, deep down in your artistic psyche, can you grasp that it would be good for your winemaking craft—even if possibly not for the chances of making a sale that day or getting a 90-plus score—if you could get honest, objective feedback? How do you know where to improve if no one points out your wines’ weaknesses?

It reminds me of one prominent wine critic known for his assertive honesty about mediocre, mishandled and flawed wines. He vouches wholeheartedly for blind tastings. He says his goal is to keep himself honest and provide his readers with the most objective advice possible.

Sometimes when a winemaker criticizes this critic for giving his or her wines low scores, the critic turns it back on the winemaker: “You need to know what your wines really taste like,” he might say, “not what your friends and customers tell you because they like you.” He believes that he not only serves his readers well with blind tastings and plainly stated reviews, but that he also serves the wine industry well. Attesting to that is the number of wineries that have cleaned up their acts after receiving low scores and plain-spoken criticism from him.

I agree that critics and trade members should taste your wines blind whenever possible. However, my point in this letter is that you should, too. How can you keep improving your wines if you don’t put your own prejudices aside and see your wines as others do?

This train of thought started rolling during a recent meeting with one barrel supplier and accelerated in a phone call with another. The topic was the same as that of our cover story in this issue, barrel trials. Both barrel makers said more or less the same thing, without mentioning any names: “Most winemakers don’t do them blind, and they really should. How are they going to know if the cooper, the origin and the toast level are right, if they don’t taste objectively? They might be spending too little, and it’s hurting their wines. Or they might be spending too much and not getting what they want.”

During this recession, as many brands’ wine sales continue to slump severely, it’s probably more important than ever to maximize your use of oak. Not to use more, per se, but to use it more wisely. If your revenues are down, and your costs for barrels are not, then you should re-examine what you’re doing with oak purchases and see if there’s a way to do it more economically—just as vintners are doing in every other part of their businesses during tough times.

Properly performed barrel trials can help you save money and/or improve your quality, both of which are important when your wine has to compete harder than ever for sales. Please read the article by Stephen Yafa to get started on conducting better barrel trials.

Steve makes and sells Sonoma County Pinot Noir with his own wine business, Segue Cellars. When he started winemaking a few years ago, Steve did his first impromptu barrel trials the hard way, climbing stacks of barrels at a custom crush winery in the dark with a flashlight, a thief and a tasting glass until he found the aromas and flavors that fit his vision. Back in 2007, he wrote a three-part series for Wines & Vines on his start-up experiences. You can read it on by entering the key words “yafa going pro” in the search site window at the top of any web page.

Now, after interviewing coopers and winemakers about their best methods for barrel trials, I’m sure he will run more systematic and careful tastings.

I hope he tastes blind.

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