Blind tasting is at the heart of our ratings and reviews here at Wine Enthusiast. But what does that mean exactly? Don’t worry. We aren’t putting blindfolds on ourselves and fumbling around for the wine glass. Though that would be fun to watch.
Blind tasting means bottles are stripped of capsules, placed into paper bags and arranged in peer-group flights of the same or similar styles, varietal compositions, vintages and/or appellations, of about five wines. They are then tasted and scores are recorded, after which the bag is pulled off and the wine revealed.
Why is this method important? Simply put, it removes many opportunities for bias and levels the playing field for all wines to receive the same analysis without any preexisting expectations. That is to say, it removes all preconceived notions, good, bad or in between.
Blind tasting removes many opportunities for bias and levels the playing field for all wines to receive the same analysis without any preexisting expectations.
What types of biases exist? Let’s say I know a wine comes from a highly regarded producer. I might be inclined to look at it more favorably. The opposite certainly holds true, too. Perhaps I have never had a high-quality bottle from a certain producer, appellation or vintage. Do those wines really stand a fair chance if I am not tasting blind?
Another important bias is price. We are unaware of price points during our tastings, because otherwise, an expensive wine is more likely to be thought of favorably than an inexpensive wine.
If you don’t believe me, put a bottle of wine in a paper bag at a party. Tell half of your friends it costs $100. Tell the other half it costs $15. Ask how much they like it. I guarantee the differences in how those two groups perceive the wine will be profound.
Removing that variable as a consideration allows reviewers to focus on the juice in the glass and find unexpected high-quality, value-driven wines that perform just as well as, if not better than, those for two or three times the price. It’s also what allows us to establish true Best Buys, the center of our 2019 Top 100 list.
Biases can compound as well, such as an expensive wine coming from a top producer in a highly regarded vintage, or vice versa.
You might think blind tasting is the norm for wine reviews and reviewers, but it isn’t. Some evaluate wines while sitting with the winemaker or in large-scale, nonblind tastings or perhaps in nonblind, smaller tastings.
Personally, I still meet regularly with winemakers to talk about and taste their wines, as do all of Wine Enthusiast’s reviewers, for informational purposes. During these meetings, I usually write down notes and scores, but for my own personal reference—only scores from subsequent blind tastings are published—as the exercise provides an excellent opportunity to compare nonblind and blind scores, albeit with a different bottle on a different occasion.
What have I found? My scores tasting with winemakers are typically one to two points higher, sometimes more, than they are when tasted blind in a controlled setting and peer-group flight.
This shouldn’t be shocking. Winemakers are excited about their wines, and they are trying to get me excited about them too. Guess what? It works!
The effects of expectation can be profound. Blind tasting removes expectation and always yields surprises. As wine professionals, we like to think we are immune from biases. But we are not. We’re only human, after all.