04/22/2013 10:24 am ET Updated Jun 22, 2013

Why I Don't Taste Wine Blindly


Blind tasting has been the gold standard for rating wines since the 1970s, when Californian vintners shook the wine world by beating out the best bottles from France in a string of competitions. Judges who had assumed the French reds and whites would easily topple the upstarts from the United States were shocked at their own choices. But blind tasting is a lousy way of reviewing most of the wines that people actually buy.

For starters, the process of blind tasting has very little to do with the experience of most wine buyers. How often do you open a bottle for dinner, or bring one to a friend's house, without knowing what it contains? When do you tell the sommelier at a restaurant to bring out a mystery wine with a hidden label? Hardly ever, except for kicks.

Guessing games aside, the more serious goal of blind tasting is to provide an assessment of wines without any influence from non-wine factors. In other words, the results of blind tastings should be impervious to bribes, prejudices, and pretty labels. It sounds perfectly logical, yet there is one nettlesome fact: a lot of wine buyers like pretty labels.

Indeed, everything about a bottle -- its label, the details of the wine's production, or a statement from the winemaker -- can become a positive part of the drinking experience, like knowing an author's biography when you read a novel. As the philosopher Jonathan Cohen has written, "there are things we should want to get from our perceptual encounters with wine that blind tastings make inaccessible."

Some literary critics, notably followers of Roland Barthes, would argue that the details of authors' lives can pollute readers' appraisal of their works in the same way that knowing the price or origin of a wine might sway a judge. Yet people who use criticism to guide their reading or tasting don't need unpolluted appraisals. What they do need is a reliable correlation with their own preferences.

For example, a reviewer who dislikes every book that I like is a useful critic; I know to buy any book she hates. Another critic who consistently rates books a little better than how I would rate them is also useful, since I can adjust my expectations to incorporate his positive bias. But a third reviewer who is all over the map is no good to me at all, since I have no idea when her reviews will reflect my preferences.

For me, none of the value of criticism has anything to do with the critic's process. Consider film critics: the ones we return to again and again either consistently tell us something useful or provide some entertainment. Would I ask any of them to review a film without knowing who made it, or how? No, because that wouldn't add any value.

Similarly, a wine critic whose reviews are scattershot or do not resonate with consumers will not have a job for long. After a while, the public will find other critics who offer more valuable information. The ultimate verdict on wine critics is the verdict of the market.

If a wine critic gains a huge following, clearly he is doing something that consumers find worthwhile. To be sure, some aficionados may value him exactly because of his blind tasting process -- but here, the Barthes critique is inverted; the aficionados have a bias based on the critic's perceived lack of bias, which, by itself, has nothing to do with the wine.

In writing reviews for Argovino, my website devoted to Argentine wines, I strive to replicate the consumer's experience as much as possible. I buy wines off the shelf or online, and I either drink them right away or store them for a short time. I don't decant them or let them breathe for more than an hour, at least not for the first tasting. Whenever possible, I drink them with food after trying them on their own. Though brief, the reviews I write take into account all of these experiences with the wine.

I admit that this process might not work so well for aged wines from the great chateaus of Bordeaux or the deep, musty cellars of the Rioja. As any connoisseur will tell you, careful decanting and airing is essential to unlocking the full flavor and structure of those oenological treasures. But few American consumers will ever have the money or even intent to drink such venerable wines.

By contrast, Argentine wines are typically sold young and drunk in short order. The best of them taste wonderful out of the bottle and even better after a few years on the rack. Many are also an incredible value; Argovino's first wine to score 95 points out of 100, the 2005 Weinert Cabernet Sauvignon, cost just $19.99 plus tax. These wines are well suited to the sort of quick tasting, blind or otherwise, on which most reviews are based.

In my reviews, I try to tell consumers what they're likely to feel in their own tasting, not what they'd experience as part of some super-scientific process. I don't want them to read my reviews just because of how I taste wines. I want them to read my reviews because I've earned their trust.