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Blinded by the Wine

Posted by Kerith , May 20, 2010

There is a little bit of Rachel Berry deep inside all of us, some more than others.  If Taylor Swift’s music pierces the soul of anguished tween girls across the Midwest, then Rachel Berry embodies every over-achieving, approval-seeking, type-A adolescent.  These are the girls who grow up to become overbearing, validation-craving, histrionic Jewish mothers.  During a recent episode of Glee, after Rachel wailed, “I am like Tinker Bell, Finn. I need applause to live!,” my husband just turned at me and stared, very hard, for a long time.  And it’s true, that elusive gold star is sweet to accrue (and wear like a gaudy wrist corsage for all to admire).  But my obsessive, self-absorbed quest for world-wide admiration is exhausting and requires work.  Like I have to put myself out there to be judged, by doing things like blind tasting wines, where I usually fail.

I recently re-visited the source of my greatest shame and again subjected myself to that most loathsome and tedious of tasks – blind tasting wines before an audience.  I am happy to report I’ve shown very little improvement from my last ineptitude where I failed to link “pencil shavings and cassis” to the vines of Bordeaux.  On this occasion, my only clue was “4 different red wines.”  My mission: correctly identify each grape varietal while Russian gangsters blindfolded me with burlap scraps they ripped apart with their teeth and caressed my brainstem with the trigger of an automatic rifle.  Each bottle was randomly assigned a color-coated wine bag to distinguish it from its neighbor (and presumably make me feel red rage at my infantile green envy when my colleague outperformed me).  While tasting, I made incoherent tasting notes like “hmm- smells briny, like oysters – what is it?” and “berry nose reminds me of pinot but it’s not pinot - what is it?”  And that’s the joke of the game- I had no f*&%&king idea.  Happily I still got the steak and passion fruit mousse prize even though my score was only 25%, dropping me below the bottom third of my graduating medical school class.

Blind tasting wine is all about sensory memories and sparking neural connections between stuff you drink sober enough to recall on cue and what is in your glass right now.  When I marvel how my Master Sommelier pals not only identify varietal but also region, producer, and year of vintage (!!), they are humble and blather about their “taste database.”  Whatever.  It’s still the coolest party trick I’ve seen.

If you want to blind taste wines at home, you probably ought to follow some ground rules.  First you need to pick a theme.  For example, you might taste only merlots, then purchase ones from around the globe and pick your favorite (although I don’t know why you’d ever pick merlot for anything).  Only the most sadistic of men will rig the game so that devouring the glistening, juicy steak crackling before you is contingent on correctly identifying the contents of each bottle.  Instead spare yourself the humiliation; blind taste for fun and choose your favorite.  Generally, the bottles should be about the same price.  This is no caveat of snobbish whim, although it is always entertaining to see if your wino-wonko buddies can pick the boxed wine from a lineup.  I encourage you taste around a similar price point because it helps equalize winemaking techniques that affect taste and aroma.  For example, new French oak barrels are really expensive.  Cheap wines cannot afford to lounge around for 2 years in new French oak.  Instead they settle for used barrels or swimming over a small mountain of oak chips (like the stuff in your bbq smoker).  Furthermore, cheap grapes from hotter climes, like the San Joaquin Valley, have lower acid.  The amount of acid in finished wine affects how you perceive taste, mouth feel, and finish.  (You can always add acid back to unfinished wine, but that trick is costly too).  Across a level playing field, you can select your favorite wine with more assurance and precision.  Lastly, follow the 4 S’s (plus 3 more).  See, swirl, smell, sip, (slosh it around your mouth, then either spit or swallow).  Only the self anointed pros taste in black glassware as to remain uninfluenced by color.  You should not.  Look at the color.  If the wine you suspect neighbor contributed looks brown and murky, tell him to stop being such a cheap prick and pawning off the wine stashed behind the radiator.  Plus, you’ll only lose friends when your colleague screams, “I know it!  Gruner Veltliner!” and it’s actually cabernet.

(Special thanks to our good friends and Bruliam fans who went all out to organize a truly wonderful evening of wine tasting and fabulous food.)

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