Taste Test 

Lose the labels, double your fun.

It’s sad to admit, but our culture is polluted by marketing. We are programmed by advertisements on TV, radio, and, yes, even in the pages of the newspaper you’re reading right now. Wineries are fast becoming marketing whores like the rest of the product world, using ads, coupons, discounts, and sampling to get your attention. But with so many brands screaming for your attention, you can’t really blame them.
That’s both good and bad news for consumers. We reap the price benefits of the competitive market but frequently fall prey to the gimmicks. Like insipid, tasteless beer, some popular wines out there only sell because the brand name is emblazoned on your consciousness. Consider the last time you bought a bottle of wine. Why did you choose it?
What if all wine bottles were generically labeled “Wine 1,” “Wine 2,” and “Wine 3”? Wouldn’t we then have to purchase by evaluation?
That’s what “blind tasting” is all about. The method disguises the label, forcing people to assess a wine without external influences. Most wine writers, including myself, are not immune to marketing, and to counterbalance the manipulation, we often “blind-taste” by using aluminum foil, paper bags, or anything that hides the label. Although I don’t blind-taste every wine, some of the best deals I’ve found emerged from blind tastings. It’s as if the blindfold sucks all the marketing out of the bottle, leaving its contents clean and unfettered.
Then there’s the challenge of guessing the wines in the bottle, a fun wine-geek game. I’m no good at it, but I know some amazingly talented, well-drunk people who can successfully match the wine with the correct grape, region, winery, and even vintage. They are called master sommeliers, and the blind-tasting section of the certification exam is unbelievably difficult.
Equally as entertaining is duping your friends with blind tastings, especially if you invite some of your haughtier associates. Before anyone arrives, make sure the labels are completely hidden from view, not missing the neck label and taking care the cork doesn’t blow the cover either. Buy a few bottles (or go in with someone to buy them) in a varying price range, from $7 to $40. You can either buy a mix of varietals, like Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, or Cabernet and have people guess the grape; or you can buy the same grape with different labels from different regions. In this scenario, your guests experience the versatility of one grape varietal and how a region’s weather and soil might influence the end product. Have everyone pour their own wine, sit back, and let the marketing-free games begin. Invariably, no one will be able to guess the most expensive bottle. It’s really quite delightful to watch the wine snobs squirm when their favorite costs only $8.
Here are some wine suggestions for the games. Take your own blind-taste test and let me know which wines you liked best.


Chardonnay

Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2002, Columbia Valley, Wash. $11
Glen Carlou 2002, Paarl, South Africa. $14
Cloudy Bay 2003, Marlborough, New Zealand. $28

Sauvignon Blanc

Carmen 2004, Curico Valley, Chile. $8
Kim Crawford 2002, Marlborough. $16
Groth 2004, Napa, Calif. $18

Zinfandel (All California)

Cellar #8 2001, North Coast. $11
Bishop’s Peak 2001, Paso Robles. $16
Rombauer 2001 El Dorado, Napa. $20

Cabernet

Robertson 2002, Robertson Valley, South Africa. $11
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2002, Alexander Valley, Calif. $22
Moon Mountain 2000 Reserve, Sonoma Valley, Calif. $35

Syrah/Shiraz

Columbia Valley Winery 2001, Columbia Valley, Wash. $10
Porcupine Ridge 2003, Coastal Region, South Africa. $11
Cape Mentelle 2002, Margaret River, Australia. $23

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