Leveling up in blind tasting: prepping for a test, GuildSomm, and Uncorked

IMG_4683“Dear Finalists,

Congratulations again on your impressive tasting thus far! You’re the cream of the crop in your respective cities. Now the time has come to see which taster, which city, indeed which COUNTRY is the best of the best.”   The email continued, “Please join us in Las Vegas, Nevada for the BLIND TASTING FINALE, in which the top twelve global finishers will compete, followed by a fantastic dinner.”

The gauntlet had been thrown down, and the finals of the Heritage Auctions Blind Tasting Challenge was in the offing. Three finalists from each of four cities — Los Angeles, New York, Dallas and Hong Kong –were invited to duke it out for a trophy and bragging rights.

While this may all sound a tad dramatic, I’m just having a bit of fun with the write-up; this competition is in its inaugural year and it’s more a lighthearted friendly competition than an intense battle of deadly serious contestants.  Earlier in the year, I wrote about participating in the qualifying round of this blind tasting competition in this blog post.  As the 3rd place finisher in the New York sessions, I qualified for the finals in Las Vegas.  The tricky part: the competition would focus on auction-level wines, which essentially meant wines that I don’t often drink: expensive, and with age on them.  I expected the other finalists to likely be older than me, or at least have more years of collecting and more experience with auction-level wines than I do.  Even though it’s an informal competition, independently I had been trying to get to a new level with my blind tasting, so this was a good excuse to get a bit more rigorous in approach.

The first component of my plan: practice.  My companions in Leo’s Blind Tasting Group are a great resource, and the wines they’ve poured at club dinners form the vast majority of my experience with auction quality wines. But it only meets once a month, and we are very informal about it – the ethos is sort of ‘guess if you want to’.  I had about 5 weeks to go until the Finals; time to step it up. So I started weekly blind tastings, turning again to Morrell Wine Bar, not only because it’s convenient to my after-work commute, but also because of their wide range of wines that the somm could pour for me blind.  Most wine bars can pour you some good young wines by the glass, but Morrell’s had options you will find scarce elsewhere: big names in tasting pour sizes I could afford, with age on them. To wit, the wines that the wine director, Anna-Christina (herself a candidate for the Court of Master Sommeliers Advanced Level, so she had a great bead on how to test me), poured for me included: Coche Dury Meursault 2006, 1980 Bertani Amarone, 1998 Leoville Barton, 2003 Chapoutier Hermitage Le Méal, 1985 Opus One, 1991 Vega Sicilia Unico(!).  Real classics, and mature examples.  I committed to always giving an answer, even when I was lost as to what the wine in question was.  Anna-Christina was great about keeping me challenged while also giving hints and tips as needed.

The second component of my cramming: I started listening to the Guild of Sommeliers podcast, especially the episodes about blind tasting.  Yes, this is wine nerdy to the extreme for someone who’s not a sommelier.  I admit to feeling elation as I listened to a master somm describe a wine he was tasting, venturing my own guess of “Chablis”, and then finding out the wine was indeed a Chablis.  The person next to me on the train probably thought I was deranged when I let out an audible reaction.  One nice by-product of listening to the podcast was that it got me into really into understanding some grapes I’ve never really delved into, like Albariño and Chenin Blanc.  This wasn’t really going to help me with the contest, as such wines were unlikely to come up in the auction-wine-driven finals, but it did get to the heart of what I think the point of blind tasting is: not to pull off what seems like a nifty trick, but to really deeply understand what’s in your glass. and what makes it what it is.  I found myself looking forward to focusing on non-auction-type wines after the contest was over.

Another by-product of listening to the GuildSomm episodes was changing the way I taste wines blind from the bottom up, relying less on instinct (which can serve you well but also lead you astray) and more on analysis of the wine’s structure and relying on deduction to get to the right answer.  I had always done this to some degree, but putting more thought into it made me see that this was the only way to really get to next-level skills.

All this really helped me put things into perspective ahead of the contest finals.  A single tasting of eight wines would be a fun test, but the true measure of where I stood as a blind taster was better captured by how I did over the five or so weeks I practiced, and how I would build on that in the future.  In some sessions I rocked and essentially got 3 out of four wines; others I was 2 for 4 with reasonably close wrong guesses on others; sometimes I was 1 for 3 or 4 with some wildly wrong misses. I got better at deduction over time, but I also learned how far I have to go, how much better I can be, and a path to get there.  No matter how I did in Vegas, I knew the retooling process that I had begun meant that regardless of outcome, a year from now I will be miles ahead of where I am now if I keep at it.

One more blind-tasting-related obsession was more of the guilty-pleasure type: watching the new show “Uncorked” on Esquire TV, which was essentially the documentary “Somm” turned into a six-episode long season. Watching the MS candidates (including a friend, Morgan Harris, currently a somm at Aureole) practice their blind tasting in prep for their exam was entertaining and inspiring.  Not quite inspiring enough to make me study tons of theory and trace maps of wine regions, but got me into the mindset of gearing up for one winner-take-all tasting to see where I really stood when you have to put an answer whether you know what the wine is or not.  One fun bit of inside baseball when you’re watching the show: any scenes where one of the judges, Laura Maniec MS, is giving a Morgan a hard time are a little extra fun to watch if you know that Morgan used to work for Laura at Corkbuzz so there’s a mentor relationship subtext going on.

Next post: find out how the finals in Vegas went!

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