Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Blind Tasting the Blind

There's a new book out called "The Wine Trials" that says that most Americans can't tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Dom Perignon. Well, actually, that's not what it says. It says that Americans can tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and Dom, and that they generally like the Two Buck Chuck better.

Being an America-hating liberal, my first reaction was "Typical. Americans are idiots. All hail the terrorists!"

However, "The Wine Trials" isn't an anti-American, pro-Obama screed. In fact, it's science in action. On second thought, that does make it anti-American.

What the authors of the book did was get a variety of wines, from the cheapest swill to the top French Bordeaux, put them in plain paper bags to hide their identity, serve them average Americans and wine experts alike, and then have these people blind taste and rate each wine. They had over 1500 people taste wines in cities all over the country.

In their tests, most people actually preferred the cheaper wines, or liked them just as well as the expensive stuff. The conclusion that the authors drew from this was that, for the average person, cheap wine is just as good as expensive wine.

My take was that if you’ve only eaten Velveeta, you're probably not going to like Gorgonzola. Just sayin'.

Anyway, I decided to test their hypothesis with my own blind tasting, so I invited friends, family, and a few homeless people over and served them six different full-bodied red wines, ranging in price from $1.99 to $45 a bottle, all disguised in brown paper bags to make us feel like genuine winos. With the exception of myself, no one in the group would publicly consider themselves to be a wine expert; for the most part people described themselves as either 'wine novices' or 'booze hounds'.

The results were enlightening. Easily the most popular wine overall was a 2005 Auriga Eldorado County Zinfandel ($25), a very fruit-forward, but decent zin. The least popular wine was the 2006 Trailer Trash South-Eastern Australia shiraz (I swear to God that I am not making that up). However, both my wife and daughter-in-law rated the Trailer Trash as their second favorite of the six, leading me to conclude that while my friends are OK, I might want to think about upgrading my family.

The rest were all somewhere in between. Here's the average ranking of all ten tasters:

  1. Auriga 2005 Eldorado Zinfandel ($25)
  2. Guigal 2001 Chateauneuf du Pape ($41)
  3. St. Clement 2004 Oroppas ($45)
  4. Terre Rouge 2001 Sentinel Oaks Syrah ($24)
  5. Charles Shaw 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon ($1.99)
  6. Trailer Trash 2006 Shiraz ($3.99)

If you compare the prices to the rankings, it seems clear that “The Wine Trials” is a crock of poo. The three most expensive wines were also the three highest rated wines. The Trailer Trash and the Two Buck Chuck came in dead last among the wines overall.

Unfortunately, even with the blatantly unqualified bunch of tasters that I had, there wasn’t a clear black and white verdict either way.

In fact, people were kind of all over the place with the wines. To my taste, the Terre Rouge syrah and the Guigal Chateauneuf du Pape were the two most similar wines. I ranked them first and second. But another taster ranked them last and first, respectively. Every wine but the Trailer Trash shiraz got at least one first place ranking among the ten tasters.

The comments were even more interesting. One taster said that the fancy French wine tasted like “robot vomit”, raising the disturbing question of how one would know what robot vomit tastes like. Another slammed the Charles Shaw for leaving “an asphalt-like coating on my tongue”. Descriptors like “urine & cleaning solution”, “hospitals”, “pencil shavings”, “ferocious”, and “gross” flowed like the wine.

The most divisive wine of the bunch was the Terre Rouge 2001 syrah. Five people rated it either first or second; four people rated it dead last. Comments ranged from “yummy”, “wow! juicy!”, and “very smooth, subtle” to “rubber, with a hint of vinyl factory”.

Despite the range of opinions, even among this group of drunkards, a pattern did emerge. In general, tasters could be divided into two distinct groups. The first group preferred more structured and complex wines, with some earthiness and moderate to well-developed fruitiness. The second group preferred simpler, fruitier wines, and strongly disliked earthier, “terroir-driven” wines.

The first group ranked the Terre Rouge syrah first overall and the Trailer Trash shiraz last. The second group ranked the Charles Shaw and the Trailer Trash tied for first overall and ranked the Terre Rouge dead last. Each group had essentially opposite tastes.

So, in a way, the authors of “The Wine Trials” got it right, or at least half right. Some Americans do prefer cheap wine to more expensive wine. But it’s also clear that some Americans like more expensive wines better.

In others words, some people like to drink good wine and some people like to drink crappy wine. But then, I didn’t need to do a fancy blind tasting to find that out, did I?

What I would take away from this is that if you like Charles Shaw, stick with it, because you’re wasting your money otherwise. But if you’re tired of the asphalt coating that Chuck leaves on your tongue, then you might want to think about spending a little more to get your wine fix.

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