A Guide to Wine, Food & the Good Life


John Tilson • 2/24/17        Print This Post Print This PostComment Bookmark and Share


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First, I tackled the question of Wine Writing – What Is It? (to read that article click here). Now The Underground, never afraid to venture into complex subjects, explores another enigma wrapped in a riddle: Wine Tastings – What Are They?

baby bacchus drinking wine

Well, it depends. You see “wine tastings” come in many forms. They range from a few wines tasted over a few hours to hundreds of wines tasted over the course of a day or days.  And, the variations are many. They include:

  • Tasting wine with food. This usually means drinking wine.
  • Tasting wine without food. This can mean drinking wine or sipping and spitting wine.
  • Tasting wine single blind (the identities of the wines are known, but not the order of service).
  • Tasting wine double blind (the wines being served are not known).
  • Tasting the same types of wines together.
  • Tasting different wines together.
  • Vertical wine tastings (tasting different vintages of the same wine).
  • Vintage wine tastings (tasting different wines from the same vintage).
  • Tasting wine from barrel.
  • Tasting wine as a social outing. Such as visiting a wine area and going from wine tasting room to wine tasting room drinking different wines or just going to a bar or  getting together with other people and drinking different wines with or without food.

Drinking and tasting wine

This is a list of the most common types of wine tastings. I have done more than my share of all of these and most are not of much interest to me anymore. But, there are also many other types of “wine tastings”. One, for example, involves tasting wine from a black glass so as to not be influenced by the color. There used to even be a wine society devoted to tastings with black glasses! But, I was never even tempted to participate in this type of tasting. I don’t know if a black glass wine society still exists, but you can still buy a wide variety of black wine glasses. Another type of wine tasting is to taste wine as a group, but with each individual tasting alone and then meeting as a group to discuss the findings. This is the way many wine competitions are conducted. And, these are just two more examples of wine tastings. In fact, wine tasting variations are almost endless and as varied as the imaginations of people who are doing the tastings.

So what, if anything, do “wine tastings” prove?  Again it depends. It depends on your mood and your sense of taste. You see, despite the many forms of wine tastings, there is no such thing as an objective wine tasting. All wine tastings are subjective with widely differing results based on people’s ability to remember what they have tasted and the ability of each person to differentiate the components of each wine. Also, people all have different levels of tasting ability as well as personal likes and dislikes. So no matter how much one might try to be unbiased, it is impossible. And, the more wines tasted, the more opinions are formed. Over time, these opinions become more embedded (to read an article on the difference between drinking wine and tasting wine click here). And armed with the information about the different types of wine tastings, allow me to present brief accounts of some of my more memorable wine tastings:

tasting a lot of wines

Tasting wines as a judge in wine competitions.
I began doing these very early in my wine drinking days (even before I founded The Underground Wineletter) at several major wine competitions. One involved regional California wines and had wine writers, oenology professors, wine makers, and wine consumers and retailers. What I learned was that the purpose of the event was to award medals. I felt there was sometimes a decided bias toward the wines based on the economic involvement of the participants. Another involved a massive blind tasting of California wines of all types. Often hundreds of wines of a particular type were tasted by each panel and votes were taken for best of type. Later all the best of their type were tasted by all the judges to award the sweepstakes trophies. One year the top prize was awarded to a Chardonnay. We all loved the wine. And when its identity was announced later, we all went out and bought the wine. To my chagrin, when I opened the wine at home, I found it was sweet! After tasting hundreds of wines, our palates were tired and we were duped by a sweet wine. Thereafter criteria were established for dry and off dry categories. But, no matter, the point is after tasting a massive number of wines no one, and yes I mean no one, can go back and accurately differentiate the wines that have been tasted. My conclusion was then, and is now, that while these types of “competitions” are useful to sell wine, the validity of the results is so flawed that it compromises the value of the opinions. I soon stopped judging wines at massive competitions.

Tasting wines blind for the Underground Wineletter.
Before founding The Underground Wineletter in 1979 my friends and I began doing blind tastings of different wines. And, after The Underground Wineletter was launched we did hundreds of blind tastings over a period exceeding 15 years.  These tastings included California wines and French wines particularly Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne. We would organize our events usually around 20 wines of the same type with around 12 tasters and serve the wines blind with appropriate food. We would taste, drink, evaluate, discuss, and the score the wines. Our goal was to be as objective as possible and report on wine as accurately as possible. (You can read some of the Retrospective Reviews of these tastings as well as the issues themselves by clicking here).

Vertical wine tastings.
My friends and I did many of these tastings whereby we would collect wines from our cellars and other sources known to be reliable and do tastings of a large number of different wines. Usually these events were held at hotels or restaurants and the wines were mostly served blind with food. The events usually occurred over a period of a day or two (with lunches and dinners) since we might be looking at as many as 100 plus wines. These included epic tasting of old Burgundies from the 20s, 30s, and 40s (such as tastings of Burgundies’ from the great 1945 vintage) and tastings of many old wines from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti.  (Again, you can read the Retrospective Reviews of some of these tastings as well as the issues themselves by clicking here).
The last of these big tastings I attended was one where my friends and I contributed a lot of old bottles of La Romanée. La Romanée, a great under appreciated Grand Cru Burgundy, had long been a favorite wine of ours and we had bottles in our cellars back to the early 1900s. At that tasting, during the reception, I observed a young man scurrying around pouring wine from a big bottle. I did not know the person and it was very curious since we had not budgeted or planned on serving any wine from a big bottle at the event.  When I asked the organizer, Bipin Desai, an Underground Contributing Editor, who that person was he answered Rudy Kurniawan. He also told me that Rudy had brought the big bottle to serve. When I asked a question about Rudy, I was told that he was a wealthy collector from Indonesia who had shown up in Los Angeles recently and had a phenomenal collection of old wines. Then when I inquired as to where his wine came from I was told “various sources”.  I asked about the wines and was told that they were mostly a lot of old Pomerols in big bottles and bottles and magnums of old Burgundies. When names like Lafleur, Petrus, and Romanée-Conti began to get tossed around, my BS meter went into over drive.

romanee conti fake

With this first meeting with Rudy, it was déjà vu. I recalled the fake bottle of 1947 Romanée Conti that the Underground had uncovered in the early 1980s which was very early evidence of totally fake bottles (to read an article on this including the first report on wine fraud from The Underground Wineletter Volume IV, Number 4 February-March 1983 click here). Then there was my meeting with Hardy Rodenstock at a wine event some time after. At that event Hardy served many wines that I thought were fakes. I dropped out of the group that was involved with him and tried to tell everyone else to do the same. But, to no avail. The ability to drink these old wines (including a lot of fakes) at little or no expense snared a lot of big fish in the net. But, the wines were fakes then just as I said. And, the wines that were to come from Rudy also proved to largely be fakes (to read an article on Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy Kurniawan and my experiences with them click here). So I had learned very early on in my wine drinking experience not to be involved in buying or drinking old wines unless the provenance was impeccable and well known. And, I would say, that is good advice for any of you paying big bucks to go to one of these old wine tastings. Or, heaven forbid, buying old wines without knowing the provenance or having any idea of what the wine should be. With reference to the former, in fact, the La Romanée event was the last big wine event I attended where there were wines and people involved that I did not know. And, I plan to keep it that way! And, with reference to buying old wines without knowing the provenance or what the wine should taste like, this falls into the category of “A fool and his money are soon parted”.

old wine cellar 1

Barrel tastings.
My friends and I started doing barrel tastings in California in the 70s. We were amongst the first few to begin this practice. After 1979, it became a regular part of The Underground Wineletter and we did major barrel tastings not only in California, but in Bordeaux, Burgundy, and other parts of France as well as a few other places. We did not offer scores for barrel tastings based on the fact that the wines were not finished wines. We only gave opinions from a list of three potential categories and have held to that practice for all this time. Later, others came along and started giving scores to barrel samples. This made no sense then and it makes no sense today. Now the big numbers scorers regularly give numbers to tastings from barrel and these numbers are used to sell the wine even well after it has been bottled and offered for sale. And, these numbers are often accompanied by verbose descriptions. These notes should not be taken too seriously by any one. Barrel tastings offer only general impressions of a young unfinished wine. They are nothing else and nothing more no matter how the notes and numbers are massaged (to read about how wine is tasted from barrel click here).  

So, after all of these years, where do I stand on “wine tastings”? Well, again it depends. Some are interesting. Some are boring. Over the years I tired of big tastings involving dozens of wines. These tastings involve too many wines to be enjoyed so I don’t attend those much any more. What I really enjoy is having an ample amount of wine with wonderful food and a small group of friends.

In summary, at the end of the day, week, month, year, or years, what is the value of wine tastings? For me, it has been a long journey now covering nearly 50 years. And, like all journeys, it has had its ups and downs. It has taken me to many different places and, with a very few exceptions, I have enjoyed them all. It has increased my knowledge of wines and enabled me to form my own opinions. I have met many interesting people and made many friends. From the early days of tasting at Central Coast wineries such as Ridge Vineyards,  Mount Eden Vineyards, Calera, and Chalone, and many other California wineries in Napa and Sonoma in the late 60s and early to mid 70s and in Santa Barbara from the late 70s and early 80s, to the tastings in Bordeaux and Burgundy beginning in the early 80s, there are too many experiences to recount here. (However, to read about those early tastings as reported in the original Underground issues and updated in Retrospective Reviews click here).  Suffice to say, many of the early friendships developed into lifetime relationships that continue to this day. And, yes there have been a few bumps in the road like the fraudulent wines, massive and tiring tastings, and a few other things. But, the negatives pale in comparison with the positives.

However, out of all of my wine experiences, perhaps the most important thing I learned was to form my own opinions. Sometimes, I feel like a voice in the wilderness and it can be lonely. In the 1980s it was speaking out against wine fraud and calling for more information on the labels of Non Vintage Champagne. Today the wine fraud story is widely known and accepted, but the sad part is that a lot of it could have been averted had people only listened. Also, today there is more information on the labels of some Non Vintage Champagnes.  But, alas most Non Vintage Champagnes still do not provide enough information for a consumer to know how old the wine is, when it was bottled, and what went into it from the standpoint of  grape varieties and percentages, and the years of harvest. But, now led by many small grower Champagne houses and  well known prestige Champagne houses such as Krug (to read an article featuring Krug’s innovations in labeling click here).  This is changing and will continue to be more widely adopted (to read about labeling on Non Vintage Champagnes click here).

And, since the 1990s a new culprit has arrived on the wine scene. This is overly manipulated wines. That is wines that are made in a “new” way with a lot of non traditional methods and a lot of additives. This is the reason that wine ingredient labeling is so important to all of us consumers (to read a  recent article on what’s in wine click here).  And, when what is in wine is fully disclosed and fully recognized, I think that it will be the biggest wine story of my life time.

So there you have it – one man’s opinion of “wine tastings”. Where do you stand? You see, at the end of the day, that is all that matters. Remember the Underground motto – Drink What You Like And Like What You Drink!
In Vino Veritas,Sig

John Tilson

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