Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Lacrima di Morro d'Alba and aged grignolino; or, The Value of Blind Tasting

Last night, the monthly tasting group, which I'm thrilled to say is back on track with a renewed sense of purpose and discipline, met up in Oakland to taste two flights of four wines. Typically, if a wine's bottle is covered and it's identity concealed, you might call it 'blind' tasting, but from now on I think I'm going to go with 'brown bag tasting,' out of respect for anyone who is partially or fully blind, so as to not associate this voluntary professional exercise, leisurely activity, or however you experience it, with the involuntary condition of lacking eye sight. So, we tasted two flights of four wines each, trying to guess what was in our glass, what commonality tied the wines together. Typically, this common thread is a region, or perhaps a grape varietal. Last night, it was both a DOC region and its grape varietal for the first flight, lachrima di morro d'alba from the Marche, on the adriatic coast of Italy, south of Emilia Romagna and east of Umbria. For the second flight, it was a broader piemonte regional theme consisting of a few wines from monferrato, a langhe chardonnay and a gattinara.

Brown bag tasting gets a bad rap. In Adventures on the Wine Route, Kermit Lynch famously likens it to strip poker, or some sort of parlor trick. In the 1970's when he was starting out in the business, it was popular to compare some of the classic Bordeaux and Burgundies with some of the best California wines in competitive tastings. You know, The Judgement of Paris and stuff like that. I can understand his point of view, that you cannot understand a wine in a few minutes, or declare it better than another in a peer group just because it may have a richer, more forceful personality. Wine observed and critiqued in isolation (i.e. without food) is indeed not how it is meant to be enjoyed. It is an argument shared by detractors of brown bag tasting today.

However, I maintain that the brown bag exercise is a worthwhile one. The brown bag enables objectivity. Whatever pre-conceived notions you may have of a region, a grape varietal, a producer, or an importer, disappear and enable you to judge a wine on its own merits. Also, the format of most brown bag tastings often times enable you to judge a wine amongst its peers. By tasting similar wines in a focused way, you invariably learn more about what makes a region, producer, or vintage distinctive. Then again, the value of a brown bag tasting ultimately depends on the care with which one selects the wines, as well as the approach and observations of the participants.

There are plenty of groups that go for the tried and true, WSET inspired groupings of wines, perhaps combined with a degree of hype for certain vintages. For example, 2007 Chateauneuf du Pape, 2008 Burgundies, 2007 Napa cabernet. I have a co-worker who has participated in such tastings with his group every month for years now. And that's fine. Not for me, but that's why I'm in a group that does brown bag tasting a bit more off the beaten path: two flights of Puffeney, zinfandel from the 80's and early 90's, currently available Alsatian wines, and most recently, the lachrima flight as well as some grignolino, freisa, gattinara and 02 Coppo Chardonnay.

After we taste, we eat. Well. Last night it was lasagna, which went very nicely with a 2006 Luciano Landi "Gaviligiano" Lachrima di Morro d'Alba.


Florida Jim said...

No fan of brown bag tasting am I, but I can see that when all the wines are of the same variety and generally, the same time period, one can get a reasonable handle on that varieties character.
When one gets more expansive than that, I think much depends upon the tasters; those who can set aside label bias or some competitive nature may be able to get more out of it then I.
For me, tasting with food is the ultimate; two glasses with two wines is about all the comparison I can handle.
But then, to each is ever lovin' blue eyed own.
Best, Jim

Joe Manekin said...


I hear ya. When it comes to wine with food, which is how my group always ends, I too prefer two different wines to compare. However, without food, I am a definite try many different things at one sitting type of guy. I enjoy it almost as much as I enjoy sitting down with a few friends and getting to know a single bottle of wine.


Florida Jim said...

I think that it is a personal limitation for me ("a man's got to know his limitations . . ."); I know a lot of folks who love tasting many wines at a sitting. I find I lose my ability to discern after about the third wine in a tasting - not completely, but enough so that I no longer trust my judgment.
Of course, drinking is fun, too.
Best, Jim