Berger on Wine: Blind tastings gone wrong

I have a great track record when it comes to identifying wines served to me “blind,” with no clue about what they are.

I've identified correctly every wine except 97 percent of them.

No wine expert likes to play this no-win game. Harry Waugh, the late English wine author and former director at Chateau Latour, once was asked, “Have you ever mistaken a Bordeaux for a Burgundy?”

Waugh's reply: “Not since lunch.”

I have always considered the “identify this wine” game an obscure parlor trick played on so-called wine experts to embarrass them. Virtually every test I've experienced illustrates the pitfalls inherent in such activities and proves only that wine can be humbling.

In my defense, of the myriad times I was mistaken about a wine, my logic was usually impeccable. The problems were either winemakers let me down by making wines so atypical that no one would have had an easy time of it, or the wines were badly stored.

In 1980, a good friend poured for me a dark red wine that was extremely ripe with a late-picked aroma. I guessed it was a 1970 zinfandel. My friend chuckled and said it was 1975 Santa Cruz Mountains pinot noir. I said, “It's not a very pinot-like.” He continued chuckling.

I partially vindicated myself in 1985 when the same friend played the same game. Again I guessed the wine he served to be an older zin.

“Ha, this is the same wine you guessed wrong last time,” he laughed, to which I said, “It still smells and tastes like a bad zin.”

In 1988, I wrote a column about a chardonnay. I said it was similar to Chevalier-Montrachet from Burgundy. At a dinner party a week later, someone handed me a glass of a “white” wine that was bronze in color and was pretty bad.

“What is it?” someone asked me. I replied, “a badly stored French white Burgundy.” A winemaker at the event whispered to me, “I told him not to serve it.”

Another time, about 1990, another friend poured a clearly older bottle of red wine blind. After an hour I guessed it was 1971 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. I was wrong. It was an exemplary and perfectly stored bottle of 1970 Souverain zinfandel! It was a dramatic treat.

My successes include an older white wine that the late Joe Heitz served to eight of us at his home before a Saturday luncheon in the 1990s. The group included two of the finest tasters I have ever known, the late Dr. Bernard (Barney) Rhodes of Napa and Napa wine author Bob Thompson.

At first I had no clue what the wine was. Then almost without thinking I blurted out, “Joe, I think it's your 1971 pinot blanc,” which elicited only an expletive from Heitz. I had that wine only once, in 1975.

I was one-for-two at the home of David Shaw, the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist from the Los Angeles Times. In one instance I guessed that a “muddy” white wine was a 1950s Vouvray.

It was a Vouvray, but from 1949. Months later, I guessed David's 1969 Beaulieu Pinot Noir was a 1972 cabernet!

Australian wine lovers play a variation on “guess this wine.” Called the Options Game, it was devised by the late Aussie writer, chef, and bon vivant Len Evans.

The host poses several questions about a wine, each with three choices. One of them is correct. All guests rise and the questions begin: “Is this wine from the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s?” “Is it French, Californian, or South African?”

Those who guess wrong sit down until only one person remains standing, the winner. The game can also be played with wagers - 10 cents added to the “pot” for every wrong answer. I was declared the worst-ever judge of older French Champagnes.

Such an options game involving 200 persons in Sydney was won by a guest who knew nothing about wine! The wine that all the experts missed was an un-oaked chardonnay. Most thought was pinot gris.

Chicanery often enters the game. Once a dozen of us were asked to identify a dark, nearly black sweet wine from California. We were all wrong. We all guessed it was a port. It was 1980 Chateau St. Jean Late Harvest Riesling that was so badly stored the color had turned black!

Wine of the Week: 2014 Herdade do Esporão, Alentejo, Portugal ($21) - Alentejo is a warm region in central and southern Portugal adjacent to Spain's Andalucia that grows a variety of rustic grape varieties that typically make dark red wines. This hearty red blend of 40 percent Aragonez (called tempranillo elsewhere), 30 percent of the very dark Alicante Bouschet, and 20 percent of the very dark Trincadera delivers a wine hearty enough for strong beef stews or barbecued meats.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 am.

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