Food & Dining

Wine tasting: It's all subjective

Can you tell a $15 wine from a $60 wine? A cabernet sauvignon from a zinfandel? If I poured you a glass of wine to taste, and 10 minutes later I poured you a second glass out of the same bottle, could you tell it was the same wine?

Most people -- including professional tasters -- cannot. At least that's one side of an argument that's been lighting up the wine blogosphere.

"Wine tasting: It's junk science," says an article in the British newspaper the Observer. In one test, professional tasters -- given the same wine three times 10 minutes apart -- gave it scores that varied by as much as four points on a 100-point scale.

Other tasters described a wine far more favorably when told it was expensive than when told the same wine was cheap.

What do you think? Let's do a simple home test. If nothing else, it's a good party game.

Read my wine descriptions below. Label two wine glasses No. 1 and No. 2. Have the friend pour the $18 zin into one glass and the $15 cab into the other, not letting you see which is which.

Taste each. Take notes on which you think is the more tannic cab, which the softer zin. Ask your friend if you're right.

Ten minutes later, have your friend pour you another glass -- labeled No. 3 -- of the $15 cab or the $18 zin. Write down which wine you think it is. Did you discern whether No. 3 was the same as No. 1 or the same as No. 2?

Now try it with the two white wines.

If you want to take it further, do a blind tasting of the $15 Concannon cab vs. the Grgich Hills cab, which sells for four times the price at $60. Can you tell the expensive one? Did you like it better?

Retaste them. Be honest: Does knowing which is more expensive change your opinion?

What all this shows, in my opinion, is that wine tasting is subjective. I've been on dozens of five-person tasting panels in wine competitions in which one taster wants to give a wine a gold medal, one wants to give it silver, a third wants bronze and two say no medal at all.

That's why I use only two categories in rating wine: Recommended or highly recommended. If I can't recommend it at all, I just leave it out.

So why do you need wine columnists? Well, I've been writing about wine for 30 years. I believe I can discern its flavors, its weight, its major flaws. I can share my experience about wine-food matches.

Still, my philosophy is that you should eat what you want and drink what you want with it.

A reader once wrote to me: "Your wine recommendations are useful because I disagree with every one of them. So I know which wines to avoid." Glad I could help.

Tasting notes

  • 2011 Rancho Zabaco Heritage Vines Zinfandel, Sonoma County, Calif.: Aromas and flavors of blueberries and sweet chocolate; big and rich and smooth, with soft tannins; $18.
  • 2010 Concannon Conservancy Cabernet Sauvignon, Livermore Valley, Calif.: Aromas and flavors of vanilla and black cherries; powerful, with firm tannins; $15.
  • 2010 Grgich Hills Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, Calif.: Hint of oak, flavors of black cherries and dark mocha, firm tannins; $60.
  • 2012 Nobilo Regional Collection Sauvignon Blanc, Marlborough, New Zealand: Light, crisp and lively, with aromas and flavors of herbs, minerals and green apples; $14.
  • 2012 Hardy's Nottage Hill Chardonnay, South Eastern Australia: Hint of oak, full-bodied, aromas and flavors of ripe peaches; $14.
  • Fred Tasker is a former Miami Herald writer who now writes about wine for the McClatchy News Service.