One aspect of wine evaluation, and not one without controversy, is tasting blind.
This means not knowing whose wine you are tasting until after you’re done with your assessment.
Why is this important? The natural tendency is to be swayed by knowledge. If you are tasting one of the world’s most famous wines - say, a First Growth Bordeaux - there’s an inclination to give it the benefit of the doubt because you’re supposed to like it based on your own experience or someone’s suggestion. Besides, if that is an expensive wine you are tasting, you don’t want to feel stupid for spending a lot for a bottle that you don’t like.
And then there’s one of our favorite bromides. “The closer you are standing to the winemaker the better the wine tastes,” although sometimes it can be difficult to mask your disappointment.
Objectivity is the primary reason for judging wine blind. It helps remove preconceived notions about a wine and leads to an honest assessment. This is the premise of major wine competitions, and our tasting panels also are conducted under blind conditions. We don’t know who made the wine or how much it retails for until we’re done evaluating, discussing, debating and voting. We know the type or style of a wine, for example, a Cabernet Sauvignon or a white blend that leads with Sauvignon Blanc, but that’s about it.
In order for a wine to receive our top rating, which we tag as “Outstanding!” - our equivalent of a gold medal - a majority of those on that tasting panel must agree it deserves that ranking.
It’s more convenient for an individual to sit down, open a bottle, swirl, sniff and sip and develop their impressions of a wine. On the other hand, there’s time, effort and expense involved in gathering a group of people to evaluate wine that’s been poured for them by a third party.
Tasting panels and wine competitions create a convivial experience, however, and the results help identify delicious efforts by Pacific Northwest grape growers and winemakers. There are discoveries. In our corner of the world, bargains often are unveiled. Sometimes, the most expensive wine doesn’t quite measure up to expectations. It’s all a part of wine education.
In a roundabout way, tasting wine as a group also allows us to celebrate life, something that we all should do more of. We encourage wine lovers to gather friends and create casual tasting groups.
These four wines below earned our top rating in recent blind tastings. Ask for them at your favorite wine shop or contact the winery directly.
Finn Hill Winery 2014 Le Beau Cabernet Sauvignon, Red Mountain, $30: This Cab by Woodinville winemaker Rob Entrekin proved to be one of the most decorated in the state during 2018. There’s richness and concentration from start to finish, opening with aromas of cherry cola, cinnamon bark, dusty lavender and menthol. Beautifully resolved cherry-skin tannins allow for a long appreciation of Marionberry and blueberry, which finishes with some boldness and green peppercorns. It’s not easy to find a Cab from Red Mountain of such expression at this price.
TruthTeller Winery 2015 The Madman Red Wine, Columbia Valley, $35: In the Old World, a blend such as this would be in the shadows. In Woodinville’s Warehouse District, Chris Loeliger’s blend of Syrah (60 percent), Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc shows delicious brilliance, and it starts on Red Mountain, backed by Cab Franc from stellar Elephant Mountain Vineyard at the eastern end of the Yakima Valley. The complex theme centers on dark blue fruit akin to plums and elderberry with white pepper and nutmeg. Enjoyably crunchy blueberry seed tannins are balanced and finished by a dusting of cocoa powder.
Lopez Island Vineyards & Winery 2016 Malbec, Yakima Valley $26: Puget Sound producer Brent Charnley recently shifted his Malbec program to family-farmed Crawford Vineyard near Prosser, and it continues to reap rewards. Gorgeous color extraction and the grape’s signature Jolly Rancher grape candy nose is joined by boysenberry and baking spice from the year spent in 30 percent new French oak. Lovely dark fruitiness of blackberry, blueberry and plum are met with a pleasing mouth feel of well-presented tannins and boysenberry acidity that comes with a touch of minerality.
Tenet Wines 2016 The Pundit, Columbia Valley $25: By the looks of it, Ste. Michelle Wine Estates can help do for Syrah what it has done with Riesling, which is world-class stuff. Tenet Wines represents another example of Chateau Ste. Michelle head winemaker Bob Bertheau collaborating with European experts to create a gateway example of a variety that the majority of American consumers aren’t overly familiar with, offer it at an affordable price and produce it on a large scale. The influence of new French oak over 13 months shows with the bittersweet chocolate and toast aromas that include blueberry cobbler and black cherry. There’s a payday on the palate from each of those notes as the dark fruit spills across with pleasing weight. A nice tug of tannin of comes across as a nibble of blackcurrant skin with the juice to match, followed by the underlying and food-friendly gaminess that Syrah often brings to the table. The Pundit is widely distributed and sometimes found for a few dollars less than the listed price.
Andy Perdue and Eric Degerman operate Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at greatnorthwestwine.com