So You Wanna Be a Wine Nerd: The Blind Taste

Disclaimer: What I am about to tell you about may make wine less fun for, oh, say, a minute. It will make you doubt yourself. It will possibly make you mad at yourself. But what you can learn will only amplify the fun later. I’m talking about that thing we wine nerds do called blind tasting. It can be a parlor trick but there are other things we do it for. We do it to truly know wine. To assess a vino without predetermined data influencing our judgment. We do it so we can look at a wine list and have a strong idea of what a wine will be like before tasting it. We also do it because some of us have tests to pass. And yes, because it’s a fun way to impress people. I do it because of all these things and because blind tasting is my second favorite game to play with my significant other. My first favorite is Exploding Kittens, which may or may not be a metaphor and may be both. You make the call. I’m going to give you some basic tips on how to organize a tasting and then, with added geek seasoning, give you a rundown of things we tend to assess wine aka “the grid”. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ FIRST A SAFETY WARNING: The first professional tasting I went to started at 11am. I thought, no prob driving there, I will spit! But…100 wines, even if you spit, adds up and I spent a good long time in my car sipping Vitamin Water (my true addiction—can I see a day without booze? Sure. But I love my Vitamin water and Monster drinks. Don’t tell Dionysus) before I was sure I felt good. Encourage folks to use public transit or rideshare. For them, for you, for everyone. Speaking of spitting—my take on spit buckets: I think its good to do for the blind tasting portion. Put a solo cup at everyone’s spot. They can use it or not, but I find if I’m blinding a lot of wines, spitting helps me keep a clear head. Now! For how to put it all together. Step one: Have a structure. Or a couple you mix up. It can be fun to ask everyone to bring one or two wines in paper bags. I would say have a minimum price range but…rather than that, I suggest you just don’t invite the friend who is going to bring two buck chuck, so they can get away with drinking fancy on your dime. This person is not your friend. More because of the fact that they buy two-buck chuck than that they are using you. Priorities. It can also be fun to take turns having one person “captain” the night. They procure the wines and everyone Venmos their previously agreed upon share. Either way you go, having a THEME for the night is great fun. And if you are feeling extra party make some food to match the theme. Suggested themes I’ve taken part in: -Different varieties same country/region/hemisphere -Same grape, different regions (this is getting tricky!) -Same wine, different quality level (this works best if one person is captaining so you don’t end up with 6 bottles of 2-buck chuck) -Wines with some sort of other factor in common--and this is real nerdy--like American oak, any oak at all, lees aging, or straight up aged wine. And if one person is captaining the experience then you can have to guess both the wines and what it is that links them. But that is if you are pretty advanced in your wine knowledge. Wines poured, have a format: Do you all make your notes on your own then discuss? Do you all make notes then one person takes on one wine after which everyone debates? Or do you want to all try and work through the puzzle together? For the most part, I suggest everyone work on their own first, then put their minds together. This gets more honest results. I’m inclined to say whoever is hosting gets to decide. Before I go into the ultra nerdy tasting grid, another important thing: Always have a finisher bottle you can actually just enjoy DRINKING a glass of when you finish the blind tasting part. This is especially nice if you have a miserable night of doing things like calling a Pinotage a Cabernet Franc (guilty). Also, if you have a solid group of players may I suggest a trophy that gets passed around? One of my tasting groups (yes, I have several) has a wine glass that the person with the most correct identifications gets to take home and add decoration to. Eventually our glass is going to need a home of its own, but right now it’s just colorful. Finally, I’ll give you the most basic of things those of us doing, say, the Wine and Spirits Educational Trust or the Court of Master Sommeliers programs are taught to do to evaluate and identify a wine. These are my narrowed down thoughts, not an official reflection of the program. Here are the basic steps to evaluating a wine: -Appearance: Look at color. Red wines get lighter with age and white ones get darker. Look at how thick the tears are. Tears can be indicative of alcohol or sugar level. -Nose: How intense is it? What do you smell? Fruits? Spices? Vegetables? Cork taint? Call it out. -The drink: Look for the acid level (think how quickly and how much you salivate), alcohol level (how much do you feel the burn), for red wines think about tannins (do you feel your gums being dried out?), body, what flavors do you taste (fruits, vegetables, herbs, spice, oak—which can taste like vanilla and baking spice or dill and coconut depending what type is used—flowers, butter…the list goes on. Finally think about the finish. How long does a sip stick with you? This will possibly be indicative of quality. And then after all that try and figure out what the wine is. And don’t feel bad if you don’t! One more suggestion! This is one of a game to help school yourselves on aromas. Have someone infuse many glasses of all the same wine with different fruits, herbs and spices. This is what my class did at our post-test party I dubbed “Wine But For Fun For Once”. We all simply smelled the wines and tried to figure out the added flavor. It was a lot harder than we surmised. But a lot of fun. Which brings me to my last point. You can take wine nerdery to whatever level you like. I think it is good to challenge yourself sometimes--wine is something that CAN engage, enlighten and elevate your senses. But sometimes it can just be for fun. Especially shared. Sharing elevates all. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Want to read more from Ellen? Check out her recent articles: The Cans of Summer 2019 Old World vs. New World Round Seven: Viognier! Summer Cocktails: Sparkling not Spritzing Up Your Life Old World vs. New World Round Six: Syrah! May Day! May Day! Emergency Drinks in Dire Straits Pink Wine, Pink Wine Everywhere Old World vs. New World Round Five: Zinfandel! But Is It Vegan? You can also listen to Ellen's podcast with Shaughn Buchholz, The Wine Situation here .

Domaine Louis Max

Les Damodes Nuits St. Georges 1er Cru Pinot Noir 2015

This showed up in tonight’s blind tasting group in a flight of mystery wines at different price points and lucky me! I got to take the scanty remains of this home. I’d like to flatter myself that it is because I had really good tasting notes on it. Take a pencil and draw a cherry. Fill in the lines with pomegranate juice laced with purée the fuck out of it. Strain it. It will resist. It may be dainty but has a gentle but coercive grip going down. But you’ll decide pretty quickly you like it’s softcore top nature. It’s chiffon scarves on your wrists, not even silk. Maybe you wouldn’t mind a bit more actually. I think it needs a few years yet to find itself. But I am not complaining. — 5 years ago

Greg, Ron and 19 others liked this

Marqués de Riscal

Reserva Herederos del Marques de Riscal Rioja Tempranillo 2011

Ever so g-durn yummilicious? Also I just realized why in two recent blind tasting practices I thought it was Sangiovese: garnet color and balsamic vinegar af. This is a smidge raisinated and the tannins would (now) keep me from guessing Italy and DAMN please tell me your favorite thing to pair with rioja I’m plotting a vegetarian sub. — 5 years ago

Ira, Matt and 15 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@David Clinton pizza would be great with it! Being a vegetarian I’d leave off the prosciutto but I love arugula on a pizza pie 🍕
David Clinton

David Clinton

Aw don’t worry about it! I think prosciutto grows on trees in Italy!

Château Olivier

Pessac-Léognan Grand Cru Classé Red Bordeaux Blend 2014

In a blind tasting I thought this was gruner. The grassy notes were mild enough to make me think “arugula” and thus I went gruner but no! This is just as less obnoxiously grassy savvy b. Probably the semillon mitigating that. The take home message is I need to sample more Bordeaux Blanc because this is fantastic — 6 years ago

Shawn, TheSkip and 17 others liked this

Seebass Vineyards

Fantasie Mendocino Grenache Rosé 2016

K mostly this post is like “look I’m a certified somm only 12 of 36 of us passed!” But also like fuck yah this rosé I think I’ve reviewed before but damn it’s a celebration wine. Full. Not sweet. Not dry. Pretty as F. Peaches raspberries vanilla acid and damn it’s good to drink something I won’t be blind-tastes on. Even though I somehow blinded my way through four wines this morning. Before theory and service. Egads so tired so happy didn’t think I’d pass this test! — 6 years ago

Kim, Chris and 17 others liked this


Wonderful!!! Watching somm gave me ptsd over the same type high stakes exams I had to go through. I know your joy and am very happy for you!
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@TheSkip woohoo! What sort of exams are/were you taking? Can’t recall if you’d mentioned them before...

Savage Grace

Yakima Valley Red Willow Vineyard Syrah 2016

Fascinating. If I were blinded on it I might think it was a Grenache. It’s silky and elegant and just when you think it’s all fruit and flowers you swirl your glass one more time and a black olive catapults out. Not because you utilized physics to get an object out of a glass without inverting it. Sorry. But the smell of olives is like the chaser to the bouquet. So essentially if syrah were a goth martini (black olive garnish) it would be this but one the higher vermouth percentage scale. Please try it. — 5 years ago

David, Ira and 19 others liked this

Chasing Venus

Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2017

Typical but subdued (in the BEST way) Marlborough savvy b. Identified by me in a blind tasting early though I worried when I offered my decision seeing as this is an ELEGANT Sauvignon Blanc. Grass and gooseberries for days yet they are all supes chill like hey..,we are from the southern island all cool. And they are and this wine is, — 5 years ago

Aaron, Neil and 9 others liked this

Ca' Rozzeria

Tre Comuni Barolo Nebbiolo 2012

Sometimes when writing I spread all my notes on the floor before me and embark on assembling something reasonable. Ca’Rozzeria is fabulous wine assembled from the metaphorically discarded to the floor goods of good producers. But the trimmings are from good producers that are loathe to part with them. And I hope my words are occasionally decent. I would not call it classic Barolo but I would say it’s fantastic Nebbiolo and the price is stupid good. Okay actually structure/flavors? I’d almost guess it was Sangiovese if blinding. Ripe cherries, green herbs, balsamic vinegar...less rose more violet. 2012 was a year of leaner Barolo. Less tannins than I’d expect than Barolo but that’s totally cool seeing as I’m drinking this sitting on my kitchen floor working. — 6 years ago

Ron, Ira and 16 others liked this
Paul T HB

Paul T HB

Sometimes when I’m drinking I spread all my wine on the floor,
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@Ron R thanks Ron!!
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@Paul Treadway Huntington Beacher Bum if you spread your notes out first it’s an automatic clean up situation. Provided you can still read the notes when they dry

J. Lohr

Seven Oaks Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon 2017

Promised a friend I bumped into at Target I’d try it. It was thoroughly drinkable. Smooth cab. Blinded my bf on it and he guessed Merlot. Not especially complex but not unpleasant at all. — 5 years ago

Mark, David and 12 others liked this

"Odedi" Influencer Badge

Agreed 👍🏻


@Ellen Clifford Good call! 😄

Dutcher Crossing Winery

Terra de Promissio Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016

Oh dutcher is bae. Best. My bestie. It is as my blindtasting buds call and she got it right. But also she was like this is high quality Sonoma Pinot and...again she was right. My notes: ruby with a smidge purple, ripe roasty red and blackberries and some vanilla on the nose on the tongue same but a heavier hit of alcohol but the heavy alcohol still says new 🌎 — 6 years ago

Severn, Ira and 12 others liked this

Bodega Catena Zapata

Alamos Mendoza Malbec 2017

Hard at work...this is fleshy and ripe but has a hit of green. Wonder if they gave it a tad of stem inclusion. Ripe and dried red fruit—something pruney going on. Not my favorite but I never get Malbec in blind tastings so attempting to learn. This is just a big mouthful of dried fruit served in a woodshop. Gives me flashbacks to when my granddaddy once made wine and the adults were trying it (I was maybe seven) and my uncle snuck to pour his out in the big sink in the garage near where granddaddy kept his woodworking stuff. The uncle turned out to be a ass so I’ve no idea if the wine was good but I drink this and...The smell of wood and wine... — 6 years ago

Isaac, Shay and 9 others liked this
Ellen Clifford

Ellen Clifford Influencer Badge Premium Badge

@Judith Clifford ps did you read the tasting note?
Judith Clifford

Judith Clifford

I did. LOL! That’s a famous family story. I don’t really remember if I ever tasted Granddaddy’s wine. Can’t imagine it was memorable, at least not in a positive way. Did you know that on at least one occasion he used grapes from the Clifford yard in Georgetown?