There has been an interesting debate in the wine industry the last few months, with the influential Platter’s South African Wine Guide in the middle of it.  The point of discussion is blind tasting, or to be more accurate:  The fact that wines for Platter are not tasted and judged blind, meaning the taster knows what he/she is tasting.  One side argues that the judges are biased when assessing the wines because they are influenced by the history, image and marketing activities (or the lack thereof) of a wine estate.  The other side argues that wine should be tasted and appreciated in context, taking track record and bottle and vintage variations into account.

People become very animated about the blind tasting of wine, but let’s get a different angle on the topic:  It is amazing how much food shopping has changed over the last decade or so.  Gone are the days when one had a limited choice of meat and vegetables. Nowadays it is organically grown vegetables and free range meat, where a lot of these options really have merit.  But is dolphin-friendly tuna necessarily better than unethically fished tuna and does sustainably grown coffee really taste better than coffee beans from exploited plantations in Africa?  Even though the products might taste the same, the holistic product has a feel-good story that adds to the experience.

The problem with blind tasting is that people are not single-sensory beings; blind tasting does not allow for context.  I am sure there is a lot to be said for analysing wine unbiased in a clinical laboratory environment to evaluate its intrinsic qualities, but there must be more to wine than evaluating 25 ml of liquid in a glass.  Surely 5 generations of winemaking must account for something when walking into the tasting room at Overgaauw, or 325 years of uninterrupted winemaking when opening a bottle of Groot Constantia Shiraz?

I came across an old article in the Washington Post of April 2007 that gives an interesting perspective on this issue:

The article in the Washington Post was about a middle-aged man who played six Bach pieces on a violin for an hour in the Washington DC Metro Station on a cold winter’s morning.  During this time, approximately two thousand people went through the station, most on their way to work.  A handful of people stopped briefly to listen for a short while and about 20 people gave money as they passed the violinist, adding up to a total of $32.  It turned out the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing some of the most intricate pieces ever written on a violin worth $3.5 million.  Two days before, Joshua Bell sold out a theatre in Boston where the seats averaged $100.  Bell’s playing in the metro station was organised by journalist Gene Weingarten from the Washington Post as a social experiment about taste and priorities, to see whether people can recognize beauty out of context.

A statement in this Washington Post article about the Joshua Bell experiment sums up the essence of the wine tasting debate:  “What is beauty? Is it a measurable fact (Gottfried Leibniz), or merely an opinion (David Hume), or is it a little of each, coloured by the immediate state of mind of the observer (Immanuel Kant)?”

Boela Gerber is the winemaker of Groot Constantia wine estate in South Africa. This blog was originally published on www.conca.co.za.