Brown Bagging – The Art of Blind Wine Tasting

Sipping on booze concealed inside of a brown paper bag… sounds like something you’d catch Jay and Silent Bob partaking in while standing in front of the local convenient store. But when it comes to tasting wine, it’s time to toss out that old stigma because brown-bagging wine and tasting it blindly is serious business. Both newcomers and wine professional implement this practice as it really is the only way to form non-skewed evaluations of wine. Not judging a book by its cover is one thing. Not judging a wine based on the information printed on the label? That takes hard work and brown-bagging is the way to do it. One thing that just about all wine lovers can agree on is that it’s both exciting and entertaining to taste wine and try to guess what it is. But in reality, that isn’t what this is all about. It’s about improving your skills at fully interpreting the wine you are drinking in a completely unbiased manner. Recently Food & Wine Magazine’s Guide to Wine author Mary Burnham stopped by the SF Wine Center to help guide the blind, tasters that is, along a comprehensive tasting eight different wines; all of which were indeed veiled inside of brown bags. Wine professionals follow an incredibly intricate, perplexing, and sometimes stressful system of evaluation. But for the sake of class, we stuck with a more basic method and kept it pleasant. That being said, even this “simplified” method is still very complex by nature, but when it comes to wine that usually means you’re doing it right. So twist that brown paper around the bottle’s neck and have a blind taste of what we learned…

We’ll start with the obvious and first look at the wine’s appearance, observing its clarity and color hues. For whites this can range from lemon-green to deep amber while red wines will range from purple all the way to brown. As the wine’s color will transform with age, typically the older the wine the deeper the white or the fainter the red. Moving up into the nostrils, we first want to take a light puppy sniff of the wine and make sure it’s not faulty – aka corked, spoiled, or just plain old over the hill. Wine’s okay? Then we’re okay. Next, you want to take a few more light whiffs of your wine and think about the flagrant aromas that leap out of the glass and into your nose. Once you have them in mind, you want to categorize those aromas into primary (typically fruit), secondary (imparted by production methods such as oak barrels or yeast), and tertiary (effects of aging such as savory or earthy expressions). And now on to the palate where things can get a bit more technical. The sweetness level of the wine is quite a distinguishable facet and can range from bone-dry to luscious. Sweet or not sweet, is the level of acidity in this wine high enough to cause your mouth to pucker up or does its lack of acid leave the wine tasting syrupy on the tongue? Another unavoidable complex is tannin, which is the graininess caused by grape skins. Do the wine’s tannins feel austere and robust? Are they more restrained and elegant? Or are they a juxtapose of powerful yet velvety? After that is probably a good time to think about the wine’s body, considering the sheer weight of the wine on your tongue. Once you have done so, try repeating a similar process as you did on the nose and consider the flavor components that you notice. Again, instead of just listing every single fruit you detect, think in categories such as fruit, floral, herbal, spices, oak, minerality, and so on. Now once you’ve either spit or swallowed the wine, take a final moment to acknowledge the length. Do the flavors continue to linger causing you to remain in a state of utopian bliss? Or do they quickly fall off of a cliff, leaving your palate curiously wondering if that was all a dream?

-Julie Albin

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