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Blind tasting tests should be compulsory for wine writers

You might be surprised to find out that membership of the UKís Circle of Wine Writers currently hovers at around 250. Even though the criterion for joining is that members should be professionally engaged in communicating about wine, it seems implausible that more than 200 people earn their living from wine writing. Of course, they donít. The ranks of the wine writers are swelled by people who fancy dabbling in wine writing yet who lack any significant outlet for their work. Relatively few can boast book commissions from decent publishers, a newspaper column or regular commissions in the trade and consumer magazines. Yet the turn out at most press tastings is impressive.

Iím not complaining too loudly, though, since I was admitted a couple of years ago on the back of a small amount of paying work Ė a move that has helped me gain some significant commissions in publications Iíd never had dreamed of writing for a few years back. But this raises the question: how is the tasting competence of budding wine writers assessed? The simple answer is that it isnít.

Let me make a controversial statement. Experience is valuable, but only when it is coupled with competence. Unless you have the appropriate intelligence and aptitude, experience wonít be fruitful in generating expertise. Letís use a sporting analogy. Consider two footballers, one a 20 year old with great raw ability and a football brain, the other a 40 year old Sunday league player whoís been turning out for his pub team since he was 16. The latter may have vast experience, but could well lack what it takes to have capitalized on this advantage. In contrast, the 20 year old is well equipped to benefit from any experience, and would probably learn more in 6 months than the other bloke did in decades.

My point? You can have vast wine tasting experience, but this doesnít necessarily mean you are equipped to benefit from it. Even the most venerable, experienced tasters might not be making sensible assessments about the wines they are drinking. Thatís why I think it would be a good idea to blind taste test wine writers. Yes, some might fail the test, but at least theyíd then realise that wine writing is not likely to prove the most beneficial application of their talents.

What sort of blind tasting to I envisage? Not the sort where you try to guess the wine Ė I think this is a bit daft, a party trick that relies to a degree on luck. But instead Iím advocating the following scenario. You put perhaps a dozen wines in front of someone, identity masked, and ask the subject to say something sensible about them. They might begin by describing the wines. Then perhaps some comments about their style, and possible origin. A comment on their value might be appropriate. Letís face it, if a taster canít distinguish between a £6 new world Chardonnay and a £20 Meursault, either the Meursault has been horridly overoaked (a possibility), or wine is a load of bollocks (unlikely), or the taster lacks competence (also a possibility). You get the point.

Most wine writers would, of course, object to such a test. Theyíd have too much to lose if it exposed them as poor tasters. But I still feel it would be a good idea. Fun, too. In some ways, I admire Robert Parker for using his scoring system (for all its ideological difficulties) because he is putting his neck on the line every time he rates a wine. It would be fun to test him blind to see what his variance was in rating the same wine, say on different days Ė this would be a useful data point. You canít take it away from him, though, that heís prepared to stand up and be counted in a way that few wine writers are.

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