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Red, White and Clueless: The C'est Ironique Colorblind Wine Test

Man Cannot Taste by
Tongue Alone...

Paris Update Wine-Tasting Judges1

We were blindfolded and voted silently with hand signals. With all the sensory deprivation, I began to hallucinate that I could distinguish the wines...

I like wine. In fact, I like wine enough that readers who know me are already laughing, thinking that I just delivered my shortest punchline ever.

For those who don't know me, yes, I have had some experience with the ingestion and metabolization of grape squeezings. And that's why I found it so interesting about 10 years ago when a study was published in the respected scientific journal Wine Snob Excoriator Quarterly whose results have since been so widely repeated and accepted as fact that they have become part of the collective consciousness. Or, after the ninth glass of wine, the collective unconsciousness.

The study studied a very simple proposition: wine experts were blindfolded, given samples of various room-temperature wines and asked to state whether they were white or red. According to the report, the vast majority of them got it right about 50 percent of the time.

To put it another way, their scores were no better than if they had just flipped a coin without even twirling the wine in the glass (holding it by the base). To put it a third way, even the experts—or if you're a wine lover loather, even the so-called "ex-peeeerts"—are apparently incapable of recognizing what is arguably the most fundamental characteristic of their subject of supposed expertise.

There are two points of view on how to interpret this information.

Point of view number one:

It instantly and irrevocably invalidates every single shred of a semblance of credibility for anyone even remotely related to any aspect of wine culture, which is now unmasked as being based on one of the most shameless, bald-faced, wholesale frauds ever perpetrated in the history of mankind.

Point of view number two:

Meh.

Defenders of the former P.O.V. insist that all those people going on about floral subtones, backnotes of moist loam and tinges of dried fig stems are just making it all up to show off their erudition, that wines are no more intrinsically different than Coke and Pepsi, and that they should therefore be in the same per-ounce price bracket.

The defenders of the second interpretation maintain that this is no big whoop, because redness or whiteness or roséness is not in fact the most important characteristic of a given wine, only the most obvious, especially to the uninformed.

Since I have so much experience in wine (although surprisingly little expertise, considering), I always wanted to participate in one of those blindfold tests. I wanted to see how I would do. I wanted to decide whether I was in the "fraud" or the "meh" camp. And I wanted to get a few glasses of free wine.

Years went by, and the occasion never presented itself. Finally I decided to take matters, and a few bottles, into my own hands.

And thus it came to pass:

The C'est Ironique Colorblind Wine Test

On a rainy evening in June, an august group of volunteers marched into what one may call the C'est Ironique Oenological Research Facility and Living-Slash-Dining Room, where an array of wines and airline sleep masks lay in preparation.

The laboratory supervisor, who has proven herself to be an efficient and highly professional conductor of experiments ever since we started dating, poured out carefully measured doses of unidentified vintages and kept careful track of everyone's reactions on a spreadsheet.

In order to maintain strictly controlled scientific conditions, the participants were asked to indicate their color verdict for each wine by hand signals (an upthrusted thumb for red, a three-finger "W" for white) so as not to influence other people's reflections, to clear their palates with a piece of bread when desired, and to avoid overtly descriptive commentary during the tasting. And not to peek.

We sampled 10 wines, five each from each main color group. The session lasted about 30 minutes, after which we tallied up the scores.

Do not be alarmed. It's not an earthquake. That sound you hear in the distance is every percussionist in the entire world doing a tight three-stroke roll on the snare drum, because here come the...

Results of the C'est Ironique Colorblind Wine Test

Result number one:

Generally, we were quite good. Out of six tasters, two got all 10 right and two got nine out of 10. Both of the perfect scores were by women, who also happened to be the most and the (by her own admission) least wine-knowledgeable members of the panel. The overall average was 8.3, which if it were the proportionate SAT score would get us into—well, maybe not Mensa, but a decent private college.

Result number two:

I, personally, sucked. Or, as we say in the oenological research community, I could have aspirated a pound of Silly Putty through a French horn.

Not only did I get the lowest score in the test, but I got a mere five right out of 10, which in this case is the equivalent of a zero. I dragged down the curve to the point that removing my results from the calculation raises the aggregate score to nine out of 10.

Now you can be alarmed. That sound you hear is not an earthquake-like mass drum roll, it's one of those little wind-up toy monkeys bashing tiny, tinny cymbals together, because here come the...

Conclusions of the C'est Ironique Colorblind Wine Test

Conclusion number one:

The idea that vision-deprived wine drinkers can't distinguish white from red is one of the most shameless, bald-faced, wholesale frauds ever perpetrated in the history of mankind.

Conclusion number two:

But if you ever hear me blathering on about floral subtones, etc., you can rest assured that I am indeed just making it up to show (or more likely goof) off. Also, I'm probably drinking Coke.

The author would like to thank the volunteers who took part in his haphazardly organized test for their indulgence, expertise and lack of shame. I mean willingness to be photographed.

David Jaggard

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Reader John Schuler writes: "Does the photo go with this story? The woman appears to have a bowl of soup in front of her. I've never heard of clearing your palate with soup. Or is the photo for a future column about a blind taste test of soups?"

David Jaggard replies: "It's a bowl of wine. Since we were sampling 10 wines, some of us didn't want to drink all of every sample. And since we were blindfolded, the easiest way to get rid of the excess without ruining our clothes and the tablecloth was to give everyone a big bowl. This is the method used in all of the finest Oenological Research Facilities."

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