That's both good and bad news for consumers. We reap the price benefits of the competitive market, but also frequently fall prey to the gimmicks. Like insipid, tasteless beer, some popular wines out there only sell because the brand name is emblazoned on your conscience. Consider the last time you bought a bottle of wine. Why did you choose it?
What if all wine bottles were generically labeled "Wine 1," "Wine 2" and "Wine 3"? Wouldn't we then have to purchase by evaluation?
That's what "blind tasting" is all about. The method disguises the label, forcing people to assess a wine without external influences. Most wine writers, including myself, are not immune to marketing, and to counter-balance the manipulation, we often "blind taste" by using aluminum foil, paper bags or anything that can hide the label. Although I don't blind taste every wine, some of the best deals I've found emerged from blind tastings. It's as if the blindfold sucks all the marketing out of the bottle, leaving it clean and unfettered.
Then there's the challenge of guessing the wines in the bottle, a fun wine geek game. I suck at it, but I know some amazingly talented, well-drunk people who can successfully match the wine with the correct grape, region, winery and even vintage. They are called master sommeliers or masters of wine, and the blind tasting section of the certification exam is unbelievably difficult. If you'd like to read and weep, check out www.masters-of-wine.org or www.mastersommeliers.org.
Equally as entertaining is duping your friends with blind tastings, especially if you invite some of your haughtier associates. Before anyone arrives, make sure the labels are completely hidden from view, not missing the neck label and taking care the cork doesn't blow the cover, either. Buy a few bottles (or go in with someone to buy them) in varying price ranges, from $7 to $40. You can either buy a mix of varietals, like Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel or Cabernet, and have people guess the varietal; or you can buy the same grape with different labels from different regions. In this scenario, your guests can experience the versatility of one grape varietal and how a different region's weather and soil might influence the end product. Have everyone pour their own wine, sit back and let the marketing-free games begin. Invariably, no one will be able to guess the most expensive bottle. It's really quite delightful to watch the wine snobs squirm when their favorite wine costs only $8.
Here are some wine suggestions for the games. No planet ratings this week; take your own blind taste test and let me know which wines you liked best.
Columbia Crest Grand Estates 2002, Columbia Valley, Wash. $11.
Glen Carlou 2002, Paarl, South Africa. $14.
Cloudy Bay 2003, Marlborough, New Zealand. $28.
Carmen 2004, Curico Valley, Chile. $8.
Kim Crawford 2002, Marlborough. $16.
Groth 2004, Napa, Calif. $18.
(All California)Cellar #8 2001, North Coast. $11.
Bishop's Peak 2001, Paso Robles. $16.
Rombauer 2001 El Dorado, Napa. $20.
Robertson 2002, Robertson Valley, South Africa. $11.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2002, Alexander Valley, Calif. $22.
Moon Mountain 2000 Reserve, Sonoma Valley, Calif. $35.
Columbia Valley Winery 2001, Columbia Valley, Wash. $10.
Porcupine Ridge 2003, Coastal Region, South Africa. $11.
Cape Mentelle 2002, Margaret River, Australia. $23.