Holiday Wine Blind Tasting: Sure it looks good, but does it taste good?

Monday, December 7, 2009

This is a guest post from Todd Broderick, a fellow Boston-area wine enthusiast.

Like many of you, every year my wife and I give out bottles of wine as holiday gifts to friends, family and coworkers. We go through at least a couple of cases, so we try to make it a somewhat value driven purchase. But above all, it needs to taste good! At least that is my opinion on the matter. I can completely handle finding a crowd pleaser for under $15 bucks; the challenge comes when my wife demands an aesthetically pleasing bottle and label. See, I care what it looks like, but not as much as I care about what it tastes like, so what to do? This year we decided to take an objective and democratic approach. Blind tasting and aesthetics judging!

The Criteria:

  • Red Wine – just because I am biased and it’s my tasting so I make the rules
  • Under $15 – seemed like a reasonable cut off
  • Decent looking packaging – we had to start somewhere!
Over the course of a few weeks during regular wine shopping we picked up a couple extra bottles here and there. Some of the initial selections were ruled out based on the color palate of the packaging. One of these in particular I would like to make specific note of is Peachy Canyon’s, “Incredible Red,” this has consistently been a good value Zinfandel that I was able to find for under $10. It has wide appeal and is worth trying if you’re not offended by a little baby blue on the label! What you do see here were the five finalists that made the cut for the blind tasting. We browsed the wines at a few local stores that tend to have pretty good and reasonably priced wines; the Wine Connextion in North Andover, Bin Ends in Braintree, and the Milton Fruit Center. The looks came first, then the varietals. The wide variety was somewhat intentional, so we could look for tastes that would be pleasing to wine enthusiasts and novices alike.

We ended up with the following:
  • Michael Pozzan Zinfandel from Napa Valley, 2006, $15
  • Vignamaggio Sangiovese Il Morino from Tuscany, 2007, $10 to $12
  • Line 39 Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake County, CA, 2006, $8 to $10
  • The Velvet Devil Merlot from Washington State, 2007, $12 to $14
  • Viu Manet Secreto Carmenere from Chile, 2007, $10 to $14
Once the list was narrowed down, the illustrious Robert Dwyer and I sat down to taste through the brown bagged extravaganza. My wife was wonderful; she bagged and poured the wines so neither of us could make assumptions based on bottle shape, weight, etc.
  1. The first step was to taste through the wines, thinking through what we liked but also what would garner appreciation from the widest array of palates that might receive one of these tasty gifts! We made our pass through and then ranked in order of preference.
  2. Step 2 was judging the bottle based strictly on its appearance, my wife Kelly provided an additional vote in this category.
  3. The combined result of the taste and aesthetics scoring led us to our final pick.

Here is how they ranked in order of preference and a few tasting notes:
  1. Pozzan Zinfandel: Soft mouth-feel, vibrant sweet fruit, smooth overall and not overpowering with heat. Maybe a little too “luscious fruit” for some, but the slight hint of sweetness on the back will please many.
  2. The Velvet Devil Merlot: Nice fruit on the attack, smooth mid palate, but a little faint, light on the finish. Which in this case I think is a positive and might make it more appealing to a wider audience. This was a close second, if not tied for first for both Bob and I.
  3. Line 39 Cabernet: Confusing nose, smoky with a little lead pencil in the mix. Tight mouth feel, some initial fruit that only makes a split second cameo. Not terrible, but not great – I could definitely find a more pleasing Cab for $10 to $15 from South America.
  4. Secreto Carmenere: Very green nose, almost with a weird hint of motor oil. Not far off the flavor profile of other Carmenere that I have tried, but probably less appealing to a wide audience.
  5. Il Morino Sangiovese: Acidic, (tried it with some cheese too – didn’t make it more pleasant) Black tea notes, and a little heat on the back. Not terribly enjoyable.
It was really a lot of fun to taste through these wines blind. It also made the evaluation process pretty interesting. Then the bags came off! We ranked in order of appearance:
  1. The Velvet Devil: Fun Label, easy colors to decorate
  2. Pozzan Zinfandel: Simple, screened bottle, red accent
  3. Il Morino Sangiovese: Fun, playful with good holiday colors
  4. Line 39 Cabernet: Simple label, not offensive easy to work with
  5. Secreto Carmenere: Cheesy cartoonish look
The result was a tie between the Pozzan Zin and the Velvet Devil Merlot. Some of the more traditional people on your list might be confused or offended by the playful “Velvet Devil” concept. Either way you can’t lose with either of these wines, you won’t break the bank and people will always remember that yummy bottle of wine you gave them!

In the spirit of not breaking the bank, we also thought about different ways that you can decorate bottles for gifts from extra holiday supplies you might have lying around. I must credit this to the wine chick (my wife) for always coming up with simple ways to enhance the bottle I’m bringing to the office grab!

Illustrated in the picture below, here are some easy alternatives:
  • That piece of nice wrapping paper left at the end of roll, it’s just big enough to wrap around a wine bottle. Tape at the seam and use a silver sharpie to write a little holiday wish
  • Put the wine in a clear cellophane bag, available at most craft stores in bulk, hang an ornament off the neck or tie a bow on it
  • Cut up last years holiday cards, the part that says “Merry” or “Cheer” on it, hole punch the corner and tie a thin ribbon through, like magic it’s a wine tag
  • A simple red bow – looks great with the black and white of the Devil label!
  • Go green, recycle that wine bag you received last year but didn’t have the heart to throw away, even though they only paid 99 cents for it at the Chrismas Tree Shops!
This blind tasting stuff is a lot of fun and I encourage you to get some friends together and try it. You will be guaranteed a good time, and you might even figure out a way to do something productive – like pick your holiday favorite!

I hope our little experiment will help you find that perfect holiday gift! If not, that’s ok too because we had a good time trying!

Happy Holidays!

Todd can be reached via E-mail:
You can also follow him on Twitter: @ToddBrod


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