June 16, 2010 / 12:59 AM / 9 years ago

Vine Talk: How to host a wine contest in your own home

(Felix Salmon is U.S.-based financial journalist and a Reuters blogger here. The opinions expressed are his own.)

By Felix Salmon

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - Every so often, I host a wine contest at my home, and I’d encourage you to do the same: it’s easy, it’s pretty cheap for the host, and it’s loads of fun.

The rules are pretty simple. You invite a group of people — no more than a dozen in total. Each guest/contestant brings two identical bottles of wine.

One of the bottles gets placed in a box in the corner, while the other one is opened and somehow disguised: I normally remove the lead cap at the top, and wrap a couple of pieces of letter paper around the body. There’s no point in taking things too seriously.

Each bottle is then labeled with a random letter, and each guest gets a wine glass and a scoring sheet.

The guests then taste each wine in whatever order they want, and give it a mark out of 20.

They can go back and taste a second or third time if they like, and they can write down tasting notes if they’re so inclined; it’s just important for the pours to be modest so that everybody gets a good taste before the bottle runs out. (If you’re feeling ambitious you can buy some one-ounce pourers from a bar supply store; they also help to make it less obvious which wines have screw tops.)

Eventually, everybody has tasted every wine, and the scores for each one are added up.

People’s reactions to the scores of others can be very interesting and then comes the really fun part: starting with the lowest-scored wine and working slowly up to the winner, the wines are revealed.

The winner — the person who brought the highest-scoring wine — gets to take home their choice of the wines in the box (normally the ones they personally rated highest), while the runner-up gets all the rest.

Every time I’ve held one of these contests, I’ve asked everybody to say how much they paid for their bottle, to see whether there’s any correlation between price and perceived quality.

The most interesting results I had were when I had a Pinot contest, where all the wines had to be either Burgundies or 100 percent Pinot Noir from anywhere else in the world: in that case there was actually a small negative correlation between price and quality. (Overall, the more expensive the wine, the lower the score it received.)

But a lot of that is due to the peculiarities of blind tastings, where even wine experts tend to give the highest scores to heavier, sweeter, fruitier, and more alcoholic wines.

The wines which win in blind tastings aren’t necessarily the wines you love to have with dinner. (If there’s food at your tasting, and you only start eating after tasting a few wines, you’ll be impressed by the difference that tasting while eating makes.)

Recently, I held a Beaujolais contest. All the wines from the region are made with 100 percent Gamay grapes, and they can have a lovely acidic austerity — but that kind of thing doesn’t always show up well in blind tastings, and I expected the scores to be lower than they would be for, say, anything from California or Australia.

There were 12 wines altogether, and it turns out that fully half of them came from the small Cru of Morgon, which generally produces the richest wines in the region and the ones you’d expect to do best in a blind tasting.

And they did: the average score for the Morgons was 157, while the average score for the non-Morgons was 130. But they were a bit more expensive, too: they averaged $24.67 per bottle, compared to $19.33 for the non-Morgons. (Cru Beaujolais — the serious wine that isn’t Beaujolais Nouveau — doesn’t generally come cheap, although it’s never eye-wateringly expensive either.)

In general, the correlation between price and perceived quality was surprisingly strong: the more expensive wines I would love to drink with a serious meal, while the cheaper ones would be perfect gently chilled with a summer picnic. (Don’t be afraid of chilling red wine a little bit, especially in the summer: the result can be wonderfully sophisticated and refreshing.)

There was one exception, though.

One wine was less than half the price of any of the others: while the winning wine was $33 per bottle, the one I entered into the contest cost just $5.99 at Trader Joe’s. It was a Morgon, and a very good one: it garnered 152 points overall, coming fourth out of 12 wines, and beating all of the non-Morgons.

In other wine contests, too, I’ve had a lot of luck with wines in the $4 to $7 range. They tend not to taste as good when you know that they’re cheap — that’s just human psychology. But when you’re tasting them blind, in a slightly artificial setting, they can be surprisingly delicious.


Editing by Belinda Goldsmith

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