What I Learned from Competitive Blind Wine Tasting at Oxford

I figured if I was going to be at Hogwarts, I might as well put on a goddamned wizard robe.

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Sep 6 2017, 10:00pm

When I arrived at Oxford for grad school, I don't think the culture shock really hit me until I got to the Freshers' Fair, better known as that clusterfuck of confused new students walking past rows of tables, being implored loudly to join the improv troupe. But at Oxford, that bastion of arcane aristocratic life, I found myself being implored to join some groups that you don't often see at student activities fairs in the US.

There was the Country Sports Society, which was formerly dedicated to the practice of hunting hares and rabbits using beagles while wearing green jackets, but after the 2004 Hunting Act, became more of a dog-walking club. There was the Tea Appreciation society (no joke), the Historical Reenactment Society, croquet, clay pigeon shooting, polo, numismatics, so much rowing, and so much wine.

I had spent the previous four years in frat houses in Philly, and I figured if I was going to be at Hogwarts, I might as well put on a goddamned wizard robe. You know, "when in Rome." So I signed up for all of these clubs. And although most of them became nothing more than mainstays of my spam inbox, there was one that I actually bothered to check out: The Oxford Blind Tasting Society.

Blind tasting is a sport in which participants compete to identify the grape, geographical origin, and vintage of wines whose bottles have been shrouded in velvet sheaths. Although I was genuinely interested in learning about wine, I was skeptical. I had been convinced that all red wine tasted basically like red wine, all white wine tasted basically like white wine, and the minutiae provided in verbose tasting notes ("Hints of cassis and the vintner's beard, with lilac on the nose") were just illusory emperor-has-no-clothes gibberish.


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Plus, I've read plenty of psychological studies about how perceptions of wine quality are derived only from the price tag, even if high price tags are experimentally placed on cheap wine. And I've also read about the many blind judgements in which unwitting supposed "experts" have rated wines from places like New Jersey comparably to first-growth Bordeaux. Initially, my real interest in the club was anthropological; it was the most pretentious club imaginable, and I thought I might catch a glimpse of a dying breed of aristocratic youths in their element.

The first meeting was held in Christ Church college, where the dining hall scenes of Harry Potter were filmed, and where King Edward VII had been a student. There were kids who were wearing bowties, voluntarily, on that Monday. I heard the genteel "received pronunciation" British accent, which I recognized mostly from Monty Python's parodies of politicians, all around me. But I was surprised at the geographical and ethnic diversity of people coming to outdo each other with knowledge of grossly overpriced grape juice. The president of the club was from Brunei.

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After an introduction, we were provided with some reading material that laid out the basics of wine tasting. It had tips for analyzing the appearance, nose, and palate, as well as a treatise on what makes a wine taste the way it does. Looking at this material, I had the same feeling I experienced when I first opened the rule book for Settlers of Catan. This stuff was complicated. There was a lot of good information, but some of it left me more confused than when I arrived.

"If you really want to bring the flavors out, inhale some air through the wine, but don't choke;" great advice. For white wines: "It's quite common to smell stalky odors such as nettles." What the hell is a nettle? A wheel of possible aromas included filter pad, linalool, plastic, moldy cork, and wet dog.

Is this—subtle hints of horse shit—the sort of nuance I wanted to be able to discern?

But amongst all the verbal and oenological esoterica, the thing that stood out to me was the repeated references to "horse-like" or "horsey" aromas. I just didn't know what a horse smelled like. Maybe it was expected that we all would have played polo at some point in our lives. So I raised my hand and inquired.

"No, no," replied an American graduate student in poetry named David, almost dismissively. "It's not the smell of a horse, it's their manure." I must have made some sort of repulsed face. "It's really neat, actually. In the Ribera del Duero in Spain, there's a winery called Vega Sicilia that grows their grapes close to horses, so some of the manure makes its way into the wine."

OK, I was beginning to concede. These guys knew their stuff. And if you could use that sort of nuance to place the origin of a wine in one vineyard in Spain, then maybe blind wine tasting wasn't bullshit artistry. But, ew. Is this—subtle hints of horse shit—the sort of nuance I wanted to be able to discern? Or in the wine world, is ignorance bliss?

As the weeks progressed, the meetings of the Blind Tasting Society were run less like teaching seminars and more like high-pressure practices for upcoming competitions. Attendance gradually dwindled, until most meetings consisted of the core competitive team, some rookies who had enough of a knack that they hoped for a place on the team, and me. I was way out of my league, but I was genuinely interested in learning, and more so genuinely interested in watching these bow tie-clad Oxonians practice a sport that I came to realize was actually extremely difficult and supremely impressive. They were good, maybe some of the best in the world. It was like having a front row seat at an NBA team's practices.

After wines were poured from their velvet condom-enshrouded bottles, we we would all spend a few minutes sniffing, slurping, gurgling, and spitting. Then we'd write down our notes and our guesses. The scrimmage leader would go around the table and survey our hypotheses. I usually just reiterated a combination of the things said by the people before me. Once all responses were logged, the leader would usually say something along the lines of, "Those of you who guessed a 1988 cabernet sauvignon from Medoc: You fools! That was a rainy spring in the Left Bank, and they harvested early, so it would be much more tannic." Then, most of the participants would groan, "Of course!" But usually, a few people would have guessed the exact year, grapes, and geographic origin—down to which side of the river—of the wine. It was astonishing.

Eventually, I stopped going. I knew I wasn't cut out for actual competitions, and I got involved in other activities, like playing mediocre Pearl Jam guitar covers with an Israeli psychologist. But a lot of what I learned during my time in the Blind Tasting Society stuck with me. For one, I learned that wine truly is amazingly nuanced. Red wine doesn't just taste like red wine. And I learned that although difficult, it is possible to taste the difference. I learned that wines from the New World tend to be higher-alcohol and fruitier, whereas wines from Europe tend to be more subtle and refined. I learned that aging in new oak barrels makes wine taste like the buttered popcorn Jelly Belly. I learned how to tell if a wine would be better with a bit more aging or aeration.

Most importantly, I learned what I like and what I don't. I learned that I like carménère, cabernet sauvignon, Sauternes, and sauvignon blanc from New Zealand. I learned that I don't like pinot noir, riesling, or sauvignon blanc from anywhere other than New Zealand. This knowledge was key to developing a relationship with wine. Because although judgements of objective quality might be determined mostly by the price tag, there is such thing as a wine that tastes good to you. Essentially, once you learn how to taste wine and what tastes you like, you can always find a wine you'll enjoy at a reasonable price.

That next February, my mom forwarded me an article she had seen in the New York Times about the annual Oxford versus Cambridge tasting match—the Super Bowl of collegiate wine tasting. Oxford had won. The wine that clinched the match was a 1953 Vega Sicilia; that guy David apparently recognized the horse manure smell and correctly identified the most difficult wine of the day. It was a $1,000 bottle. After witnessing their hard work, I was happy for the team. But mostly, I was happy that I had acquired enough knowledge to know I shouldn't bother spending $1,000 on something that tastes like horse shit.