Do you have a wine snob friend? A close-minded, persnickety drinker with unadventurous taste buds? Arrange their grand comeuppance by signing up for a tasting with Orange County Wine Elite. Ringleader Justin Rhodes—not his real name—will set them straight in no time. German-born, he is studying to be a sommelier while he works in finance. He is out to show Californians who won’t drink anything but their state’s wine just how wrong they can be. He does it with blind tastings. First he chooses all the wines. You can’t bring any in; “I have done that and I will never do it again,” he says. “I will control it because I want the experience to be superb.”
Then he brings tasters together. There might be industry types, collectors, and restaurateurs among them but anyone is invited. You simply bring cash to cover the tasting fee, which varies depending on what you’re drinking that night. An international cabernet-themed event was $25. For a grand Barolo night it will be $110.
Tastings are held in restaurants and everyone orders dinner. You can pay for that with a credit card; separate checks are issued. Then the fun begins. Rhodes passes out tasting sheets so everyone can guess varietal, region, and vintage. He leaves space for a personal rating from 1 to 10 and tasting notes.
After sampling each wine, those at the table verbally give their notes. Then he does the big reveal. Ta-da! That silky cabernet I thought was from Napa was a $10 Chateau Ste. Michelle. And that lovely little soft and fruity wine I thought was Italian came from Chile and cost $21. (Usually I wouldn’t be caught dead drinking South American wines. I just haven’t had enough good experiences with them.) The wine I cared for least and thought was a cheap Bordeaux was actually a Caymus Cabernet 2008. Normally, I love Caymus, especially their Special Select. This one tasted sweet to me, especially on the heels of a wonderful Super Tuscan, L’Alberello Bolgheri Superior, DOC, 2006 ($85), that I also pegged as a Bordeaux.
I was proud of myself for nailing the Australian and South African wines as being from down under, I got four out of seven vintages correct, and my tasting notes were fairly complete. I have a certificate from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, so I’ve learned to appreciate wines that are not my style on their own merits.
But as blind tastings tend to go, most drinkers, expert or not, are really surprised at how badly they perform. Many things can affect how wines show: the label we see, comments from other tasters, the time they’ve spent in the glass, and where they are positioned in a lineup. So it’s good to challenge yourself once in a while and it would be great fun to embarrass your wine snob friends at Elite.
“I believe Americans fall in love with the style of the wine, not the grape,” Rhodes says. Full of such pronouncements, he’s a stern but polite teacher. “It’s important that you learn to appreciate quality over individual preference,” he says. And “You’ve got to go outside the country to learn anything about wine.” Be warned that Rhodes will school you point blank; he doesn’t mince words. When it was all over I felt that I’d been bullied into becoming more open-minded. But is that so bad? It’s exactly the same bleak inspiration I feel walking out of the theater after seeing anything by Bertholt Brecht.—Anne Valdespino