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Christopher S. Miller

One of my favorite vinous anecdotes is from a renowned British wine critic (writer and merchant), Harry Waugh. I assume most readers are not familiar with him. He mentored several more recognizable wine writers, notably Michael Broadbent and Hugh Johnson. Harry was asked if he had ever mistaken Burgundy for Bordeaux in a blind tasting. His response was, “not since lunch.” This statement emphasizes the difficulty of tasting and analyzing wines blind…even for a seasoned professional.

As a wine student and a frequent Master Sommelier Candidate (that means I have the annual “privilege” of taking the vicious Master Sommelier Exam—this time 42 took the exam, 2 passed), I practice tasting blind often and teach the theory and methods to others. Tasting blind is a humbling experience and though I have passed Blind Tasting Exams before (including Court of Master Sommelier Exams), I have never felt great when successful (slightly competent, slightly lucky) and always felt depressed when unsuccessful. So what’s the point of blind tasting? It takes the expectation and emotion out of the wine, meaning if I know I am about to taste a wine that costs $1500 a bottle with a reputation as spectacular as Chateau Petrus, I will expect the wine to be amazing and most likely it will be (a bit of mind over matter).

Lenz Winery in Cutchogue on the North Fork has put together several tastings, pitting their wines against highly reputable wines, including Duckhorn in Napa Valley, Petrus in Pomerol (Bordeaux), Latour in Pauillac (Bordeaux) and Figeac in St-Emilion (also Bordeaux). So far, the results have suited Lenz Winery’s PR agenda pretty well; a March 15th tasting resulted in a “Lenz Matches Petrus, Other Bordeaux” headline in a PR piece I found at the winery recently.

Readers familiar with Chateau Petrus will know that is quite a statement. For those unfamiliar, a bit of background: Chateau Petrus is considered by many to be the producer of the greatest Merlots in the world. The 2000 vintage of Chateau Petrus can be found for prices ranging from $1500 to $2650 and famed critic Robert Parker rated the wine a “perfect” 100 points.

To illustrate Long Island’s talent with Merlot, Lenz invited several wine authorities to the March 15th tasting, including two Masters of Wine. I did not attend but talked to Peter Carrol (Lenz owner), Eric Fry (Lenz Winemaker) and Michael Braverman (one of the attendees) about the event and I was given the results and list of all the wines tasted.

To properly understand the results of a blind tasting, one needs to be very aware of context. For example, everyone knew what each flight of wines contained, just not which were the Petrus, Figeac or Latour, so each judge could look for the Bordeaux in each flight and judge them accordingly (if they are practiced at blind tasting). Chateau Latour is from the Pauillac commune of Bordeaux, where the soil and climate favors Cabernet Sauvignon, so the Latour vintages were in a flight with the Lenz Estate Cabernet Sauvignon—which makes perfect sense. The Chateau Figeac is from St-Emilion, where the soil and climate favor Merlot, hence it’s inclusion in the Lenz Estate Merlot flight. However, Chateau Figeac is in a part of St-Emilion where there is more gravel in the soil and the blend is heavily dependent on Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with only 30% Merlot. So blind, that would be very confusing.

My conclusion on this and other such tastings: be very careful with blind tastings (someone with blind tasting experience should be used as a guide), and Long Island can make exceptional wines from several varieties including Merlot dominated blends with Lenz making some great examples. Also, if someone is looking to drink his or her Chateau Petrus, have a professional decant and pour it for you (my e-mail is csm@noblewines.com).