I love doing themed parties. A soup party in the winter. An Italian feast and bocce tournament in the summer. Cajun food around Mardi Gras. Regardless of the theme, I would always have an abundance of wine. Just before my guests arrived, I would open up a large selection of wine and have it sitting on the counter in my kitchen. I quickly noticed that the wines from California, France and Italy would be devoured, while the wines from Long Island would be largely ignored.
For the most part, Long Island wines have evolved from a local phenomenon to world class status. So, for these wines to be treated like Rodney Dangerfield and not get any respect is a bit sad. To counteract the prejudice of the wines from Long Island by the majority of my guests, I started doing blind tastings. I would pick a grape variety and have examples from different growing regions: California, Oregon, Australia, France, Italy, South America and of course Long Island. At my last Soup party I did a Cabernet Franc tasting. Previously I’ve done Merlot, Chardonnay and Malbec. After opening the wines, I would remove any tell-tale signs of the winery on the neck and would then warp the bottle in foil to obscure the winery name, vintage and grape variety. I’d then mix up the bottles before numbering them, so even I didn’t know exactly which wine was which. My guests would be asked to sample the wines and rate each wine from a scale from 0-10, with zero being undrinkable and ten being outstanding. As the party was winding down, I would reveal the favorite wines. Not necessarily the best wines, but the favorite wines as chosen by the mix of people at my party.
The objective was to level the playing field, so people could evaluate Long Island wines without any preconceived ideas (Long Island is still producing the same quality of wine as they did 30 years ago) and ill-conceived perceptions (“What? There are wineries on Long Island?”) As expected (at least by me) Long Island wines often outshone the wines from other regions, much to the surprise of many of our guests. It is also interesting for those guests who are familiar with LI wines to see how different wineries fare in a blind tasting. Sometimes a winery that may not be highly regarded surprises the wine aficionados in the crowd with a first place finish. Which just goes to show you how your personal views and preferences about a particular winery (both favorable and unfavorable) can cloud your judgment in evaluating a wine objectively.
If planning to try this at home, a few suggestions. It’s always fun to throw a ringer into the mix. So, I occasionally add an inexpensive wine like “Two Buck Chuck” (Charles Shaw from Trader Joe’s) or a popular wine like Yellow Tail, just to see how they fare. While I often try to keep the prices comparable, occasionally I will do a blind tasting of a certain variety with the wines in increments of $10 (six wines ranging in price from $10 to $60), to see if there’s any relationship between price and preference. (A higher price does not necessarily equate into a more favorable rating.) Another possibility is to have wines from Long Island compete with wines from another region and do a Long Island vs. France competition, or East Coast vs. West Coast, or Upstate vs Downstate. As for the number of wines, the ideal range seems to be six wines. Most of the people who attend my party can’t handle evaluating more than six wines (sigh!) and if there are less than six it limits what you can do and quite frankly is not as much fun. The final suggestion is not to take this too seriously. When I do a blind tasting I’m not looking to do a controlled experiment where the wines are meticulously selected and whose results are going to be published in The Wine Spectator and dissected by their readers. And I‘m not asking my guests for a detailed analysis of each wine. That’s just too much like work, this is a party after all not a wine seminar. Yes, I want to introduce Long Island wines to an unknowing public, but I also want to have some fun.