I suspect that the proponents of sighted tastings are more aware of the problems involved than proponents of blind tasting are willing to see the inherent problems there. But, of course, all people who’ve given it reasonable and intelligent thought will probably agree that there’s a time and a place for both methods.
But here’s a tale that I think is worth telling.
When Angela Lloyd and I sit down every month or two to taste the samples that have been sent our way, we do it fully aware of what we’re tasting – sighted, in other words. Sometimes, inevitably, we have ideas and expectations about the wines (“prejudices” would be a silly and prejudiced way of describing this), and sometimes these are met. Sometimes not, and we have a surprise. Always, we at least strive to be honest.
Last week there were four shirazes in our line-up, and my experience of them illustrates some things quite nicely. Incidentally, there are people crude enough to imagine that sighted tasters are overly influenced by price, something not borne out here. I’ll put my brief tasting notes for the four we had in order of preference (but please be aware now that one of the notes was to be drastically revised later). I don’t score these wines at the time, but for this exercise I’ll put an approximate score out of 20 at the end of each note.
Seven Springs Syrah 2012. R114. Deep, dark. Vague, ripe nose. A bit thick, ripe, extracted. Not much in the way of freshness. Juicy, though, with dull, blunt tannins. “Ponderous”, said Angela, correctly. 
(Waterkloof) Circumstance Syrah 2010. R155 Lifted, slightly leafy-herby, floral note; pleasant aromas. On palate not nearly as nice as previous vintages. Most disappointing. Big tannins, but otherwise a fresh balance. Is it already tiring and never going to resolve? Maybe young and the tannins need time, but not enough fruit there to allow that. 
Delheim Shiraz 2012. R103. Ripe, spicy nose. Nice, well balanced, lively enough. Ripe, round tannins, gently grippy; still quite youthful, though drinkable now. Decent length, no obvious oak. Plenty of flavour. Most enjoyable wine, Delheim clearly continuing its upward movement. 
Saronsberg Shiraz 2011 R185. Generous nose, with a little tar along with the red/black berry fruit. Big and bold, but balanced. Well textured. Sweet fruit, but fairly dry finish. Fruity, but not vulgarly so. Not really worth the five stars it got in Platter, though. But maybe it’s partly my stylistic preferences getting in the way. [16.5/17]
I’d forgotten that I’d tasted the Delheim for Platter, but my notes here are consistent with those. I didn’t taste the Waterkloof wines this past year, but I’d done so for the previous three years, which is where I’d formed the very high opinion of Circumstance Syrah – so I was rather shattered by this bottle. I assumed it was just a blip, a bad vintage.
Later, I was rather embarrassed to realise, even more, how bad my memory is. I saw in Platter that the 2010 was in fact the last vintage tasted for the guide, and had been tasted by … me. I’d given this wine 4.5 stars (a score of about 17/20), and had clearly really liked it. But that tasting was more than 18 months ago. Could the wine have degenerated so quickly? Could my assessment for Platter have been so far out, when I said it was youthful but should respond well to five years of ageing in bottle?
Or did I and Angela (we agreed about the wine) simply get it wrong? Fortunately, I learnt that Angela had a second bottle of Circumstance Syrah 2010, so I opened it the next night – and drank half of it with my dinner, it was so good. The fruit that was so lacking previously was now charming and in harmony with the supportive tannins; the floral-spicy aromas were fuller and more expressive. Still a modest wine (in the best sense of the word – in comparison with the boldness of the Saronsberg, for example), and all the more to my taste for being so.
So, clearly the first bottle was damaged; faulty. If there’d been the usual cork taint (TCA) undoubtedly either Angela or I would have picked it up (and Angela had another taste from the same bottle later that day and it hadn’t got worse in terms of TCA stink, as usually happens with mild TCA taint). There was no obvious oxidation. There was nothing that indicated to either of us that the wine was faulty – it didn’t occur to us then to open the other bottle.
I discussed the matter with the winemakers at my Sunday tasting group the next day (Gottfried Mocke, Chris Williams and Francois Haasbroek), and it was agreed that in all likelihood the problem WAS with the cork (a good quality one from Amorim), despite the lack of obvious TCA. Possibly something to do with the rigorous treatments that corks undergo nowadays? Unfortunately, we no longer had the original bottle so a test was not possible.
Anyway, it’s the conclusions to be drawn, rather than the analysis, that interest me. (And no, no easy conclusions about the need for screwcaps rather than cork – there are problems there too!)
1. In a blind tasting, this fine wine would have simply been passed over as rather poor, unbalanced. I was able to revise my judgement, and make a more accurate assessment, because I was made aware that the wine should have been better. Only a sighted tasting could have led to something like justice.
2. Someone paying quite heftily for this wine in a restaurant, or buying a bottle to take home, without knowing anything or much about it, would simply have been disappointed (and if they consulted Platter, would have thought I was simply useless as a guide), and would no doubt have never bought it, or perhaps any other Waterkloof wine, ever again. In itself, there were no grounds for complaining that it was a tainted, damaged bottle. This is the nightmare for producers. If a wine is filthily, horribly cork-tainted, anyone can tell there’s something wrong and seek a replacement. But in a case like this, you just resolve to avoid the label in future.