THERE ARE vast gaps between the public's perception of various wines and reality. Meril Dunn, a retail merchant with a master's degree in American wines, feels this very keenly. "It is very frustrating", he said recently, "to encounter a customer who asks for "a dry wine like Harvey's Bristol Cream."
Consumers are learning, he says. The American fascination with scorecards -- names, numbers and classifications; not to mention hits, runs and errors -- has led to name recognition. But he blames advertising, wine snobs, uninformed sales personnel and, it must be said, wine writers, for propagating myths that the gullible swallow as readily as they consume champagne during a wedding reception.
"There is something I call the 'Charlie the Tuna' syndrome," said Dunn, who works at Morris Miller Liquor. "People seem to be obsessed with buying wines that will show they own good wines as opposed to serving wines that taste good."
The usual indictment in such cases is to cite the consumer for inexperience or insecurity. Yet many knowledgeable and experienced wine drinkers are "label drinkers" too, making quality judgments -- perhaps subconsciously -- on the basis of the reputation of the name on the label rather than reacting purely to what they taste when the wine is poured.
For the expert, tasting wines blind -- from decanters or from bottles hidden in bags -- is an accepted method of avoiding external influences. For the novice, however, one underlying problem may be a lack of understanding of the term "good."
Think of reacting to actors or athletes. Your favorites aren't necessarily the ones with the best vocal tones or highest batting averages. There may be others on the stage or on the field to whom you respond more enthusiastically. You admire quality, but still feel free to cheer someone who has won your affection. It's a matter of personality. With wines, even when they are being studied, the final appraisal is subjective. Wines, too, have personalities.
Dunn wants his customers to "acknowledge and understand what they like to drink."
This means not insisting on "dry" wines if they don't really suit your taste, not pretending pleasure at the taste of a tannic, harsh Bordeaux that should be laid away for several more years, not accepting blindly outdated propaganda that red burgundy is a deep, rich, full-bodied wine if the wine in your glass is thin, watery and lacks bouquet.
We are making progress. Increased sales of wines that are somewhat sweet (the industry probably would prefer the term "off-dry"), indicates that the public is not going to be driven -- at the point of a corkscrew -- into worshipping only chardonnay and cabernet. New perspectives are needed to evaluate and appreciate the improved roses coming from American vineyards and the flood of white wines made from red grapes.
To help establish these perspectives, Dunn held two blind tastings, one with a large group that represented a full spectrum of wine-tasting experience and another limited to two other veteran tasters. The same four whites and four reds were presented at both tastings. No hint was given as to grape type, nationality or price. In each case the results were virtually identical.
Want to guess? The wines, with approximate retail prices, are listed below. The order of finish at the second tasting is given, upside down, at the end of the article.
Whites, in order of presentation, were a)Pinot Bianco Annurziata, 1977 (Italy), $3 to $4; b)non-vintage semillon, Valdivieso (Chile), $3 to $4; c)Chateau Oliver, Graves, 1975 (France), $8 to $10; d)Chateau St. Jean Fume Blanc, 1977 (California), $6 to $7.
Reds in order of presentation, were 1)Robert Mondavi cabernet sauvignon, 1975 (California), $7 to $8; 2)Valdivieso cabernet sauvignon, non-vintage (Chile), $3 to $4; 3)Chateau Prieure-Lichine, 1975 (France), $8 to $10; 4)Nebbiolo d'Alba, 1974 (Italy), $3 to $4.
Opinions were much firmer about the reds than the whites. Mistaken guesses, especially working within such a wide spectrum, are to be expected. But the tasting made it clear that famous and expensive wines can be flawed, that a California cabernet can be more subtle than one from the Medoc, that a nebbiolo can be a relatively light wine.
Finally, the bottom line: The wines that were favored were the wines that were most agreeable. Are they the best? Why worry about that? They proved themselves in very fast company. Enjoy them. Look at the prices and enjoy them even more.
White: b,a,c,d. Red: 2,1,3,4.