Out of sight: Blind Tasting League brings wine appreciation down to earth

FLYING BLIND: Sommelier Andy Hale of Metro Wines' Blind Tasting League says participating in blind tastings frees wine aficionados to experience different varieties without the burden of preconceived notions. Photo by Cindy Kunst

Currants, bramble and boysenberry are among many of the somewhat inaccessible descriptive terms I’ve heard tossed around at lofty wine tasting events over the years. The world of wine can be a bit pretentious, a trait that often leads would-be connoisseurs to settle for “critter wines” from the grocery store instead of learning how to better swim the tricky seas of the drink and all its technicalities. Honestly, when is the last time any of us had a boysenberry or a currant?

Fortunately, Andy Hale of Metro Wines on Charlotte Street is here to bring wine appreciation a little more down to earth with his new Blind Tasting League of Asheville. “Basically, we take the art of what the sommeliers do,” he explains, “which is usually reserved for the superelite of the wine world, and turn it into a drinking game for the fun and education of everyone.”

Meeting twice per month, the Blind Tasting League allows attendees to participate in a seated group tasting of four undisclosed wines. Working as a group, Hale talks the crowd through each wine using the the Court of Sommeliers’ blind tasting test as a guide. The tests are a set up as a multiple-choice sheet that works its way through the appearance, aroma and flavors of a wine, with the end goal of being able to identify the wine varietal. “It is the real thing,” he says. “It’s the same exact format that you would see if you took a sommelier exam.”

Sitting at a group table, participants are presented with two glasses of white wine and two glasses of red, with no hint as to their identities. From there Hale asks them a series of questions involving the wines’ smells, tastes and visual clues that help them decipher the identity of the grapes therein. “It’s the world’s hardest drinking game,” Hale jokes.

The owners of the shop actually choose the wines without consulting Hale. “I don’t know what they are,” he says, “which keeps things from making me [the instructor] sound obnoxious and pretentious. They actually make me sit in the back while they’re setting up for each night.”

Keeping Hale, a certified specialist in wine and a sommelier, in the dark along with the guests is truly what sets the Blind Tasting League apart from many of the wine classes and group tastings available in Asheville. Rather than relying on prewritten tasting notes, Hale is left to riff along with his guests as they work through the wines, patiently deducing what each sample might be through smell, taste and sight. “If I was doing it with wines I had selected, it could come off as really stuffy,” he explains. “It’s more fun for me if I don’t know what it is.” And as the tastings prove, it is more fun for the rest of us that way as well.

Hale and his wife moved to Asheville almost two years ago from Charleston, where he had worked as a sommelier for Jasmine Porch and the Ocean Room, two very high-end restaurants at Kiawah Island Golf Resort. Once in Asheville, he began working for the small boutique wine distributor Sour Grapes before joining forces with Metro Wines on Charlotte Street.

Once on the retail end of things, Hale saw the opportunity to bring the experience of a blind tasting to Asheville’s wine scene. “One of the benefits of tasting blind is that you’re not burdened or encumbered by your expectations of what the wine is going to be. People bring a whole lot of what they expect a wine to be when they are trying something,” he says. “Sometimes we’ll open up a bottle of merlot at the shop and people look at you like ‘pssh, I’m not drinking any merlot, trust me, I saw Sideways, I don’t drink merlot.'”

But Hale isn’t a stranger himself to these prejudices. When he first began the tasting league, he found a few of those ignorant opinions in his own palate. “As it turns out, I was the same way with pinot grigio,” he laughs. “The first blind tasting we had, we’re going through the tasting, and one of them I’m totally stumped on. It’s light-bodied, superaromatic, beautiful, with a really good mouth and good acidity … and it turned out to be a $10 pinot grigio! And in my book it was just too good to be pinot grigio, so I really didn’t expect it. So as it turns out, I learned I had pinot grigio prejudice,” proof that no matter how much you think you know wine, until you taste it blind, you don’t really know anything.

Metro Wines hosts the Blind Tasting League on the first and third Wednesday of every month. For details or to reserve a spot, visit blindtastingleague.com. For details on Metro’s upcoming classes on wine geography, tasting, service and more, head to ashevilleschoolofwine.com.


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About Jonathan Ammons
Native Asheville writer, eater, drinker, bartender and musician. Proprietor of www.dirty-spoon.com Follow me @jonathanammons

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