Blind Tasting and the Pepsi Challenge

Posted on: April 23rd, 2018 by

Blind Tasting and the Pepsi Challenge

I just went down an internet rabbit hole reliving the Pepsi Challenge ad campaign of the late 1970s and early 80s. It was a blind taste test of a small cup of Coke and one of Pepsi. The latter did surprisingly well. So well, that Coke ended up coming out with the infamous “New Coke” formula.*

Why did Pepsi do so well? Because it’s sweeter. And that hit of sweetness makes it stand out versus Coke. Now if you had to drink a bottle (yes, see the commercial…everyone’s drinking glass bottles!) of Pepsi versus a bottle of Coke, that sweetness would become tiresome and cloying.

If you are interested in marketing and advertising, there are numerous interesting articles about the Pepsi Challenge:

The Pepsi Challenge: The Ultimate Taste Test

How Pepsi won the battle but lost the Challenge

Sweet Sorrow

I started thinking about a recent blind wine tasting I was invited to attend put on by Washington’s Col Solare. Six bottles of powerhouse Cabernets and Cabernet-based blends from Washington, Napa, and Bordeaux.

First I’d like to say this was an informal and informative exercise, not The Judgement of New York. We did rank each wine on personal preference but it wasn’t about “winning” or “losing” but rather a conversation-sparker. And yes, you can quibble about the vintage chosen (2014) and the “readiness” of the wines and the quality of the vintage in each of the three locales (blah blah blah), but the 2014 baseline was chosen. Would it be better if the each wine had x years of age and selected from x/y/z vintage that evenly reflected quality? Yeah, but that would be quite the undertaking and subjective yet.

Darlel Allwine Bob Betz of Col Solare

Great to get perspective on Red Mountain, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Washington wine from Col Solare Winemaker Darel Allwine and Consulting Winemaker Bob Betz MW.

Of course, I knew in my heart of hearts what my preference would be. Bordeaux on top, Washington somewhere in the middle, and Napa bringing up the rear. Well, I got Washington right but the Bordeaux selections were on the bottom and Napa was on top. Huh? Who am I?

Here are the six wines:

A blind tasting of 2014 Cabernet and Cabernet blends, revealed.

The photo is the order in which they were poured. My preference below and alcohol levels in parenthesis:

  1. Caymus Vineyards Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley (15.2%)
  2. Schrader Cellars Beckstoffer To Kalon Cabernet Saugivnon Oakville (14.5%)
  3. Col Solare Cabernet Sauvignon Red Mountain (14.5%)
  4. Joseph Phelps Insignia Napa Valley [87% Cab] (14.5%)
  5. Château Pontet-Canet Pauillac [65% Cab] (13.5%)
  6. Château Rauzan-Ségla [56% Cab] (13.5%)

Was I surprised that Caymus was my favorite? Hell yeah. But after tasting all these big, tannic wines, its sweetness and fruit was a relief…and made it stand out. Was this the Pepsi Challenge at work? If I had to drink a glass of it versus one of the Bordeaux how would I feel? All I know is it tasted damn good. (BTW the group’s numero uno wine was Insignia. This happens to be my mom’s favorite wine. She’d be very disappointed in me.)

While googling “Pepsi Challenge” I came across this very interesting article from Felix Salmon (from 2009), “Tasting Wine Blind.” It brings to mind some of the points I wrote about concerning the anxiety surrounding this exercise. Salmon discusses how sweetness stands out and subtlety, by its very nature, not so much.

Things shifted a bit when we had lunch and revisited the wines. I reached for the Insignia, because it reminds me of mom and our trip we took to Joseph Phelps. Drinking it alongside some amazing food at NoMad, specifically this mushroom and egg dish, was revelatory.

Mushrooms, rice, and an egg yolk.

Back to Salmon (the person not the fish):

In any case, the various different factors which go into the enjoyment of a wine are so multitudinous that when you try to eradicate them all in order to allow different wines to compete on a level playing field, you at the same time eradicate much of what makes a wine so enjoyable in the first place. 

Pure pleasure is not the point of blind tasting, rather evaluation and exercise over enjoyment. That’s ok. Especially if it helps overcome, question, or acknowledge preconceived notions about a region, a grape, or a style of winemaking.

*I also recall conspiracy theories that Coca-Cola deliberately introduced New Coke to spark outrage and had already planned to torpedo it and (re)introduce Coca-Cola “Classic.”
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