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The Judgment of...Princeton?
By Linda Murphy
Jun 19, 2012
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Last week, I gave four New Jersey red wines higher scores than I did Bordeaux First Growth Chateau Mouton Rothschild.  In fact, I gave the Mouton a mere 14 points on a scale of 20 -- well behind Bordeaux-style reds from New Jersey: 2008 Silver Decoy Cabernet Franc (17 points), 2007 Tomasello Oak Reserve (17), 2010 Heritage Estate BDX (16) and 2008 Amalthea Europa VI (15.5).

I “redeemed” myself in the eyes of any Bordelais who cared enough to inspect my scorecard, by giving another First Growth, the 2004 Chateau Haut-Brion, my highest rating, 18 points.  And I made some friends in New Jersey grape-growers and winemakers, who should be thrilled by how well their wines did in this blind tasting.

But how could it be that I “blew” it on Mouton Rothschild and preferred the New Jersey wines in the “Judgment of Princeton” tasting, conducted at Princeton University in New Jersey?  Am I an unskilled taster?  Do I not appreciate fine Bordeaux?  Did the Ivy League academic gods put a hex on my palate, after determining that my San Diego State University education didn’t qualify me to even be on the campus, let alone evaluate wine?

No.  The reason I whiffed on Mouton is that I am human -- of flesh and blood, I’m made, born to make mistakes (apologies to Human League).  And I was not alone in under-scoring a widely acknowledged “great” wine; two judges gave the Mouton 11 points, and two gave my beloved Haut-Brion 11 points.  Yet when the scores were combined and averaged, those two First Growths placed first and second, respectively, among the nine wines tasted.  The Heritage Vineyards BDX from New Jersey finished third.

The fact is that unexpected numerical scores are common in blind tastings.  They can be all over the board, even when the tasters are competent and experienced.  Just ask the French and European tasters at the 1976 “Judgment of Paris.”

The Princeton tasting, staged by the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) at its annual conference, was meant to replicate as much as possible the 1976 “Judgment of Paris,” at which a Napa Valley Chardonnay (Chateau Montelena) and Cabernet Sauvignon (Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars) outscored French wines, stunning the all-European judges and sending a global message that the best U.S.  wines could compete with the best of France.

Economics professors and wine aficionados Orley Ashenfelter (Princeton) and Karl Storchmann (New York University) organized the New Jersey tasting, hosted by George Taber, the only reporter to cover Steven Spurrier's 1976 Paris tasting (for Time magazine).  They invited nine judges from various walks of the wine business -- the same number as the Paris judgment -- and poured wines from four of the Bordeaux chateaux that participated in 1976 (Mouton, Haut-Brion, Montrose and Leoville-Las Cases).  New Jersey reds replaced those from California. 

The judges were told only that the red wines were from Bordeaux and New Jersey, in approximately equal number (it turned out to be four and six), and that the white-wine flight was comprised of Chardonnays from Burgundy and New Jersey.  Unlike the Paris tasting, the Princeton judges could taste the wines in any order they wished. 

Any group of expert tasters will likely have trouble coming to consensus when assigning scores to wines based on one tasting.  It’s similar to what happens in wine competitions, where one judge’s gold medal can be another’s zilch.  I might not have loved the Mouton Rothschild on a hot Friday afternoon at Princeton, yet I might have adored it the day previous and/or the day after.  The Haut-Brion could have received 15 points from me in another setting -- and this occurrence is common in blind wine evaluation, the economists reminded us time and again.  They even have statistics to prove it.

Variance in results occurs when human beings assign scores to a very personal sensory experience that can be affected by weather, their state of health, their mood, the tasting order of the wines, and/or what they ate for lunch.  Or if they even had lunch.

Princeton economics professor Richard Quandt, who revealed the judging results at the conference, said that numbers-crunching showed that only one of the red wines was “significantly bad” in relation to the others, the rest being insignificantly different.”  The judges were all over the board on their scores, he said, and the wines that fell into the middle of the rankings weren't statistically discernible from each other.

There was also a Chardonnay flight, and the results were a revelation for those with little or no experience tasting New Jersey wines.  Several New Jersey whites scored higher than their Grand Cru and Premier Cru white Burgundy counterparts.

While the Joseph Drouhin Clos des Mouches 2008 (Burgundy) was the overwhelming winner once the scores were compiled, New Jersey Chardonnays placed second, third and fourth: Unionville Vineyards, Heritage Vineyards and Silver Decoy Winery, respectively.  They ranked ahead of the Burgundies from Domaine Leflaive's Puligny-Montrachet, Marc-Antonin Blain's Bâtard-Montrachet and Latour Labille's Meursault-Charmes.. 

True, the vintages varied for the wines in both flights, making judging them somewhat difficult, particularly the reds.  The Bordeauxs were from the good, “classic” 2004 vintage; the New Jersey reds were much younger, from 2007, 2008 and 2010.

And New Jersey’s deck was stacked, as the entrants were chosen by the state’s vintners to be the best made in the state.  Taber estimated that of New Jersey’s 46 wineries, 15 are truly serious about their efforts and striving to produce wines that can be considered world-class; the rest are less successful.

Yet there is terrific wine being made in the Garden State, and the “Judgment of Princeton,” while not perfect, certainly shined a bright spotlight on New Jersey’s finest wines.  I wish we judges would have had the opportunity to taste the wines a second time, to see just how human -- or not -- we are.  Mouton, give me another shot.

TTH RESULTS:

NEW JERSEY BORDEAUX-STYLE REDS vs. BORDEAUX

1.    Chateau Mouton Rothschild 2004 Pauillac
2.    Chateau Haut-Brion 2004 Pessac-Léognan
3.    Heritage Vineyards BDX 2010 New Jersey
4.    Chateau Montrose 2004 St-Estèphe
5.    Tomasello Winery Oak Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 New Jersey
6.    Chateau Léoville Las-Cases 2004 St-Julien
7.    Bellview Winery Lumiere 2010 New Jersey
8.    Silver Decoy Winery Cabernet Franc 2008 New Jersey
9.    Amalthea Cellars Europa VI 2008 New Jersey
10.    Four JGs Vineyard Cabernet Franc 2008 New Jersey

NEW JERSEY CHARDONNAY vs.  WHITE BURGUNDY

1.    Joseph Drouhin Le Clos des Mouches Premier Cru 2009 Beaune Blanc
2.    Unionville Vineyards, Pheasant Hill Single Vineyard 2009 New Jersey
3.    Heritage Vineyards Chardonnay 2010 New Jersey
4.    Silver Decoy Winery Black Feather Chardonnay 2010 New Jersey
5.    Domaine Leflaive 2009 Puligny-Montrachet
6.    (tie) Dom Marc-Antonin Blain, Grand Cru 2009 Bâtard-Montrachet
    (tie) Bellview Winery Chardonnay 2010 New Jersey
8.  Amalthea Cellars Chardonnay Sur Lie 2008 New Jersey
9.  Ventimiglia Chardonnay 2010 New Jersey
10.  Domaine Jean Latour-Labille Charmes Premier Cru 2008 Meursault