The secret to effective tastings

Last night I tasted some wines as part of the Mr Vine panel: (left to right in the below picture) Helena Nicklin, Nate Nolan, Matt Walls and Zeren Wilson. Mr Vine is an app that gives wine retailers a mobile e-commerce platform. It's a great idea: consumers get access to interesting wines from independent merchants, and merchants get to sell via mobile devices without the cost of building an app themselves.

The Mr Vine panel hard at work

We meet once a month, taste and score the wines and eventually compile some tasting notes which are used as recommendations within the app. It's always an enjoyable and useful tasting, for one important but much underrated reason: rapport. 

Chairman Walls put the panel together, and he did so with the objective that we should all get on with each other. It's often assumed that the most important factors for a tasting panel are things like qualifications and experience. These are helpful, of course, but good rapport is much more significant.

Wine tasting is subjective; a matter of opinion. So, no matter how experienced and qualified a group of tasters are, they will still score the wines differently to each other, and disagree over questions of style or quality. When that happens, the ideal scenario is to discuss openly and freely the various different viewpoints. That's where rapport comes in.

I've been at loads of tastings - especially when judging at big wine competitions - where the panel has no rapport, and communication is difficult. The inevitable result is that wines are not discussed properly, and scores become homogenised. In other words, if I score a wine 14/20 and someone else scores it 18/20, it ends up with 16/20 because neither side understands the other's viewpoint, and the only option is to compromise. That kind of result doesn't tell the real story of the wine.

For Mr Vine, we stick by our scores and defend our positions by explaining our reasons. Being able to do this in a relaxed atmosphere with good humour and intelligent debate is the secret to effective tastings. It means that the wines get the attention they deserve, and if one of us wants to champion something that the others dislike, it can be done - assuming the arguments are persuasive enough.