DON’T BE AFRAID TO GO TO THE DARK SIDE!
This past Sunday I had the extreme pleasure of being invited to partake in Canada’s first structured “in the dark” wine tasting at O Noir Restaurant on Church Street in Downtown Toronto. Organized and hosted by Carolyn Evans Hammond, (@TheWineFind) sommelier and wine critic, I was very apprehensive of what was about to unfold over the course of the early evening. On the docket were five wines that were to be tasted in pitch blackness, without so much a glare of light to even see the slightest shadow, as your hand in front of your face. I have heard of O Noir from colleagues but have never had the time to actually dine there, so this would be a great introduction into the “dark realm”.
We arrived at 5pm and were led down the wood clamored hallway into the reception area where we were given a quick and well informed lecture of how this tasting was to proceed. Moments later we were led into the dark dining/tasting room by our servers (who are all legally/visually impaired), doing so by placing our hand on the persons shoulder in front of us. Like miners into a mine, we treaded blindly (and softly) in single file until we finally arrived at our designated tables. I must admit, the feeling of being led through total darkness without having any idea of where we were walking through, or being led to; was a very uncomfortable and uneasy feeling – to say the least! In a brief moment of helplessness we were directed to our chair by our server, who had to physically grab our hand and place it on the chair’s backrest, so we could eventually sit down. After navigating the tabletop, we could feel that we are each given a glass of water, a napkin and a side plate, on which as few soda crackers rested. At the initial moment of being seated, one had the feeling of confining themselves as if in a rollercoaster car ascending the great climb of the rickety hill, we needed to center our being and focus our awareness without sight. After orientating ourselves there seemed to follow a sense of serene calmness upon the senses, as if my hearing and body awareness kicked into overdrive, to compensate for the loss of my strongest sense, for which the next little while, would be deemed completely useless. Once the entire group (about 25 in total, with 5 of us being industry) were seated, Carolyn would let us know that the first wine was about to be served, at which time we would nose and taste as a group and then discuss as to what we thought the varietal, country/region of origin and even the producer could be. We knew from the start that we would be given one sparking, two whites and two reds, so you would think that would be easy enough and tip the scales toward our favor – not so fast young jedi! As a chef for many years I have always been told and preached that we eat with our eyes first, to which, I rolled this philosophy forward to the world of wine. The colour and appearance of the wine on many occasions can give you up to a 50% chance on what that wine could possibly be. Colour, tone, weight, texture and viscosity of the tears are all great visual indicators as to what could be in the glass. Tonight however, all those visual signs meant nothing, all judging and hypothesizing of what was in the glass would be left up to the nose and its ability to detect the aromas of each wine.
One of my favourite literary works that I refer back to regularly is called Natural History of The Senses, a brilliant piece of work written by sociologist Diane Ackerman. Anyone who is a lover of food and wine, or works in the service/hospitality industry needs to read this book as it gives an incredible insight to our five senses, plus the addition of ESP, to which we all possess, even though we are unable to consciously harness its abilities. Sitting there in the dark with the first wine in my hands, I begin to recall certain passages that Ms. Ackerman references in regards to the chapter on “smell”, and how the nose is the only trainable sense that we possess and the most difficult to explain what it experiences to others. Oddly enough, as I lean forward to take in the aromas I found myself closing my eyes, which I usually do when I taste in the light. I found this very odd as I was already in complete darkness, yet my mind (or body) almost went into an auto-mode and performed this task without a single thought. So being here, sitting in total darkness at this “double-blind” tasting, I learned that I have actually visually impaired myself many times previously when tasting, to take my eyes out of the equation and force my sense of smell to work harder in terms of judging what was in the glass.
From the first wine we were given came a cool sensation, one accompanied by the smell (or sense of) carbonation and the shimmering of bubbles with a sweet, fresh, delicate and yeasty aroma. Now, we all knew this would be a sparkling wine, surely a dead giveaway by sight alone, we had to experience its being today in a whole new light – no pun intended. We sometimes forgo the heavy aromatic breakdown for sparklings as not much is left to the imagination after the visual confirmation. It turned out to be the ever-popular and 2014 Bottega Prosecco, still, it was great to observe its qualities by aroma only, an eye opener for sure.
Up next, it would get trickier as we knew we were still receiving a white wine, but that left so many uncertainties besides the colour. Bright, citrusy, soft wood, peachy, definitely a Chardonnay based wine (but was it a blend), turned out to be the beautiful 2013 Southbrook Triomphe, elegant with a long finish, and so enjoyable in the dark. Most of the votes at our table were French at first though, with the warm soft wood and steely notes.
The third wine followed and it was curveball as she pulled the “double chard” card, only this time following up Ontario with California, a 2013 Ghost Pines Chardonnay, fooling many people into thinking that it was a possible Bordeaux (or Rhone) Blend. A crafty play on her part, to make one doubt their own senses based on formulated though pattern.
The reds that followed were also very interesting indeed, the fourth wine was a 2013 Pascal Toso Malbec from Argentina. Anise, earthiness, and gamey black olive on the finish with juicy ripe tannins, leading the group a bit astray, and skunking the lot of us in the end.
The finale for the night was the “mindfreak” to drop a Chris Angel reference (speaking of the dark). It turned out to be a 2011 Louis Martini Napa Cabernet, but with all those dark peppery, meaty notes, black cherry and scorched tire rubber, we were all pretty confident (call it convinced) it was a Ozzie or South African Shiraz. When it was revealed there were gasps and groans from all directions in the dark, how could this be Cali Cab?
Nonetheless, and for whatever reason, the lack of vision caused us to do one thing in particular – over judge and second guess ourselves based on the fact that we couldn’t get any visual indicators from the wine.
I feel that the dark forced us to find other secondary and tertiary characteristics of these wines that we quite often overlook in the light, causing us to make forgone conclusions based on past experiences. That said, by having to rely on senses that sometimes work better in conjunction with other senses, the absence of a sense can at times sway that other sense to sometimes go off in another direction based on the lack of overall sensory cohesion or coordination.
At the end of it all, the experience was quite humbling indeed, causing some to question whether certain wines were white or red? If we take nothing else from this, we take the fact of how we rely so heavily on our ability to see before we judge. There was great comfort of being in the dark by the end of the tasting. It broke down all visual boundaries, biases and comforts and put everyone on the same field of play, and in a time where so much of what we do is based of visual appearance and judgment – nice to see, or not!
If you are looking for a totally new and interactive way to experience a Sunday with your significant other (or even a group of friends), then I highly encourage you to partake in the next O Noir wine tasting (#onorwine). They happen every Sunday at 5pm. You can get involved by contacting them online here, just be sure to leave all your inhibitions and preconceived notions at the door and allow your sense of smell and self-being to take over!