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How to conceal bottles at blind tastings?

At most of the tastings I organize, the wines are served blind: the bottles in each flight are kept covered until everyone has tasted through the flight, at which point the bottles are unveiled.

In the past, we've concealed the bottles in narrow brown paper bags provided by the SAQ (the local liquor monopoly). Setting aside ecological concerns, they're just about perfect for the purpose:
- They completely cover the bottles without hugging them, making it difficult for participants to tell whether the bottle is, say, Bordeaux-style with square shoulders or Burgundy-style with sloping shoulders;
- When twisted around the neck of the bottle, they stay in place without clips, ties, tape or fasteners;
- They can be written on, making it easy to avoid mix-ups (we number each bottle according to the order poured; the order is usually random and the numbering is done just before pouring); and
- The bags are disposable -- practical for clean-up, since drips and spills often occur, despite our using wine pourer discs.

Effective today, the SAQ has eliminated all single-use paper and plastic bags from its sales outlets. While thoroughly laudable from a green standpoint, this move has left us wondering how we're going to conceal the bottles at our future tastings. Wrapping them in aluminum foil is probably even less earth-friendly than using disposable paper bags, plus foil gives away the bottle shape and is hard to write on. Some sort of reusable cloth sleeve would be ecological but would probably require a clip or tie and couldn't be written on; I'd also worry about a seam or fold at the bottom destabilizing the bottle and causing it to fall over. Decanters are ideal in theory but not in practice: we usually serve between 12 to 15 wines per event and up to six wines per flight; our storage space is limited; and properly rinsing, washing and drying them between flights and between tastings would be difficult.

Any ideas for helping us out of our predicament? Has some enterprising merchant developed a solution? Thanks!

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  1. I, since i want to participate, have my wife pour the wine into decanters on which I have posted numbers with white tags. I then have her tag the empty bottles with correponding numbers and hide them away until after the tasting.

    1. I have 15 vine printed fabric gift bags that i use for blind tastings. They have a ribbon stitched to the seam to tie the tops and a cardboard hang tag that i've marked "A", "B", etc. Hadn't thought about the bottom seam making them unstable, but you're right though I've not had any mishaps. When i pull them out for a tasting, I do have to sort through to get the number of bags I need with the right alphabet (e.g., A through F for a six-wine tasting).

      You can make the bags yourself or buy them at wine shops or on the 'net. One friend has a beautiful set of maroon velvet pouches that have the letters monogrammed in gold on the side and gold cord drawstrings. He had them custom made by a seamstress and paid a fortune for them. The monograms are in a Gothic script variant and hard to read, imo, and I'd pick another type style.

      Another friend has some natural muslin bags with blue embroidered letters applique. I think she bought them in Spain or Italy.

      I've also seen white tube socks used. They were lettered with a permanent laundry marker. However, they don't hide the shape of the bottle and they do get stained over time.

      5 Replies
      1. re: Melanie Wong

        Do your bags cover the bottles right up to the top, Melanie? There's a lot of capsule showing in the photos on the sites Frodnesor linked to. I can think of some situations where that'd be a giveaway. For example, one of the regulars is a Chenin Blanc freak who can recognize a Huet capsule at 50 paces. Screwcapped wines would be immediately identifiable as such. And, of course, as the bottle opener, I have a pretty good idea which capsule goes with which wine. A great thing about the paper bags is that they extend beyond the lip of the bottle -- only the pourer disc is visible to the onlooker.

        Hang tags would work, though there's already so much stuff that has to be brought to the tasting room and then taken back to the cellar (wines for the tasting, group order wines for distribution, decanters, bread baskets, napkins for the bread baskets, bread knives, corkscrews, placemats, water bottles, pens, pourer discs, paper towels, bottle bags, etc.) that some would eventually get lost.

        1. re: carswell

          Just take the capsules off COMPLETELY. I do. There are too many capsules that are printed with names, recognizable patterns, etc., etc. I always completely remove the capsules and tape the paper bags shut just below the lip of the bottle.

          As for screwcap closures, or those bottles with the flange tops . . . yes, some bottles will ALWAYS have some identifying characteristics that those who are VERY familiar with the wine(s) might recognize, but you really have to be ITB to worry about it.

          >>> And, of course, as the bottle opener, I have a pretty good idea which capsule goes with which wine. <<<

          And, of course, as the bottle opener, you can see the writing on the corks, too! That's why -- whenever we are seriously doing a blind tasting (say, for publication) -- Person #1 will be ALONE in the room (say, the kitchen) with all the wines, and will a) completely remove the capsules from the bottles; b) place all the bottles within paper bags, or wrap them in aluminum foil; and c) remove all the corks. Person #1 will then leave the room, and Person #2 will then enter the room and mark the 12 paper bags/foil-wrapped bottles with (depending upon the publication) letters A through L, or random two-digit numbers.

          In this way, while Person #1 may know what wines are in the tasting, he/she will not know what any particular bag contains . . .

          1. re: zin1953

            Unfortunately, here in Quebec screwcapped bottles are almost always from New Zealand or Australia, especially among better wines. Few of the tasters in my group would think a Pinot Noir they were drinking was a Burgundy if they saw it was poured from a screwcapped bottle.

            The beauty of the paper bags we've been using is that after the bottles have been bagged and the pourer discs inserted, the capsules, threads and flaring lips are completely hidden.

            As I've described elsewhere in this thread, the Person #1 and Person #2 setup is the way we currently work it, except that I turn my back instead of leaving the room and often have other tasters pour in order to keep me in the dark as much as possible.

            1. re: carswell

              Carswell, the key is "almost always" . . . one is never 100% sure.

          2. re: carswell

            Even with the paper bags, I always remove the entire capsule.


        2. Depending upon how you organize your tasting(s), knowing the bottle shape COULD be irrelevant. For example, if everyone knows you are having a tasting of Napa Valley Cabernets, hiding the fact the bottles are in a Bordeaux shape is besides the point. On the other hand, if no one knows what you are serving PERIOD, then you really need a set of black glasses . . . but that's another topic, I suppose.

          a) CHEAP decanters that can go in the dishwasher -- think Libbey glass.
          b) Cloth bags "pre-lettered" as described by maria lorraine.
          c) Pour the wines in the kitchen, using fine-point dry-erase markers to letter the glassware.

          4 Replies
          1. re: zin1953

            "as described by maria lorraine"

            Melanie Wong.

            ( Freudian slip? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freudian... )

            1. re: RicRios

              I'm happy at any point to be confused with my lovely, erudite neighbor to the near north, Melanie Wong, and her exhaustive knowledge of wine. Cheers, Melanie.

              On subject:
              In Alsace at several extensive tastings, the bottles were covered with knitted sleeves that resembled long socks. Of course, the knitted sleeve reveals the shape of the Alsatian bottle, not a problem when all the bottles are shaped like that, but it would be at most tastings.

              I've never thought of making cloth bags for tastings, but I like the idea of creating a cylinder of fabric and monogramming each bag with a large inital cap or numeral. My inner seamstress may soon emerge.

              1. re: maria lorraine

                Likewise, i'm thrilled that my humble language could be mistaken for the prose of ms. maria lorraine.

              2. re: RicRios

                You mean they're NOT the same people??? ;^) Ooops . . .

              1. re: Frodnesor

                Frod, you are all over it...those prices seem reasonable. The set of 20 may work for Carswell.

              2. Half sheet of newsprint, wrap, twist, and good to go.

                4 Replies
                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                    Newsprint is an interesting idea, Sam. A potentially hand-smudging idea if using newspapers (something I've not bought in years, thanks to the Web) but maybe we could find blank newsprint somewhere. I suppose I might also suggest to one of the wine supply stores around town that they begin stocking bottle-sized paper bags, which really seem to be the best solution to our particular set of circumstances.

                    1. re: carswell

                      I was being a bit sarcastic in that I didn't think not having those bags would be a problem. We've used blank newsprint paper and butcher paper.

                  2. Thanks for the replies so far. Just to clarify:

                    I rent a cellar in a wine-storage facility, which gives us access to the facility's tasting room but only for the evening of the tasting. Although the room has a dishwasher, we couldn't use it for decanters unless we wanted to wait an hour or so for them to finish washing and drying before storing them in my cellar and leaving. Also, my cellar is packed to the gills with wine (about a square foot of free floor space remaining...); there's barely enough room for the two decanters I already store there; adding another four or five decanters plus drying stands is pretty much out of the question. And there's no separate room in which glasses can be filled away from the tasters' prying eyes.

                    The tastings are usually double-blind for the other participants, who have no clue as to what's being poured. In other words, bottle shape is relevant.

                    Pre-lettered/numbered bags are less desirable since they'd make it impossible for me to taste the wines blind. The way things work now, I place the bottles in the bags and then ask one of the participants to rearrange and number them. Then the wines are poured. This way, while I know which wines are in the flight, I don't know the order they're poured in.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: carswell

                      I believe that the decanter suggestion wasn't for the wide-balloon shaped ones, but for the inexpensive types which can be stored on/in a wine rack (they're at most the width of a standard 1.5L bottle, but usually are the width of a standard wine bottle; think Gallo grape juice carafes). Restaurant supply stores sell them quite cheaply, and they fit into anyone's dishwasher without needing a special drying rack

                      This is the style: http://www.instawares.com/wine-decant...

                    2. I'd at least consider trying a case (or two, or three) of glass mason jars. The 1 quart size would work for 750ml bottles, and they're extremely inexpensive, washable, durable, etc. You can label the lids or the jars themselves.

                      What? Tacky? Too lowbrow?

                      You can probably order the bags from a shipping supply store like uline.com if you want them, Probably very cheap.

                      Or check a local restaurant supply store for cheap glassware.

                      1. Have you tried any local area restaurant and convenience store supply stores? I'd be surprised if your area Mom & Pop liquor and wine shops don't have a source for wine and liquor bottle bags in reasonably small quantity.

                        I used to use the following bread bags (baguette shape cut down to fit): http://www.papermart.com/templates/11...
                        This is a US company, so I don't know if it makes sense to order into Canada, though their site does show International FedEx shipping. And the minimum is 500 bags, but you seem to use quite a few each event.

                        1. Your method is almost exactly like mine. I remove all of the capsule and will use one pass of tape, but have twisted, as you mention.

                          The other method is the aluminum foil route, which is effective, but glittery on the table, or side board, and is also not ecologically kind either.

                          I like the paper, but if they are not available can see the problem.

                          On possible source might be the CA equal to Costco, whatever that is. Costco has a lot of packaging materials for restaurants, etc. You may be able to purchase these same bags, but just not through the SAQ, unless they have been banned nationally.

                          I'll be interested in seeing what others suggest.


                          7 Replies
                          1. re: Bill Hunt

                            what about collecting and cleaning 12 or more empty wine bottles, removing all labels and then pouring the wines into these bottles. You can also buy the bottles at a wine making store. But from the sounds of it, it would not be hard to get these bottles collected. ;) obviously this would be reusable.

                            1. re: cleopatra999


                              first take the trouble of organizing a dozen tastings following the rules you suggest, then we talk.

                              1. re: RicRios

                                save me the trouble of erring....where have i misstepped?

                                  1. re: RicRios

                                    But you would only have to do it once. then reuse the same bottles for each tasting. Or is it the cleaning of the bottles that is difficult?

                                    Of course it is much easier to just cover the bottle, but it seems to me that the OP is looking for an environmentally friendly option. Reusing a bottle is just that. Often things that are more Eco friendly and cheaper are often more work.

                                    1. re: RicRios

                                      No different that reusing a dozen "cheapo" carafes, lettered and ready-to-go.

                              2. Plain brown paper bags for wine bottles can be puchased in bulk. 100 bags run about $2 US. That and a Magic Marker pen and you're good to go.

                                Though it may not be environmentally sensitive to use paper, the amount of water and soap used by washing carafes is a consideration. That and the extra amount of time spent transferring the contents of one bottle into a carafe or other bottle. I like the "wino" look of brown paper bags at a tasting.

                                3 Replies
                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  Will be looking into buying paper bags, I think. Not ecologically ideal, perhaps, but we could probably get away with four or five bags per tasting by adopting a different numbering system and reusing them from flight to flight.

                                  Transferring the wines to other bottles would require spending much time with a funnel and greatly increase the risk of spillage. Plus we seldom finish off the bottles and tasters take the tail-ends home with them, so then we'd have to pour them back into the original bottles. Plus, as I mentioned above, washing, draining, drying and storing bottles and carafes/decanters is not really feasible with our current setup.

                                  Never made the wino association but you're right. Wonder what local winos are going to do now -- hide their bottles with reusable bags?

                                  1. re: carswell

                                    "Wonder what local winos are going to do now -- hide their bottles with reusable bags?"

                                    Haven't most of them long since switched to those big bottles and cans of high-alcohol beer from the convenience store (where paper bags are still available)?

                                    1. re: carswell

                                      Yes, re-use the bags several times. You can just mark out old letter on the bag and write over them if you don't feel like keeping them organized by alphabet.

                                      When I was tasting every day and doing blind tasting flights twice a week or more, I had paper bag sponsors. One winery supplied a bale of bags with their logo on it and wine retailers were happy to give me 50 to 100 bags with their name on them for the exposure to the tasting participants. It's worth asking your wine suppliers.

                                      I still have a few bags, new and used, in the trunk of the car for any blind tasting emergency situation that might arise. (vbg)