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Jan 1, 2009 10:47 AM

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? )

            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.