Blind Wine Tasting With Main Line Dine's Mike Madaio

The Main Line foodie recently honed his oenophile chops at the Wine School of Philadelphia. But did he pass his final exam?

I’m a mess. My legs are jittery. My stomach’s in knots. I haven’t felt this way since, well, finals.

Which makes sense, because I’m about to take the final exam for the Wine School of Philadelphia’s Foundations of Wine program. It’s not the written portion that worries me; it’s the blind tasting, where I’ll be asked to identify four wine varietals with nothing but my senses.

Before this accelerated class began, I considered myself a wine expert. I’ve visited some of the best tasting rooms in California. I’ve wandered around Tuscany. I have a nice little collection growing in my basement. Now, I realize there is far more that I don’t know.

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I’ve certainly learned a lot this week. According to the Wine School’s director and founder, Keith Wallace, the class is clearly aimed at making you a better wine drinker. We discussed the subtle, intricate differences between major varietals, how to identify basic structural elements of wine, and how to identify decisions that were made during the wine-making process. Though this isn’t required knowledge for wine drinking, it enhances and enriches the experience in ways I never thought possible.

When I arrive at class, four wines are laid out in a square in front of me. I sniff wine No. 1. Not getting much on the nose. For reference, I move to wine No. 2. Still nothing. Uh-oh. This could be trouble.

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Whites—which I drink much less often—have become my nemeses, at least when it comes to blind tasting. I decide to sniff the reds before panicking. Hopefully, that will open my palate.

The reds are easy. The first is lightly colored and floral, with a hint of barnyard (oenophile speak for manure). It’s easy on the tongue—acidic, with notes of fresh strawberries. This can only be pinot noir. One down.

Next, the opposite end of the spectrum. Dark purple, with a nose that smells like pencil shavings and a touch of blackberry. Tannic enough that it dries the teeth. Clearly a cabernet sauvignon.

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Bolstered, I return to the whites. I begin to sense the green, unripe, grassy smell of wine No. 1. It’s still faint, but that’s probably a function of my stuffed nose and frayed nerves. Even so, I’m confident that this is sauvignon blanc.

Wine No. 2 has less going on. Maybe a slight hint of butter or vanilla, maybe even melon. I’m quite sure this one is neither Riesling nor sauvignon blanc, which makes chardonnay a much more educated guess.

I’m confident I got the reds correct. The whites? Not so sure. I hand in the form and find out I’m four for four.

Turns out, I know something after all.

Mike Madaio is the publisher of the local foodie website Main Line Dine ( To learn more about the Wine School, visit

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