I have participated in a few wine shows as a humble steward. This involves – mainly- setting out glasses, pouring wines for the judges, and cleaning up, so there is no glamour.
But the hard work starts much earlier. Organisers/committees of the shows, amongst other matters, need to
- Establish the classes (eg 2016 Riesling)
- Solicit sponsors, entries, collect fees,
- Arrange venue, glasses, select judges, associate judges and stewards
- Receive and sort the wines
- Collate and publish results
- Arrange judges accommodation, meals etc
- Arrange media, trade, exhibitor tastings etc.
Improvements have been made over the years, including
- Better glassware used (not the old XL5s)
- Venues that have natural light and appropriate temperatures
- Screwcaps – not just avoiding the overt TCA and oxidation, but many wines were slightly cork affected, making them muted
- Reduction in the number of wines judged in one day to around 100
- Better education of judges through threshold awareness and sensitivities
- Greater courtesy shown to associate judges
- Broader selection of judges (overseas, trade, media – not just winemakers)
- Clustering of wines into regions- or varieties (so judging a class is not generally a pinballing of wine from region A, then region B, then region A etc,
- Accommodating new varietals (eg Mediterranean and Iberian)
- Wines from named vineyards/plots
- Wines of provenance (same producer, same wine, different vintages; this needs a tweak so older vintages are not always the same ones!)
- Len Evans Tutorial – which exposes winemakers and judges to world-class wines, old and new
There seem to be many, many wine shows. In the past few months, there have been (with links to results attached)
Yarra Valley Wine Show, Halliday Chardonnay challenge, Ballarat, Rutherglen, Melbourne, Adelaide, Cool climate, Canberra regional, Geelong, McLaren Vale, Hilltops, Mt Barker, Clare Valley, Tumbarumba, Shiraz Challenge, Riesling Challenge, Sweet wine challenge, NSW wine awards, Australian Italian varieties, Limestone Coast. I have probably missed a few!
Some of these are “regional” shows, others are open, some are “focused”. No doubt each has their rationale, so we are unlikely to see any consolidations.
Keeping track of results is basically not possible, without much data entry, but here are some anomalies;
- Use of 20 point vs 100 point judging scales. This can mean in some shows judges scores are “added” so the top score is theoretically 60 (and 57 is an outstanding result); or averaged, or agreed between judges – 100 is a theoretical top score– with 98 being an outstanding result.
- Some shows provide scores for all wines; some provide scores for the medal-winners, and no scores for “the rest”
- Some shows provide brief judges’ comments about some classes “excellent results for this year; medal winners show freshness, non-medal winners advanced, many over-extracted)
- Some shows generally name the wines in a class, not just that its Winery X “wine A” and winery X “wine B”; or did not list vintages in a class of vintage fortifieds -unhelpful!
- Some shows prohibit a judge scoring wines in a class where their own wines may appear in a line-up.
Room for improvement
But the underlying question is “why”?
Are wine shows for the benefit of consumers who lust after medals and trophies? Are wine shows for the benefit of wine-makers who gain an understanding of how their wines compare relative to their peers/competitors, and improving the calibre of wines overall? Are the results for the benefit of companies to claim general bragging rights? Are the shows to benefit the judges (and associates), to learn views and network with the other judges, media and exhibitors? Or are the shows run as an adjunct- partly financial- to bolster events at a regional festival or day?
As a committed fence-sitter, the Show system is an amalgam of these objectives (and probably more).
Judges are not entirely interchangeable; we all have different sensitivities- to such characters as rotundone and indole. Again, there are judges who are competent but have a lesser feel, liking or understanding of some classes. I have known winemakers reluctant to submit wines- some partly from philosophy, some for cost reasons, some who check the judging panel composition- as certain judges are deemed clueless on some varieties/styles.
Judging is demanding, hard work -concentrating, maybe spending a few minutes on each wine, describing highlights, lowlights etc. Its understandably easier to describe an excellent wine, that is gold-medal standard – or close; it’s harder to pin down why a wine that provides less excitement is worth a lesser score; wines that have a blatant fault – or more than one, are easily discarded- but still have to be scored, and described.
Confronting a class of say 40 different 2015 Merlots at 10am is not something that many judges would look forward to; or a class of rose or pinot gris; I have heard judges happily confess that that they had “room for improvement” in their understanding of sparkling wines, or fortified wines. There is thus scope for more “class specialists”. There is scope for an “opt-out” with judges able to swap panels.
Again, use of trade or media judges, especially on determination of top gold or trophies may provide some stylistic guidance, after the technical soundness, typificity and quality has been demonstrated. In most cases, they will support the panel chair’s view; but they may be called (as may the chair of judges) to resolve issues where panels are strongly divided.
Apologies that this post is just an airing of quick thoughts- perhaps there is illumination of selected issues.