Fun and learnings at a recent wine show

I was a steward for several days (my sixth stewarding experience so far); after the preliminaries of proving my valid RSA (responsible service of alcohol certificate) and confidentiality agreements, it was time to begin. Everything was already  in place – judges and associates selected, wines sorted into classes and then randomised, tables, glassware, buckets, and running sequences arranged for the four panels. All the stewards had to do was set up glasses, pour wines, clean up and possibly try a few wines afterwards. It’s good for fitness, but a lot of time on your feet.

We’re volunteers – generally the judges are away from their day jobs; and people are doing it for love. Apart from the time away from family and work, there is wear and tear on the intellect, and taste-buds – plus dental care is very precious. For many judges it’s an excellent opportunity for professional development – to taste the wines of their competitors and peers, learn about their own tasting strengths and weaknesses, see trends in winemaking, all with some brief time for networking.

I had the fortunate opportunity to guest on a couple of judging sessions; 20-odd recent chardonnays, and 33 young rosés. My scores (and those of other associates) were not counted; but it was an exercise in concentration, description, time-management and stamina. And of course, we don’t know the identity of the wines as they merely appear in numbered glasses.

Each wine receives a score, and a few comments to justify the basis for the score. All these are now entered on a tablet, with judges scores and comments available to the Panel Chair(person). This role is responsible for negotiating scoring consensus, calling some wines back for retastes, finessing and combining comments to be somewhat less offensive to the exhibitors (apart from faults, descriptors such as  “dilute, industrial, green fruit, prematurely developed” occurred) as did other terms I would struggle to define or identify (“hang-time, stale oak”). No exhibitor really wants to find out why others think their wine is ugly or undeserving.

Judges are encouraged to taste the line-up of wines starting at different places or “backwards” (to reduce “halo” effects). A rule of thumb was for a gold medal could be “I’d like six of those in my cellar”; a silver “ a few bottles would be nice”; a bronze “yes I’ll have another glass”; for those that don’t rate a medal “have you got something else?”.

Callbacks occur for several reasons – where judges’ scores differ significantly or are on the border of silver/gold; people may be passionate on the merits –or flaws of particular wines. Wines are randomised, re-tasted to identity “top gold”, and potentially some wines are downgraded to silver medals. In the “split classes” (if many wines in a class, judging will be distributed across panels), the golds or top golds from each panel are reassembled for judging. Then we’re often into the realm of philosophy where some attributes are noticed, and valued more highly by some judges than others – smashability, however is not a phrase utilised.

Trophies may be judged across several classes; best red or white may come from single varieties and blends; best wine of the show may for example eventually pit a Chardonnay against a Shiraz. A gold medal or trophy usually means a wine has been assessed multiple times.

Rosé? I don’t buy this style, and seldom drink them, so why would I volunteer to judge a line-up? It seems almost every producer makes one, the market has boomed, but making a decent rosé is not straightforward. They should be made deliberately, not as an afterthought; colour matters (not trying to make a light dry red); some sweetness is OK if matched with crunchy acidity. It proved surprisingly simple to sort better wines from regrettable wines. I learned plenty about time management, writing adequate descriptions, sorting the wines into rough medal – or not – categories then refining and ranking.

I am not a wine-maker, so I was pleased and relieved that my scores were (generally) not wildly different from the judges, albeit my descriptions proved somewhat different. The BLIC approach (balance, length, intensity and complexity) is more than just a mechanical checklist for the judges, who can appreciate and articulate the attributes of wines.

I often see disparaging comments regarding (factual) score disparity between the same wine in different shows. There is variability in temperature, lighting, glassware, aeration time, transport and panel composition.  And judges sensitivities vary, and their knowledge, appreciation and enjoyment will differ across classes.  It’s also an expensive exercise to enter wines into competitions, and wines can change even over the course of a few months. With these factors – and more, such as wine being bottled in batches- in play, there is more consistency than I realistically have expected. It’s still possible for wines with subtlety to be neglected when brash wines with one strong feature are exhibited.

Judges are selected with care, and their performances are scrutinised, and there are tools and resources to assess their competencies; statistically, as well as their mentoring and “soft skills”.

I experienced excellent guidance from the Panel Chair, with helpful introductions to what we should expect and value in each class, support for my enthusiasms for several wines, and general inclusion in discussions. These are merely some of the skills; a good panel of judges will disagree on some style matters and be able to articulate support or disappointment with individual wines; a good Panel Chair will facilitate the discussion and know when to call in the Chief Judge to assist, and verify conclusions.

I’ll be back for more stewarding (and hopefully some judging too), as I seem overtly partial to knowledge acquisition.