Confessions of a Wine Competition Judge

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In panels of three or four, we arbiters of good taste assemble to protect the unsuspecting public from a terrible fate: shoddy plonk. Hours of sniffing, swirling, tasting and spitting take their toll, but we sip on, nose to glass. Stiff and chilled like the cocktails we’ll swig when it’s over, we throw our organs on the line to cull the worthy from the dross, all to make that walk down the wine aisle a little easier for wine consumers.

In our own minds, we’re superheroes of sorts: wino savants with fine-tuned olfactory glands. But the truth is, there is no magic in our mojo. We’re just experienced and oddly motivated to spend two or three days tasting and individually “medaling” between 250 and 450 different wines, all tasted “blind” in anonymously numbered glasses. We’ve been recruited from restaurants, retailers, distributors, the media and sometimes even the same wineries that submit their wines to our unflinching scrutiny. (The use of winemakers as judges is controversial. You’d think they’d be softies, since they know how much wineries need medals for their marketing, but instead I’ve found they are the most exacting critics, fixating on small technical flaws.)

Some competitions require certified judges. In California, the most stringent screener is the California State Fair Wine Competition, which conducts its own certification exam through UC Davis Extension. I passed it, so how hard could it be? It was really an endurance test, involving the identification of many nasty smells (wine flaws), detection of minute amounts of acid and sugar levels in samples, and a medal award session to test consistency.

Here’s what they don’t test for: personality. More than their technical prowess, good judges are prized for their ability to get along with others, express their opinions diplomatically and come to a consensus quickly. Believe it or not, a small minority of judges fills this bill. You’ve got personalities in the room: the loud-voiced egomaniacs, the naysayers, the cheerleaders and what I call the butt sniffers, who suss out the qualifications of panel members like dogs in the street, then categorize the pack into a hierarchy of which alpha-opinions to follow. As a young woman, I got more of this nosing than the glasses themselves. It’s just wine, guys. We’re not running the Iditarod.

SARTORIALLY CHALLENGED, WITH A HINT OF CONFORMITY The first thing I asked when invited to judge my first competition was “What do I wear?” The honor of judging is shockingly casual: No one but the wine sees us, and we’ve got to be comfortable during hours of sitting. Most judges are middle-aged white men who wear a standard uniform: khakis or jeans, Hawaiian shirt or promotional-logo polo, and running shoes or loafers. Deviants include Australian judges, who show up the first day wearing their customary white lab coats, and celebrities, who wear their signature hat or bow tie or whatever marks their “brand.” We women dress in accordance with our individual strategies for success in a man’s world: Either we blend in with jeans and the same freebie winery logo-wear, or we go above and beyond in stylish outfits. We also wear thermal undies, since the rooms are kept cool for the wine’s comfort, not ours. Easy fabrics, preferably black, are a must, since things get spotty with all that swirling and spitting. Once, a volunteer spilled an entire tray of red wine-filled glasses on me and my new washable suede jacket. Not my favorite way to get attention, but the jacket cleaned up fine. * HEAVY MEDAL-WHAT DOES A MEDAL REALLY TELL YOU ABOUT A WINE? BRONZE: A good wine, commercially acceptable. Often a sign of a disagreement and compromise. SILVER: Above-average wine, quite enjoyable. Could be a complex, elegant wine that was too refined to duke it out with the fruit bomb that won the gold. GOLD: Distinctive quality in nose, palate and finish. Usually a powerful wine. DOUBLE GOLD: Unanimously voted gold by all judges on the panel. Best of Region, Show or Sweepstakes: The best of the best. Often subject to judges’ prejudices in favor of style or grape. For example, Bordeaux blends and Syrahs are more common Best of Region or Show winners than Pinot Grigios or Merlots.

FOR THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE, PICK UP A COPY OF SACRAMENTO MAGAZINE’S MARCH ISSUE.