Diary of a Wine Judge
Type “wine judge” into Google and a picture of a pint of beer just might appear. I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a judge on numerous occasions and in several countries. Copious amounts of beer are generally involved, but that’s not unusual in the wine industry.
My first international wine-judging gig was at Vinitaly in 2005. I arrived at my hotel in Verona about eight in the evening after having travelled halfway across the world. In my room was an invitation to a reception welcoming all the judges … that was starting in 20 minutes. I quickly showered and made my way to the hotel’s grand lobby. As I walked around the room, the number of languages I heard being spoken was remarkable — clear evidence of the number of countries being represented. It took a while, but I finally heard some English and made my way over to say hello. It turned out to be the Scandinavians — a Finn, a Norwegian and a Swede. We seemed to hit it off (having cold-climate homes and a love of beer and hockey in common may have had something to do with that).
The stunning multi-course dinner went on until just after midnight, as it often does at these sorts of events in Italy. Most people had arrived that day from various parts of the world and, with the judging to commence the next morning, most made their way back to their rooms. The Canadian and the Scandinavians, though, figured we needed to have a nightcap in Piazza Bra. The nightcap turned into a few and pretty much set the tone for the rest of the competition.
The judging itself is very hard work. Yes, I know, we are tasting lots of wine, meeting people from all over the world, enjoying great local cuisine, and experiencing the history and culture of so many wonderful places. But it really is hard work. Remember, during the actual judging process, we are not drinking and socializing. We are tasting anywhere from 70 to 150 wines per day, having to evaluate each one and attach a score that will ultimately contribute to which wines receive the coveted “medals.” There is a significant amount of responsibility involved.
At Vinitaly, almost 200 Italian and foreign winemaker judges and members of the media are gathered in a large room, each behind their own desk. The desks are all lined up perfectly in rows (a bit like a final exam in the gymnasium at university, except that wine is being served). Each row has a sommelier who pours the wines to be tasted. You judge the wines blind (you do not know what is being poured). You judge one at a time. You don’t talk with any of the other judges. You judge each wine in multiple categories, attach a score to each category, and total up the subscores to give the glass its overall score … all in three minutes. And you do this for seven to eight hours a day for four days. They even have a prize for the judges who total all their sheets (several hundred) correctly (I was one of the recipients). Those who consistently had trouble with their addition faced scolding from the notario who was responsible for tabulating the results.
Each day tends to have the same theme. You wake up, have breakfast, hop on a bus around 8 a.m., start judging by 9 a.m., taste wines all morning, break for lunch at around 1 p.m. (which in Italy is a pretty damned good lunch), take a little break until about 3 p.m. if you are in Europe or start back up again immediately after lunch in the New World, taste until 5 or 6 p.m., head back to the hotel, go for dinner, go out after dinner (lots of beer involved here), get to bed by 2 a.m. (on a good night) and start all over again the next day. But, of course, there is so much more.
The dinners are stunning. The Italians, the Chileans and the Spanish (actually any wine-producing region of the world) all go out of their way to put on outstanding meals that showcase their local, fresh ingredients and culinary culture. Food and wine are an integral part of the culture of so many nations; they realize that we are not just there to judge wine, we are there to experience the local culture, customs and cuisine.
One evening after dinner during the International Wine Competition at Vinitaly I found myself sitting around a table in a bar with the United Nations — a Swede, a Romanian, two Americans, a Finn, a Russian, a Greek, a Hungarian and often the Italian owners of the bar. The beer was voluminous as was the Jack Daniels and grappa, but it was the conversations, the sharing of stories and experiences that were the most memorable. I often remark that if international relations were conducted over the dinner table (or a few pints of beer), we would have far fewer problems. We made our way back to the hotel in the wee hours of the morning, about an hour before leaving on the bus for a tour of a few grappa distilleries (needless to say, a rough morning, but oh, the memories).
My most recent judging experience was earlier this year at the 7th Annual Wines of Chile Awards. I was quite excited, since I hadn’t been to Chile before. It was the first time Canadian judges were invited to participate. I was also very pleased with the amount of notice (almost a full year), as on more than one occasion I have received phone calls to the effect of, “can you come to Italy … on Tuesday?”
Santiago in January is beautiful — sunny and 30˚C. Upon arriving, we hopped on an awaiting bus and were whisked away to a smaller airport, where we were met by a couple of helicopters. The plan was to fly over the vineyards of the Casablanca and San Antonio valleys on the way out to the coast. My first helicopter ride. As the pilot “fired up our bird,” I tried to forget my recent conversation with an aviation investigator who remarked that mechanically, it was amazing that helicopters could even get off the ground, let alone fly. The view was amazing, which took my mind off the fact that the helicopter was bobbing and bouncing as though it was attached to a bungee cord. We landed at a private yacht club in Viña del Mar for lunch — not an everyday occurrence, but one of the perks of being a wine judge.
The competition in Santiago started off a little disorganized. We were tasting in panels, but there was not enough room on the tables for all the wines. The scoring system was a little unusual, resulting in the judges rewarding average wines with unusually high scores, and, much to our surprise, the country’s top wines were excluded because of a price cap on entries. The organizational issues were rectified over the course of the first day (by one of the Canadian Wines of Chile representatives), but there was much discussion on the $30 price cap. There was also some discussion regarding the judge who stripped down to his skivvies and jumped into the pool during lunch.
In addition to meeting people from all over the world, the most interesting aspect of judging is the education. There is no better way to learn about wine than to taste. At the Canadian Wine Awards, I was able to taste more local wines in a week than I would have the opportunity to all year. It’s a real eye-opener.
In Chile, we tasted Pinot Noir, Syrah and Carignan of the quality that we weren’t aware existed. We tasted good Carménère (apparently not always an oxymoron). And we experienced the diversity of the country’s terroir and vineyard sites in wines that are either not exported or not given their due attention by the importers. I also discovered that I don’t like abalone (reminded me of the white rubber erasers we used in elementary school) or simple syrup in my pisco sour, but I do love lúcuma and cherimoya (native tropical fruits).
As a wine judge, I’ve experienced long bus rides, some really bad wines, lots of hurry-up-and-wait, the occasional bad meal, the occasional hangover and sleep deprivation. But I’ve also met some of the most amazing people, experienced local cultures, seen ancient ruins and historical landmarks, tasted the world’s best food and wine, and, in some small way, helped the world get a little smaller. So you want to be a wine judge? You’d better be prepared to drink a lot of beer.