I was explaining the mechanisms of wine competitions and judging to a friend recently. He views the wine trade as a cushy life, involving lunch, free samples and glitzy overseas travel.
I explained that judging involves being in a neutral room with a panel, tasting, discussing and writing a note for 70 to 100 wines a day. Finally, he thought I might have the odd hard day at work.
Judging is sociable, encourages debate and it is a chance to hone technique; and, more importantly, calibrate my tastes against those of others. My friend was rightly more interested in the results. Surely, he suggested, mental and palate fatigue must set in after wine number 80, so how valid are the results?
The question is pertinent, especially this year as there has been debate over the International Wine Challenge (IWC) and the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA).
It was suggested that far too many wines were getting a commended or bronze award, duping consumers; the implication being that commercial prerogative (both are significant revenue generators for their respective owners) was overriding judging neutrality.
I judged two days at DWWA this year and one at Imbibe’s Sommelier Wine Awards (SWA). SWA is made up entirely of on-trade professionals, while DWWA is more diverse, with the odd winemaker joining journalists, consultants and sommeliers.
At DWWA you are likely to sit on a panel with frequent, often professional judges. In my view they are the most consistent tasters. They also tend to give the most bronze and commended scores; something has to be pretty awful or technically unsound to get booted out.
Sommeliers are more impetuous – championing wines they believe in and harsher on mediocrity
Sommeliers are more impetuous and champion those they believe to be great while being harsher on mediocrity. Both these traits come from having to sell wine, which is not easy unless you believe the wine is the best it can be; average does not get a listing.
Sommeliers bring an alternative perspective because they have a different agenda; it is not just about absolute quality, but also commercial viability. This is most evident at SWA, where, while scores to award a medal are the same, the dynamic of getting there is very different.
How does it stand up in its class? Is it good value? How will it work with food? And of course, is it a quality wine? All these questions are considered.
Biased I may be, but I feel the results have relevance. I can see a clear line from the tasting room, via the wine list to the customer.
Competitions are a platform to practise tasting, make money and benchmark, but they should not lose contact with the customer.