Monday, April 27, 2009

Where's the gold?

Europe's leading wine competition, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, is over. Myself and more than 100 other judges have tasted and rated thousands of wines.

So which wines won gold medals? We don't know. We might know next week.

This is very unusual for a wine competition. Usually, medals are decided by judges sitting around a table arguing (or "negotiating" if you prefer.) A unanimous vote for a gold is a double-gold. Two golds and one "no medal" is a silver. That sort of thing. You defend your choices, you hear other judges' reasoning, and you all learn something.

This competition is very different. My panel had almost no discussion of the wines. We each filled out an individual scoresheet for each wine in 10 categories, signed it, and turned it in.

There's a back room, allegedly full of statisticians, that will calculate the results, adjusting for individual tasters' tendencies, and announce the medals later.

In theory, this system might be good. I posted two days ago that I like the fact that the system encourages a much wider points range than most of us are used to, which I think accurately represents the experience of wine.

But I can't help wondering how exactly these scores will be adjusted. If I hate a whole category -- Hungarian reds was one -- does that mean for the two wines I liked best, my scores will be moved up to gold medal status, even if I think none were deserving?

In practice, I think transparency is important. The judges will be scattered about the globe by the time the results come out. If some rustic, rough Chilean Carmenere gets a gold, I'll have to assume the other judges liked it a whole lot. But I won't be sure. And since I'm supposed to be one of the decision makers, that's not a good situation.


I have a mea culpa to give to a producer of one ice wine I misunderstood, and I'll deliver it here as soon as I learn if I mistakenly prevented it from getting a medal. Before that, though, here's a different mea culpa:

The following would be entirely too boastful for a print publication, but hopefully will be only mildly egotistical for a blog.

I was the only American in my judging group: we had an Italian, a Belgian, a Spaniard and the head of our panel was from Bordeaux. Today I was called "the American" a number of times, and not in a good way. But not to worry, fellow Americans, I held up our end.

Our first group of wines was clearly barrel-fermented Chardonnay -- clearly to me, anyway. I liked them; I liked some of them a lot. The Bordeaux guy said they were Entre Deux Mers (a Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon-based wine from HIS REGION) and was neutral to them. The Belgian disliked them, saying -- incredibly to me -- they had "too much acidity" (A European tells an American this?) He speculated that they were Eastern European. I advocated for my favorites, saying they were very well-balanced wines, nicely made, using expensive French oak, and that's when they started calling me The American.

Peace reigned for three groups of wines. But then the last group were very rustic, and I hated all but one. I thought they were bretty and unpleasant and declared that I wouldn't drink a glass of them. The other 4 judges said they were Syrahs, and that I didn't appreciate the characteristics of Syrah. Wine after wine, one judge picked up my scoresheet and said, "The American doesn't like this one either. You're tough."

Here's the braggart part: That first group of whites? They were white Burgundies, some of them Premier Crus.

That group of rustic reds? Chilean Carmeneres.

How do you say "nyah nyah" in Flemish?


guren said...

Reminds me of a time many, many years ago when a certain smart-ass (emphasis on ass and not smart) insulted the favorite baseball team of a future wine writer at a sports trivia contest. Did the other wine "experts" give an opinion about Rob Neyer?

W. Blake Gray said...

Rob Neyer is coasting these days. He's like a brand wine that established itself with unique single-vineyard information, but has recently begun buying grapes from anywhere.

Lisa said...

Seeing these two comments makes me think you could have a very exciting blog franchise if you could successfully integrate your vast baseball knowldege with your love of wine . . . Do you see it, too?