Tuesday, June 6, 2017

A tale of three wine competitions

This photo from 2016 was not one of the three competitions I describe. I just like the photo.
Last month I took part in three very different competitive wine tastings. Let me describe them, and you try to guess where they were held.

1) A room full of old white men (there was one female judge, no non-white judges, and I may have been the youngest judge in the room) sat at tables of three, tasted wines together, and tried to give as many gold medals as possible. Silver medals were inadequate. If you didn't want to give a gold medal to a wine, you had to explain yourself first to the other judges and then to the competition director.

2) An ethnically diverse group of men and women sat around a table and frantically rated wines for 16 different characteristics. The tastings were timed and tasters had about one minute per wine. Each spot on the scorecard had to be filled out: Clarity, Intensity (visual), Color, Condition, Intensity (nose), Development, Aroma characteristics, Sweetness, Acidity, Alcohol, Body, Intensity (flavor), Finish, Flavor characteristics, Quality level, Score. (I feel stressed all over again just typing that in.)

3) A geographically diverse group of men and women sat at different tables tasting flights of wine. The objective was to pick the best and runner-up of each variety. More than one table got each flight, so every wine was considered by at least 6 judges. The top scoring wines moved to the next round, while the midrange scorers were tested again. In the final round, at least three tables of judges got each flight, and each judge ranked the wines of the flight in order. Discussion was allowed but the ultimate decision was made by combining and averaging scores.

So, where do you think these competitions were held? Guess now; the answer is after the photo.

Competition 1 was in a non-famous California wine region. No. 2 was a private competition held for a Napa Valley winery using WSET tasting rules.

No. 3 was the Northern Lands competition in Edmonton for Canadian wines. You want to guess which competition yielded the most usable results?

What is it about the United States, where we love wine competitions, that we design them so poorly?

In Europe, there's an official OIV standard for wine tasting. You're not supposed to talk. You're supposed to judge the wine in 10 categories but there are helpful boxes in each group and you just check them. Most judges reverse-engineer their scores anyway. It's quiet and moves quickly but there is no time limit. The Concours Mondial, where I have judged 9 times, uses this system and its results are reliable. I've never tasted a gold medal wine from the Concours Mondial and wondered "how the hell did it get that?"

Backstage after Northern Lands
But this doesn't have to be the only way to do it, as our Canadian friends proved at Northern Lands. No judge ever gets to see all of his favorite wines waltz away with the Best Of in every category, but I feel confident that any wine which won at Northern Lands is very good; it's just a question of personal taste at that point. I argued vehemently for a Syrah over a Pinot Noir for Best in Show, for example, but when I had a chance the next day to drink that Pinot (which won), I drank the heck out of it.

I sat in on the private WSET competition because they said they would pay me (check's in the mail, I hope), and because I was interested in the wines (Napa Carneros Chardonnays, about which I will post something soon, and Pinot Noirs). The WSET tasting system, though, perplexes me. In order to finish on time I began writing Medium in most of the categories because I didn't have enough time to decide if a wine's body, alcohol, intensity, etc. was Medium, Medium- or Medium+. Most of my ratings for "Finish" were a lie because I didn't have time to judge the finish. I know that sounds like I was a slacker for a competition for which I am supposed to get paid, but the opposite is true: I'm not sure I've ever worked harder to judge wines. However, I don't think my judgments were among the better ones I've made.

Whenever I write about wine competitions, I usually get comments saying, "Who cares about wine competitions?" U.S. consumers don't care because U.S. competition results are so unreliable. We could do better, but that doesn't seem to be our goal.

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  1. I was one of the Decanter judges this year and that competition is run very well. Getting to taste and discuss with MWs is quite enjoyable as it's super nerdy and makes everyone at the table a better taster, at least I think so. There may have been some difficult people as region chairs, but I didn't find anyone as such.

    I've no idea why on earth anyone would apply the WSET system to a serious wine competition. It works as an academic system to learn the basis of judging wine, but in the real world, it's useless and most anyone who kills themselves to learn it, usually has to junk it. That and it appears you're using the older format of the WSET which was scrapped last year for a newer and slightly more streamlined version.

    But I hear you, some judgments are just done really poorly, even in Europe. I've gotten really picky given that payments are usually small to none and so if I'm going to give up my time, I want to come away learning something from the tasting. Big takeaway from Decanter was a Pinot from Krasnodar, Russia my table gave a silver to. Seems to be some very serious wine coming out of that region, which is of little surprise given it sits between Ukraine and Georgia.



  2. "The tastings were timed and tasters had about one minute per wine. Each spot on the scorecard had to be filled out: Clarity, Intensity (visual), Color, Condition, Intensity (nose), Development, Aroma characteristics, Sweetness, Acidity, Alcohol, Body, Intensity (flavor), Finish, Flavor characteristics, Quality level, Score."

    One minute?!

    I have been complaining about this mindset/method on wine blogs for some time now.

    And here's the science behind my complaint, courtesy of W. Blake Gray.

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    From the Los Angeles Times “Food” Section
    (May 6, 2009, Page E1ff):

    “Call It Aroma Therapy for Wine”


    By W. Blake Gray
    Special to The Times

    . . . Andrew Waterhouse, chairman of the Department of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis . . . says the implication that a "closed" wine is missing something is a misdiagnosis. In fact, rather than withholding scents, the wine is actually giving you something extra: sulfur compounds that are potent enough even in tiny amounts to cover up the fresh fruit aromas you want to smell.

    Sulfur occurs naturally in both grapes and the yeasts that turn grapes into wine. Sulfur forms more than 100 compounds called mercaptans. These sulfuric compounds form differently and unpredictably in every bottle of wine.

    When exposed to air, they eventually re-form into something less annoying, BUT THEY NEED A FEW MINUTES TO DO SO. We call it "breathing," but it's really a seething sea of recombining elements.

    "I think of wine as a tier of about 100 different compounds that are either taking on oxygen or passing it on to something else," says Kenneth Fugelsang, associate professor of enology at Cal State Fresno. "When that process is finished, the wine is ready to drink."

    Even if you don't smell rotting cabbage, asparagus or burnt rubber -- some of mercaptan's more noxious calling cards -- sulfur compounds are still what keep you from fully enjoying wine right away.

    "These reductive compounds are excellent masking agents," Fugelsang says. "They can hide the positive characteristics of any wine."

    . . .

    [See my next comment.]

  3. Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (February 23, 1999, Page A1ff):

    “He Sips and Spits — and the World Listens;
    Wine writer Robert Parker may be the planet’s most powerful critic.
    His controversial views influence the industry and its sales globally,
    and have helped increase consumers’ knowledge.”

    (Series: First of Two Articles)


    By David Shaw
    Times Staff Writer

    Parker is known as a fast taster. . . .

    Parker looks at each wine, sniffs, swirls, sips, sucks air into his mouth and gurgles. (The swirling and gurgling help aerate the wine and give a sense of how it’s likely to develop in the glass.) Then he SPITS it out. Each wine is in his mouth for maybe FOUR OR FIVE SECONDS.

    BOB'S COMMENT: is FOUR TO FIVE SECONDS SAMPLING TIME from a freshly opened and poured wine bottle sufficient for the sulfur compounds to blow off to reveal the underlying fresh fruit aromas?

    This isn't just an issue with Robert Parker's methodology.

    As Blake observed, it also begs the question: how much time do wine competition judges accord to each sample wine before moving on to the glass in the flight?

    Speaking as someone who has served as a county fair wine judge, my experience is: not much time at all. Less than I would have preferred.

  4. Postscript.

    Here's a link to a better reading version of Blake's article:

  5. In the exam for Master Sommelier, the candidates have 24 minutes to identify -- as fully as possible -- six wines "blind."

    That averages 4 minutes per wine.

    Contrast that with the 1 minute average accorded Blake at the private Carneros Chardonnay competition using the WSET systematic approach to tasting wine.

    Seems those Chardonnays and the competition's judges were short-changed.