I just received an invitation to judge at the California State Fair Home Wine Competition in June. I checked the calendar, and found that I have the date open. I'll do it, but not without pause.
The invitation came from G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, who has been in charge of the judging for six years.
The pause came via a posting by W. Blake Gray on his wine blog "The Gray Market Report." Blake also was invited to judge, but he turned down the opportunity and explained why in a commentary under the provocative headline "California State Fair exploits wine judges." Basically, Blake complains that in contrast to most wine competitions the State Fair - we're talking here only of the State Fair's home winemaking competition, not the State Fair's commercial wine competition - doesn't reimburse judges for their transportation costs or provide lodging at the end of what generally is a long and trying day. (Actually, by my experience most competitions don't provide lodging once the last award is determined.) What's more, the State Fair Home Wine Competition expects of its judges more work than customarily is asked. In addition to deciding whether each wine is worthy of an award, judges are asked to write a helpful and readable analysis of each wine. This information is intended to guide home winemakers toward being even more adept at their craft. (Many already are as talented as commercial winemakers. Years ago, I sat on a panel at the Amador County Fair commercial wine competition. This was when white-zinfandel sales were booming, and several interpretations were entered. A couple of them were darn good. Afterwards, however, a few of us were recruited to judge the homemade wines. Hands down, we concurred that the best white zinfandel of the day was in the home-wine competition.) What's more, the judges get rated on the quality of their feedback, in hopes that they, too, will become more adept at their craft. You have to love that symmetry.
At any rate, Blake likens Pooch to a latter-day Tom Sawyer, inveigleing the innocent to pay to whitewash his fence. Blake doesn't think this is much of a deal. As an alternative, he suggests that home winemakers be asked to add another $1 or so to their entry fees ($12 to $18 per wine) to help pay judges for at least their gasoline, which today is no small issue.
Stung by Blake's remarks, Pooch dispatched an email to the California State Fair Wine Advisory Committee (of which I am a member). Therein, he explained his dilemma: He strives to keep entry fees low to encourage home winemakers to enter the competition, even though that means that he can't afford to provide judges with anything more than "coffee, juice and rolls" when they arrive and an "elegant box lunch" during the mid-day break.
Here is his key point: Judges participate as a way to give back to the state's wine trade; they volunteer their time and share whatever expertise they can provide to help home winemakers become better at squeezing and fermenting grape juice. The competition does expect a lot of judges, but they know that going in, and, frankly, I think most of them appreciate being appreciated for their experience and their generosity. What's more, it's refreshing to judge a wine competition where nothing commercial is at stake. Sure, it would be nice to have at least travel costs reimbursed (the competition is in Lodi), but for most judges the distance there and back doesn't represent a substantial investment. I'm there because I like the feeling of maybe giving a little something to a culture that has provided me with so much, and because I have a weakness for breakfast rolls and coffee. But I also look upon the home winemaking competition as an opportunity to learn. During the judging, members of the competition's technical advisory committee circulate about the room, dashing from panel to panel to discuss with judges the peculiarities of this wine or that. This committee knows its stuff - Dr. Richard Peterson, Darrell Corti, Scott Harvey and Ed Moody, among others - so for me it's an opportunity to be exposed to a college-level tutorial without paying tuition. Call me exploited.
But Blake does bring up a point that is gnawing more and more at me: Where does the money raised by wine-competition entry fees go? No wine-competition director I know looks to be getting rich off running these judgings. Nonetheless, I'd like to see an accounting, especially for those competitions ostensibly set up to benefit this or that worthy service, program or institution. I like to think we are living in an era of spreading transparency, but so far no wine competition has stepped up to open its books. Maybe the California State Fair will be the first.