|Wines lined up to be judged at Pacific Rim|
Yet, several aspects of wine competitions concern me. Near the top of the list is palate fatigue and alcohol absorption. Constant exposure to all the elements in wine is bound to tire a person's tastebuds. Judges take pains to refresh their palate, from repetitive rinsing with water to nibbling on the likes of bread and olives. Beyond that, wine competitions generally are blithely unconcerned about determining when a judge hits the wall. One of wine's more potent elements, naturally, is alcohol. Though judges spit every wine they taste, some alcohol is bound to be absorbed by the body. Competitions recognize this; thus, for the most part they provide judges with transportation to and from the venue where panels are housed.
To my knowledge, little research has been undertaken to gauge how the number of wines a judge evaluates and how much alcohol he or she assumes affects their perception, but strictly by my own observation I've developed a theory: When judges evaluate large classes of a wine of a type they get both so tired and so comfortable that they progressively award more gold medals. In other words, entries at the tail end of a class stand a better chance of winning gold medals than those near the front.
To put this theory to a rudimentary test, I'm tracking the pace of gold medals awarded in the larger classes of wine I help judge at competitions this year. After tasting at three larger competitions so far, this is what I've found: The rate at which gold medals are awarded through the course of judging a class of wine varies so little as to be statistially insignificant. If judges are tight in awarding gold medals at the start of a class, chances are they will be just as tight - so to speak - at the end. And vice versa. In short, my theory isn't holding up. If anythng, the opposite could be happening; that is, more gold medals may be handed out earlier than later.
Let's look at the evidence:
- On the first day of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale in January, I was on a panel that judged 98 zinfandels priced between $20 and $24.99. By the end of the class, we'd awarded seven gold medals. When the total number of entries are divided into quarters, two gold medals each were awarded in the first, second and third quarter, just one in the fourth. This could suggest that judges do get tired and perhaps less attentive by the end of a class. But on the second day of the competition, our panel judged 97 red wines made with grapes customarily grown in France's Rhone Valley; each was priced more than $20. We awarded nine gold medals - one in the first quarter of the entries, five in the second quarter, none in the third, and three in the fourth. This uneven and inconclusive pattern continued on the third day. First, our panel judged 58 rose wines, awarding seven gold medals, four in the first half, three in the second. The same day we judged 47 merlots priced between $30 and $39.99; we awarded two gold medals in the first half, four in the second. Three of the gold medals were awarded in the fourth-quarter alone, including our only double-gold wine, and it was for the very last wine of the session, so maybe there's something to my theory after all, though I'm unpersuaded. In sum, we gave a total 39 gold medals over three days, 19 of them in the first half of the classes, 20 in the second.
- On the first day of the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition in February, our panel judged 45 cabernet sauvignons, all from Napa Valley. We gave nine gold medals - two in the first quarter, three in the second, one in the third and three in the fourth. Later, we judged 22 chardonnays, also all from Napa Valley. We gave five gold medals - one each in the first, second and fourth quarters, two in the third. After two days, we'd awarded 28 gold medals, 16 in the first half, 12 in the second.
- On the first day of the Pacific Rim Wine Competition at San Bernardino last week, our panel judged 106 wines split among several relatively small classes. We gave 16 gold medals, four each in each quarter. The second day we judged a single class of 33 blended white blends. They varied widely in varietal or style, but a third won gold medals - four in the first quarter, three each in the second and third, one in the fourth, which could be interpreted to suggest that judges got weary and distracted as the day progressed. But then again, let's not forget that the wines in this class were diverse, and perhaps the final quarter was made up of an unusually weak section.
At this point, at any rate, I'm not about to draw any conclusions about palate fatigue and alcohol absorption. The evidence just isn't there to suggest that they affect perception, at least in the rate by which gold medals are awarded. Overall, by quarter, the fewest number of gold medals were awarded in the fourth - 21. This compares with 26 in the first, 24 in the second and 23 in the third. The rate drops, yes, which does seem to suggest that judges are...what? Less demanding? More demanding? Maybe the wines simply weren't as alluring. Beats me. The sample is just too small and the method too simple to mean much, but that at least gives me a reason to continue to accumulate data, which means tasting more wine. If this pattern is sustained, however, I see an opportunity for wine competitions eager to enhance their revenues; they could ask wineries for a surcharge on their entry fee to have their wine placed in the first quarter of a class. Stranger things have happened.