Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sobering Results From A Wine Test

Wines lined up to be judged at Pacific Rim
I so enjoy tasting wines blind with fellow enthusiasts that I generally jump at a chance to judge at a commercial wine competition. Thus, in recent years I've judged at about a dozen competitions annually. Maybe it's the Libra in me, but to judge wines of a type without knowing who made them is the most impartial way to discover a wine that might have a story to tell.

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.


  1. Taking into consideration all the spitting and rinsing, I'm interested in the Blood-Alcohol content of the judges approx. 1 hour after they've finished.
    Four of us attended Barberafest last year and I sipped and spit all day and was fine but a friend who tasted along with me was blotto by days end, even though he claimed to be spitting as well.
    At the end of a tasting (20-40 glasses) where you as a judge have to contemplate the wine, how strongly do you feel the affects of the alcohol?

  2. I think it would be very instructive to have the blood-alcohol content of judges measured at the end of a day of judging, but by my experience that hasn't yet been done.

    At the end of a long day of judging, I do feel the effects, and I think the same could be said for most judges, but by my experience and by their comments the impact runs more to exhaustion and headache than inebriation. On the other hand, if you've just judged 100 zinfandels with an average alcohol content of 14 percent or so you are apt to feel a buzz that you might not get from finishing the day by judging 20 rieslings with an average alcohol content of 12 perent or so. Many variables are at play here. At the Barbera Festival, for example, you may have alternated your tasting and spitting with snacks, while he may not have eaten anything since breakfast. And as you suggest, he may not have been spitting as steadily as you were.

  3. I'd be interested to know how a wine-let's say a Zinfandel, with lower alcohol (13-14%) with higher acidity, lots of fruit and firm tannins will be reviewed in a line up of high alc (15-17%) soft, oak driven wines. It would be even more interesting toward the end of the day when palate fatigue has set in. I suspect the "food friendly" wine that's higher in acidity and lower in alcohol will be reviewed using terms like tart, grippy and unbalanced. If the wine were judged against similar wines and early in the competition, the results would probably be different.

  4. Mike--

    This question of blood alcohol levels in judges in an interesting one, and I am guessing that your friend who got blotto was not spitting as much of the wine as you were.

    I no longer attend these events because they are exercises is palate abuse and mental fatigue, but, when I did, I never felt the effects of alcohol. My conclusion is that alcohol is not the culprit. Acid, tannin and intense concentration of the senses without letup is the problem. Professionalism triumphs in those settings, but the fun of tasting is lost and so, for the most part, is the discovery aspect that makes blind tasting so worthwhile.

    As to the difference in alcoholic impact between Zin at 14% and Riesling at 12%, sure there is a difference, but it is very modest. Do the math. If a taster is doing 100 Zins at 14% and winds up with a BA of 0.07, then with the Rieslings, that taster will wind up with a BA of 0.06.

    The ANONYMOUS person who asked the question about about 15-17% Zins vs. 13-14% Zins has shown his or her own personal bias in the way the question was asked. The question could just as easily have been turned around this way: I suspect that, by the end of the tasting, the high-alc Zins would taste bloated, fat, sloppy, dull and alcoholic.

    The real answer, without bias, is that good wine is good wine is good wine, and a balanced wine will be a balanced wine at the early part of the tasting and at the end of the tasting.

    I think you have not given yourself enough credit in this article. These kinds of tastings are real work, and the fact that the medal ratio stays the same is ample testimony to the professionalism that is brought to tasting panels by most judges.

    The reason I stopped is that I find tasting way over 100 wines a day, often up to 200 wines a day, is abusive and is frankly no fun.

    I already taste several thousand wines a year for my day job, and I would not, on a dare, taste hundreds of wines a day for publication. That kind of grind goes way beyond work into the ranks of a forced march for me. More power to you for liking it. I don't, but it is not about alcohol, it is about being too much effort for the amount of learning that is gained.