Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Big Problems, Or Big Opportunities?

Next flight, recent Central Coast Wine Competition
Ask to see my list of how wine competitions can be improved. Just make sure you have plenty of time to spare. It's a long list, but drawn with affection. I judge at around a dozen commercial wine competitions a year. My interest is largely selfish. I'm looking for wines, trends and knowedge with which to inform my wine writing. Competitions are fun and stimulating, as well as exhausting and, at times, frustrating. They by no means are the perfect way to evaluate wine, guide consumers and enlighten the trade. Thus my list, which I'm pretty much keeping to myself until some editor offers me a chunk of change to speak up.

Earlier today, fellow wine blogger Steve Heimoff posted a provocative commentary under the headline "Big wine competitions have lots of problems." Some of his conclusions hit the mark, some don't. He doesn't judge at wine competitions, thus is unaware of efforts by several to raise their standards to improve the credibility and consistency of their results. Granted, some of those efforts are halting, but at least the competition circuit, not the most introspective of institutions, is showing signs of stirring from its old and dated comfort zone.

The springboard to Steve's remarks is an article about a recent Pacific Northwest competition written by Rick Steigmeyer and published in The Wenatchee World. It's unclear from both the article and from Steve's post how many wines each judge tasted, but both suggest that the panelists each evaluated 220 wines in a single day. I suspect, however, that because there were eight judges and two moderators, each judge evaluated no more than 110 wines. Regardless of the total, even 110 wines is too much to give each wine a fair shake. For Steve, the total should be no more than 60. I agree that that would be ideal, and maybe some day we will get there. A few conscientious competitions are attempting to lower the total number of wines a judge will face in a day; at the California State Fair, the goal is around 70 wines. A few others are taking another tack to help keep judges alert and nimble. Rather than assign a single panel a large class of one kind of wine, they are spreading that class across several panels. Another strategy is to alternate red, white and pink classes, a technique that I've found to be surprisingly effective at keeping my palate fresh, or so I feel. Still, I'd like to see the overall daily number of wines that a judge tastes reduced to the 60 to 70 range.

Steve also objects to wine competitions on the grounds that medals are awarded by the vote of a panel. In the debate leading up to the vote, the more vociferous and celebrated judges have an advantage over the quieter and more hesitant, he argues. This is an old criticism of competitions, and judges are so aware of it today that any judge who tries to impose his or her will on the others is fair game for generally good-natured ribbing. Steve sees more authority in the voice of a critic who has evaluated wines on his or her own, without any outside influence, and there is a solid argument to be made for that approach, as well. At a wine competition, on the other hand, a panel is likely to be composed of a winemaker, a wine retailer, a wine educator and a wine writer. Each brings a different frame of reference to the table, and from that collaborative exchange is likely to emerge a strong consensus on the merits or shortcomings of each wine. A judge or critic evaluating wine on his or her own may be consistent, or he or she may be locked into preferring just one style of wine, unable to see other possibilities.

Yes, as Steve notes, leaner and more subtle wines well could be overlooked by judges working their way through a battery of 100 wines in a day. That can happen if a person were judging just three wines, with the leaner and more subtle example sandwiched between two that are more dense and robust. Judges on the competition circuit have become more aware of this danger in recent years, and from what I have seen are taking the initiative to correct themselves in hopes of justifiably rewarding wines not so much for their concentration and muscle as for their finesse and restraint.

Steve takes a couple of cheap shots at wine judges, suggesting that during their deliberations they're apt to be "drunk" or "half in the bag." The influence of alcohol on judgment is a serious concern. It should be as much a concern to the solitary judge working his or her way through 50 wines as a panel evaluating that many and more. Judges are aware and respectful of the impact of alcohol. They don't like it, but the exposure comes with the territory, and judges do their darnedest to mitigate the impact. You think you've seen people gulping water during a workout at the gym? Amateurs compared with the amounts consumed by wine judges. (Note to self: Add to my list the need for competitions to do away with plastic water bottles, replacing them with reusable pitchers and glasses.)

Nope, there's no precise and perfect way to judge and recommend wines. Wine competitions do provide a forum where a body of wine enthusiasts can taste the same wines, swap their hopefully informed opinions, and reach a consensus on those they would buy and suggest to friends. Do they have big problems? In one person's perspective; to another, big opportunities.

1 comment:

  1. Mike: More wine competitions should follow all the other recreational fields like travel, restaurants, movies, electronics,etc. We need more "People's Choice" evaluations. The gatekeepers and pros seek different characteristics than consumers who actually buy wines.