Recently I was involved with the Sydney Royal Wine Show. As a steward, I was responsible for ensuring that wine glasses were set up promptly, directing fellow stewards to pour the wines being judged, and clearing the glasses once the judges were done evaluating a particularly category/class of wines.
In between judgements, there were periods where I enjoyed the freedom of exploring the venue, conversing with other stewards, judges and associates and seeing what wines (over 2000 examples of Australian wines) had been submitted for the show (great pains are taken to ensure the identity of the wines are kept from the judges to ensure impartiality).
This was my fourth year volunteering for the show. I think it would be interesting to share some insights that I’ve gleaned from my experiences.
Striving For Rationality
More than anything else I’ve experienced, wine judging embodies rationality without emotion warping one’s perspective. Judges will of course perform their duties to the best of their abilities, but this will still be in the context of their own experience and tastes. A human is not a robot, after all.
This is why judges do not work alone – they are grouped into panels of five people, steadily and relentlessly tasting and evaluating one category after another.
They come from all background in the wine industry – there are winemakers, wine writers, educators and sommeliers. Every one of them could contribute a different point of view when evaluating the wines, and I was impressed with the respect they had for each others’ opinions.
Ensuring true impartiality is where stewards like myself come in. We must pour the wines while the bottles are covered, so that no one may glimpse at the label. There are partitions that physically separate the judges and stewarding teams. Instead of a name, each bottle is assigned a number, and stewards must pour these in the correct sequence to ensure all judges are tasting the same wine in the same numbered glass.
Wine Judging Is Hard
A layperson might hear about people being a wine judge and think “wow, what a nice job! How do I get into it?”
Wine judging deserves a little more respect than that.
Unlike a simple wine tasting, where you have the time to sniff, swirl and deeply evaluate a wine, the sheer scale of wine judging necessitates that one be able to quickly taste and judge many wines in succession.
Imagine being faced with 30 or more glasses of a single category of wine (say, “Shiraz, 2015”) – the average consumer’s palate would be fatigued after the tenth glass, at best, after which the rest of the wines will start to taste the same.
A wine judge does not have the option of being tired – it is their responsibility to press on and be as objective as possible.
After evaluating each category the judges congregate around a table and compare notes, both to confirm the final score a wine may receive and to debate differences. For example, if one judge considered wine #57 to be a Gold Medal winner but two others thought it only deserved a Bronze, a short discussion will follow before they finally come to a consensus.
Raising Standards Rather Than Competing
Despite talk of medals, wine judging is not a competition in the traditional sense, there is no first/second/third place awarded in each bracket. Rather, a medal is awarded if a wine meeds the judge’s criteria:
Medals are determined by the Judges using the following point scale:
Gold medal for outstanding Exhibits gaining 95.0pts and over
Silver medal for excellent Exhibits gaining 90.0pts but fewer than 95.0pts
Bronze medal for quality Exhibits gaining 85.0pts but fewer than 90.0pts
The result is that wines and winemakers are recognised for achieving a high standard, not because they are necessarily “better” than one another.
Frequently I would stand by whilst the judges grouped together to discuss their results. Despite not being able to see the labels (only variety and vintage are divulged) I was surprised often enough at how narrowly they could deduce a wine’s origins, down to the region and sometimes a specific producer. Some of this could be credited to the fact that some winemakers may send their wares for judgement more often than others, but this would still require a palate with many years of wine tasting experience.
In my role as a sommelier, this is definitely a level of skill that would be useful to attain.
I have yet to sign up for it, but there is an Advanced Wine Assessment Course offered by the Australian Wine Research Institute in South Australia. If in the future my schedule allows, I will sign up. For now, my priority is to complete my WSET Diploma.
Read more: How To Refine Your Tasting Technique