Early this year I was honoured to receive the Sydney Royal Wine Professional Development Scholarship, which placed me in the 53rd Advanced Wine Assessment Course held at the Australian Wine Research Institute in Adelaide, South Australia.
I had recently made a sideways jump from hospitality to retail, due of course to the COVID-19 situation. I was at a stage in my life where I was wondering what direction my life in wine would go, and the AWAC would prove to be a career-affirming experience.
In their own words, the AWAC “is an intensive four-day course designed for participants with considerable formal wine tasting experience. It aims to prepare potential new wine show judges and develop the sensory analysis capabilities and the vocabulary of Australian wine industry personnel at an elite level.”
The aims of the course include:
- providing training in the techniques and practices of wine show judging
- investigating and challenging the criteria on which tasters make decisions on wine quality and preference
- improving participants’ ability to communicate clearly and effectively with other judges and to justify their reasoning for allocating wines at different quality levels
- improving participants’ appreciation and recognition of different wine styles, blends or regional character
- providing a statistical evaluation of tasting performance with respect to:
- discrimination – the degree to which wines of different quality levels are separated based on quality score
- reliability – a measure of scoring consistency, or the ability of a judge to reproduce results on different tasting occasions
- absolute average difference – a more straightforward measure of consistency – the average difference between scores given to wines on repeat tastings
- stability – a measure of propensity to systematically score wines higher or lower on the second tasting relative to the first
It’s a course that in high demand among wine professional, such that even if you have the qualifications and experience needed to take the course, a ballot system is used to allocate places. In fact, two years prior I received a call telling me I had been picked in the ballot, but I had to decline at the time.
The four days passed by in a whirlwind of tastings and discussion. We sat through a wine faults workshop (e.g. cork taint, mousiness, TCA…) and learned more about our individual sensitivities. We calibrated our palates across multiple wines and then, after getting acquainted with the AWRI’s proprietary ShowRunner software, began judging.
More important than tasting and scoring, the frenetic pace of tasting is what sets wine judging apart from other formats of wine tasting. For the Advanced Sommelier exam I trained to taste through six wines in 25 minutes. In the same amount of time, you might be expected to judge more than 30 wines.
From the outside, wine judging looks like an easy job, but from my time stewarding wine shows and observing the judges I already knew this was far from the truth. After attending the AWAC I gained a new respect for the challenges wine judges faced and the serious responsibility they took on.
While anyone can taste a wine and write a number, the real challenge is tasting through 50 glasses of high-acid Riesling, followed by another 50 glasses of high-alcohol, high-tannin Shiraz, overcoming palate fatigue, judging every individual wine fairly and objectively… and then justify it to your peers if they happen to judge differently. Given these requirements, the pool of qualified people becomes very small.
The wine industry as a whole depends heavily on wine shows and their awards, which ultimately will be used as a signal of quality for the end consumer. The consumer needs to trust that the medals and trophies they see on the bottles are not just dictated by one man, but a conclusion reached by a group of highly experienced industry professionals who are passionate about wine and want everyone to drink better.
I am extremely grateful to the Sydney Royal Wine Committee and the Royal Agricultural Society Foundation for this scholarship which, in addition to the course fees, covered my flights and accommodation for the duration of the program.
My experience in the AWAC has immeasurably sharpened my tasting skills, and has reaffirmed my confidence in the Australian wine show system. Slowly but steadily the level of Australian winemaking is going up, leading to higher quality wines for to consumers, thanks in part to a new generation of wine judges who are being mentored and brought up to assess wines quickly and reliably. It reminds me why I chose to name my website: Rational Wine.
I look forward to the opportunities to contribute my part in the future.
Read more: Advanced Sommelier Exam – Second Attempt