Precious Medals: On Being A Wine Judge

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Bronze, Silver, and Gold—the classic medal rankings of most wine competitions. I have judged many competitions over the past 25 years, most recently at the Sunset International Wine Competition, reviewed in Sunset’s October 2017 issue. I thought I would share a behind-the-scenes look at being a wine judge with some pro tips for survival!

Wine Judges vary by competition—some events prefer only winemakers, others wine buyers, some focus on sommeliers, a few are exclusive to wine writers and many invite a broad group from all wine professions. Judging wine is a teeth-staining marathon of focus: focus of olfactory senses, focus of taste, focus of tuning-out your surroundings and, of course, the focus required to nail the bottom of your spit bucket without a drop of red wine hitting your white lab coat.

PROTIP: Start with a hearty breakfast. It’ll likely be 9 a.m. when you sit down to start tasting, so prep your stomach with good padding—you’ll likely have 70 wines to taste before lunch.

PROTIP: Love your panel. Typically Judges are broken into panels of 3–4 tasters plus a Recorder who tracks scores and comments. Panel cohesion and respect go a long way towards a successful day of tasting. Judging is a subjective exercise—of course, we won’t always agree—but healthy debate and conversation actually yield better rankings for the wines.  

 
 From left to right: Katie Ballou Calhoun, Joel Peterson, Leslie Sbrocco, Sally Mohr

From left to right: Katie Ballou Calhoun, Joel Peterson, Leslie Sbrocco, Sally Mohr

 

It’s like taking an exam. The table is silent, the tasters are in their heads, the focus is on each wine, one-by-one.

When you’ve finished and put down your pencil, it signals to your fellow tasters that you’re ready to review and discuss each wine. The Recorder then accepts our scores and averages them for the final. Now’s the time to speak up if you disagree with another panelist—it’s fine to stand up for a wine you think deserves more attention. The goal is to applaud great wines—it doesn’t matter whether the style appeals to you. After all, it’s not about what we like, but about what is well made or what represents the variety correctly.

PROTIP: Water, water, water! The only way to get through a day of judging is to drink, spit and rinse with water. Definitely, indulge in the palate cleansers that appear on your table. Celery or plain jack cheese help clear the acidity of 40 Sauvignon Blancs, which will make your teeth hurt. Roast beef or Graber Olives (a special and delicious California cured olive) help turn down the tannins gripping your tongue after 70 Bordeaux red blends.

PROTIP: Finally, treat yourself to a well-deserved beer.  Wine Judges dream of beer, a delicious antidote to a full day of tasting.  

Click here to learn more about the Sunset International Wine Competition!

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