When you're browsing in your favorite wine shop, you'll occasionally notice a bottle of wine adorned with a gold seal indicating that the wine was a medal winner in a wine competition.
Wine competitions are held in many of the world's wine producing areas. In California, for example, just about every state and county fair has one. But the most organized wine competition rounds of all may be held in Australia, where there's a recognized circuit of wine judges and a fairly accepted standard for judging and recognizing gold, silver and bronze medal awards.
I've just come from a week as a judge at one of Australia's respected contests - the Sydney International Wine Competition ("Top 1OO") - and I thought you might be interested in a quick overview of how this one works.
A total of 12 judges were invited to participate, and under the Sydney competition's specific rules - the point being to ensure an international point of view - at least half of them are non-Australian. The incoming judges met last Sunday at Sydney International Airport and merrily loaded onto a van for the two-hour drive up to the posh Lilianfels resort hotel in the Blue Mountains, where we would be housed for the weeklong duration of the event. (Thanks to low-hanging clouds and fog, we rarely got a glimpse of the scenic mountains as in the photo below; but as it turned out, we would be too busy to do much but work.)
The actual judging took place at "Birdland" in Wentworth Falls, the home and office of competition director Warren Mason (left). More than 1,700 wines were entered in the competition, most of them from Australia and New Zealand but with a substantial number from the U.S., France, Italy, South America and even Greece. Happily, no one judge was required to taste them all, a task that would be daunting even for the most experienced taster. Rather, we broke into six teams of two, each with one non-Australian judge (I was teamed with Melbourne wine writer Max Allen, a jovial chap with a keen palate, the author of "Crush," a recent and excellent book about Australian wine).
On Monday and Tuesday, the group would divide the wines into style categories, each team taking its share. Max and I judged Year 2000 Rieslings, light Chardonnays and medium-bodied Shirazes and Cabernet-Merlots, among others. We faced down about 200 wines each day, taking them on in "flights" of 60 or so, with the goal of reaching agreement on approximately the 15 percent we thought worthy of sending forward to the finals for tasting by all 12 judges. This proved interesting, as Max and I could generally agree unerringly on the specific character of each wine but brought antipodally different opinions to some of the more extreme examples. I love herbal, lean, Bordeaux-style reds, while fat, oaky and monstrously big Ozzie reds leave me cold; Max's preferences ran almost directly opposite. With a little friendly negotiating, though, we managed to agree on all our finalists in terms of quality without having to bring in a referee.
For the rest of the week, we entered into a remarkable judging process in which the Sydney International stands alone: All the finalist wines - about 300 of them - were judged again by the full panel, each judge working independently, basing our conclusions not only on each wine's intrinsic quality but also on how well it goes with food.
A culinary joy quickly turned into hard work, though, as we thoughfully examined each of the hundreds of finalists with its matching dish, jotting down our impressions of each and our thoughts on why it did or did not work with the food. We kept notes on both paper forms and dictated our comments into tape recorders, turning over all the reports in a growing stack that will take the competition staff weeks to sort and process.
The results will be announced later in the year on the competition's Website, http://www.top100wines.com. Nobody knows the results yet, even the judges. But based on the finalists I tasted last week, I can assure you this: Any of the wines that end up in the Top 1OO will be well worth seeking out.
The judges were mostly wine journalists, with a few wine-industry folks thrown in. It was a great pleasure working with Australian judges Huon Hooke, Max Allen, Nick Bulleid, Mary Ann Egan and Neil Hadley; New Zealanders Brent Marris, Paul White and John Belsham; Charlie Olken from the U.S.; Charles Metcalfe from Britain and Isabelle Bachelard from France. (For a photo gallery of all the judges, see Sydney International Wine Competition Judges.)