John JuergensBehind the Scenes

You probably are familiar with wine descriptions that sometimes don't pass the straight-face test. For example: "Wild earthy flavors add interest to this voluptuous yet firmly textured red. Features wild fruit and floral notes, with a touch of weedy complexity on the finish." This sounds more like a description of a red-headed hippy girl I dated back in the '60s than a wine.

You probably also have seen notations on wine labels, usually in the form of miniature gold or silver medallions, proclaiming one or more medals the wine has won in some kind of wine competition. The Australians are particularly keen on this.

The wine competition, or wine "contest" as they call it in Winona, Mississippi, I suppose is inevitable. We have something like 1,500 wineries in the U.S., but only a fraction of those are big enough to have national distribution, and they all would like to get a piece of your wine dollar. Therefore, just as with most other consumer products, this competition drives marketing, which, in turn, drives all manner of efforts to get you to buy one wine over another.

But the thing about sensory wine evaluation is that it is so very subjective. Sure, we have all kinds of cooking contests for BBQ, cakes, pies, chili, and so forth, but I would argue that none of them has the level of mystique or intense worldwide interest as wine competitions.

Wine tends to be very intimidating to a large proportion of the U.S. population for several reasons. Wine has inherent complexity, and an obtuse jargon has evolved in the effort to communicate the elements of that complexity in a meaningful way. And because we do not have a wine culture in this country, we have to rely on the so-called experts and connoisseurs to interpret this jargon to guide us in selecting wines of quality.

However, I would argue also that these people are among the least qualified to advise us, precisely because their palates, noses, and powers of perception are so much more attuned to the complexities and nuances of wine than are those of the average consumer. (I think I just shot myself in the foot.)

If only someone could come up with a more objective way of describing wines in ordinary terms so that consumers could be their own judges of quality; I think the process of wine selection would a lot more enjoyable and practical. But, until a system like that comes along, we will continue to have to rely on the connoisseurs, or "common sewer" in my case, to make pronouncements about which wines are fit to drink and which of those are the best.

A couple of weeks ago I had the wonderful opportunity to participate in one of the largest wine competitions in the country. I want to give you a peak under the circus tent to give you something of an appreciation for just what goes on behind the scenes of a major wine contest. Caution: some of it is not quite as pretty as making sausage.

There were over 2,600 different wines submitted from all over the world, but the bulk of them were New World wines from the U.S., Australia, and South America. Every conceivable kind of wine was there, including some that should never have been conceived. To complicate the issue, some wineries always try to stack the deck by entering only their very best and most expensive handmade stuff to compete against wines of more modest heritage.

And because there were at least three bottles of each wine, the main setup room contained about 8,000 bottles of wine. This is one hell of a breathtaking sight for anyone the least bit interested in wine.

The judging was done blind by eleven panels of five highly qualified judges, who came from a wide variety of backgrounds in the wine and food industry.

Each panel gets a wide variety of wines so that they don't get stuck with all one type of wine. This also helps to minimize palate fatigue as they work their way through 300 or more wines in two days.

The judges then evaluate every wine in their categories to determine which wines are superior and worthy of recognition by awarding medals, usually bronze, silver, or gold.

This year I was not invited to be a judge, but to work in the back room conducting several quantitative tests and independent evaluations on as many wines as I could. I managed to taste and evaluate about 550 different wines in a little over two days, which was far more than I had ever done as a judge. What was amazing was that I was able to maintain my focus and palate sensitivity through all of that.

To illustrate the decadence of all of this, by the second day I was using $100+ Champagne and sparkling wines to rinse and refresh my palate. It's amazing how effective this can be, along with a bit of nice juicy celery.

The most exciting and disturbing part of any wine competition is when the gold medal winning wines begin to emerge from the judging panels. All the worker bees make a bee-line (what else?) to the winners' table. But because the results won't be announced until several weeks after the competition, no one is allow to write down the names of the winners and we all are sworn to secrecy. There is a lot of marketing value resting on these results.

Of course, I snatched up the gold medal winners that I had not already tested. The disturbing and disillusioning part came when a couple of wines took gold medals that I and several other evaluators condemned initially, and again upon re-evaluation, as nasty or mediocre at best. This sort of inconsistency is, unfortunately, all too common in these kinds of competitions.

Every time I have been on a judging panel, inevitably, the panel will be split on the merits of a wine. Each judge votes for "no award," "bronze," "silver," or "gold." The average of the votes indicates the appropriate award, if any. In the extreme case, I have seen one respected judge argue for a gold medal and another say the wine is worthy only of being poured in the toilet.

These divisions have to be reconciled, and it usually comes down to plain old horse trading. What usually happens is the low judge might agree to raise his or her toilet award up to maybe a bronze, but only if one of his or her other favorites can be raised to a silver medal from a bronze. Or, the high judge might concede to lowering his or her gold to a silver. And so it goes, with a number of the awards actually being negotiated to overcome wide differences of opinion among the judges. But it is really a sweet moment when the panel consistently votes silver and gold for a wine.

Every year there are wines that are awarded gold medals that do not deserve them and others that go away empty handed when they might have been among the most wonderful wines at the competition. It's sort of analogous to our legal system in that some criminals go free and some innocent people are condemned. If only there was a more objective way to know the truth. But we need to keep in mind that it is all about marketing and selling more wine, which I am all for. It serves no purpose whatsoever for the judges to get hung up on the technical details of a wine and nit-pick it to death.

When I'm judging, after I finish slicing and dicing a wine, I step back and give it an overall "drinkability" score in relation to the grape type and the price category.

The bottom line is that you have to be just a bit skeptical about the whole evaluation and awards business and how you use it. There are publications that keep track of the results of the major competitions around the country, and by looking across competitions it is easy to see which wines really have something worth crowing about. But, of course, by the time you get this information most of those wines have been snatched up by people who trust the opinions and ratings of others more than their own palates.

When wine competition results are published, everybody wants to grab for the gold medal winners. However, knowing the capriciousness of the wine judging process, I head straight for the bronze and silver medallists in any competition. You have to believe that if a wine got any notice at all in that great sea of vino, it probably has something going for it. But even then I try to remain a little cynical while chanting my wine mantra: "It all comes down to just drinking what you like." Cheers!

January, 2002

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