speed kills

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Writing about a just-completed wine judging, sponsored by a Seattle restaurant, one of the judges boasted that “You think you like to taste wine? How about 90 wines in two hours two days in a row like we did this week! Yikes!”

A much bigger event, held in Cloverdale each January, tried to make PR hay out of the fact that almost 5000 wines were sampled and scored in the space of four days. Let’s crunch some numbers. I did not attend either of these events, but I’ve done plenty of others. As a judge you are generally on a 4 or 5 person panel. That panel will be asked to taste through as many as ten flights of wines in a day. Each flight will have a dozen or more wines on average.

In my experience, it is absolutely given that you will be tasting and judging well over 120 wines a day, and sometimes far more. Let’s say you taste each wine just twice (a bare minimum, if you really want to give the wine a chance). That’s 240 to 400 sips of wine in a day. I don’t care how good you are at spitting, by the end of the day, you are hammered. You can eat all the carrot sticks, celery and crackers on God’s green earth – you will still have a dead palate.

Because they are done blind, wine competitions claim to be “objective.” But start adding up all the negative factors, and that objectivity seems mighty strained. Factor One: the sheer number of wines and the breakneck speed at which they must be tasted. Factor Two: the necessity to award as many medals as possible (the wineries are paying for them, after all). Factor Three: the politics of compromise (I’ll give your wretched chardonnay a gold if you’ll allow this brett-laden syrah to slide through). Factor Four: the flights of completely incompatible wines that your are forced to judge as a group simply because they don’t fit a standard category. Factor Five: the really good wines don’t even get entered into these competitions. Why should a winery with a fully-subscribed mailing list, and high scores from major critics, put its wares up against an assortment of wines from newbies, wannabes, and corporations? They have nothing to gain; everything to lose.

So much for objective. If you disagree, just look at the oddball results that get kicked out after all is said and done. Do these winning wines really represent the best of the best? I’ll use these last two events as examples – not because they are better or worse than any others, just because they are current.

At the Cloverdale judging, the top 5 “Sweepstakes Winners” were J Vineyards Brut Rosé, Keuka Spring Vineyards 2008 Gewurztraminer, Bray Vineyards 2008 Barbera Rosato, Graton Ridge Cellars 2007 Paul Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, and Watermill 2008 Late Harvest Gewurztraminer.

So after tasting 4913 wines, the 63 judges came up with a couple of Russian River Valley wines, a Finger Lakes wine, an Amador wine and one from Walla Walla. Two gewürztraminers and a barbera rosé. Hello!? Does that list strike anyone else as bizarre? I am NOT saying these are bad wines. I’m sure they’re just fine. But how on earth do you cull down almost 5000 wines and come up with these five as the best of the best?

Meanwhile, back in Seattle, the restaurant judges came up with these winners in some of the more wide-open categories:

White Blends: Westport Winery 2008 Bordello Blonde (Washington)
Aromatic Whites: Brandborg 2008 Gewürztraminer (Umpqua Valley)
Dessert: Gilbert Cellars 2008 Grenache Ice Wine (Columbia Valley)

Single Varietal Reds: Pend d’Oreille 2007 Primitivo (Washington)

Not that any of these wines don’t entirely deserve the recognition they received, given the factors listed above. But are these results in any way better, more fair, or more objective, than the judgment of a single, qualified, credentialed, professional reviewer, who tastes in peer groups, but not blind? Who takes plenty of time (hours or days, not minutes) with each wine? Who tastes a reasonable number of wines in a day? Who uses tastes with and without food? You tell me.


Plymale said...

Let's see... Assuming each "sip" is 1 oz., and assuming, for the sake of argument, that 10% of each sip is retained by the mouth and absorbed through the skin, then that's 25 oz. of wine, or about 4 glasses. Does OSHA know about this? ;)

Art said...

What I’ve concluded after many years of serious wine consumption (hic) is that the “quality” in the bottle is just as or even more important than “taste” – and they’re often in conflict: tastes yummy, dishonestly produced. Sure, I can be deceived by some new-fangled grape-based processed beverage that’s been laced with herbicides, pesticides, and oak chips and never touched by human hands. But is that really what I want to drink? The answer is ‘no,’ regardless of how “good” it tastes. And the answer to Paul’s question is ‘yes’ – I prefer honest, thoughtful, and informed opinions by someone who not only tastes with purpose, patience, and dedication, but who also knows where the wine comes from, how it is made, and why it is “good” or deserves my attention. With all the books and publications there are about wine, very few speak to its true essence – the rare qualities that go beyond whether or not a particular offering tastes good and has balance, complexity, pedigree, etc. That’s why I’ve enjoyed those writers (not necessarily critics) who probe deeper and discuss wine as a commitment to something more than just a taste sensation. Such individuals are committed to and talk about wine as food and sustenance – for example, Kermit Lynch and, more recently, Robert Camuto (“Corkscrewed”) in his “sequel” to Kermit’s book. Jon Rimmerman (Garagiste) also achieves this in his unique e-mail marketing, as do several committed importers and distributors on their websites. (Didn’t mean to leave out PG and some of his dedicated readers!) Does this mean that I can actually enjoy wines that aren’t necessarily “yummy” by whatever standard that represents? Yes, it does!

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