is bigger really better?

Monday, May 14, 2012

Late last week the results of a long-running Pacific NW wine judging were released. They read like a compendium of just about everything that is wrong about such events.

Of course, a lot of time and energy is expended to make sure things are done right. Judges are carefully selected, wines are checked for flaws, stemware is controlled, the volunteers, many of them repeaters, are dedicated and skilled.

But the problems occurring in this judging are endemic to the vast majority of such competitions.

Problem Numero Uno – the eclectic come one, come all approach to entries. More entries mean more dollars for the organizers. But they also mean that judges are put through a meandering and often meaningless range of categories, including fruit wines, obscure varietal wines, vaguely defined clusters of wines with very little in common, etc.

Second, the sheer number of wines means that there is little time to spend on them individually. Judges must make quick decisions. Often they are tasting young wines, sometimes wines not even released yet. I can tell you, it’s not easy. Over the weekend I spent four days exploring just three wines from a very prestigious producer. These wines were so dense, so closed, so full of barrel flavors as to be almost impenetrable. Day one – impenetrable. Day two – maybe a hint of some deeply buried fruit amongst all the liquorous barrel flavors. Day three – one of the three had opened up and was beginning to show its complexity. Day four – all three were in top form. Top form! Day four!! What wine judging is going to show that?

Third, it’s no secret that such slam-bam judgings favor the big, jammy, oaky wines. But here again, that doesn’t include wines such as my weekend wines that were plenty big, but were structured for long term aging. They really did not open up generously or quickly. I doubt they’d do very well in a competition. On the other side of the equation, finesse wines such as the Seven Hills wines profiled in this blog last week don’t stand out either. The wines that win big are a certain kind of big.

Case in point – the Best of Show at this particular judging was a wine that I had recently reviewed. I intend no disrespect to the winemakers, who are justifiably proud of this award. But for my personal taste, this does not come close to being a Best of Show type wine. It’s a bang you upside the head type of wine. Here is the tasting note I wrote for it, long before it won this award:

“Heavy accents of vanilla and black tea, sharp acids and drying tannins characterize this no-holds-barred wine. If you like your reds big, brawny and oak-soaked, this is your poster child.”

Accurate description? I would say so. Best of Show caliber? Apparently, for these judges, working under these conditions, it was. For me, working at a much slower pace, not even close.


Tom Olander said...

Great article. Kudos to you for having the guts to write it. I recently talked to a friend who helped organize a large wine judging competition who told me each judge was expected to taste through 180 wines in the morning, and 180 wines in the afternoon! What a joke. To me, wine is all about nuance, and there is no way wine critics can appreciate a wine's true character unless they spend some time with it.
Thank you for taking the time to ponder the wines and allow them to reveal their nuances. I have noticed that you routinely rate wines on their character and not their weight. It's a worthy torch to bear.

PaulG said...

Tom, thank you for the kind words. I have tilted at more than a few vinous windmills over the years, but some things are worth saying over and over, and this is one of them. Wines need time and attention! Especially the very best wines. And young wines, more than most, can be very difficult to assess quickly.

HDChappy said...

Just curious, what competition was this?

PaulG said...

HD, Do you think I might have intentionally left out naming names?

Anonymous said...

Paul: Sitting here working my way through a 2nd glass of CSM 2010 dry riesling. I cant even imagine how your palate wouldnt go completely numb trying to thoughtfully assess that many wines in a short period of time. Your willingness to write something like this is and the thought you put into your reviews are reasons I keep coming back to your blog. Thanks and I am off to try and find some of those 7 hills wines in Texas. Not liking my odds.

PaulG said...

Anon, I am sure there are people in the biz who can really zip through a ton of wines without losing precision, but sadly, I am not one of them. So I do it the best way I know how. Thanks for the kind post!

Anonymous said...

I do find it ironic that you call out such judgings for being biased toward "big" wines. Over the years, based on your scoring of various varietals and vintages of Pacific Northwest wines, as well as some of the "wines of the year" sorts of lists you've develped, I find that your pallet almost always prefers "bigger" versions of wines over the more subtle examples.
Is there something that I'm not getting here?

PaulG said...

Anon - I try very hard not to be biassed against wines simply because they are ripe and/or showing a fairly high level of alcohol. As for my palate - I frequently write about more elegant, lower alcohol wines, argue for nuances of herb and earth and even stem, showcase producers such as Seven Hills who avoid making the jammy style of wines. So I think you are jumping to a false conclusion, or simply using whatever reviews of mine suit your theorem to make your point.

Chris Wallace said...

Paul, thanks for the interesting article. I share your POV in that it has also seemed to me that some vintners go for immediate impact over devloping nuance and subtlety. And as you point out, the competitions to speed judge a large number of wines in a short time will favour those with the high impact profile. That is why I really appreciated a post you did a while back on a 1999 OR Pinot that you had recently tasted (was it a Cristom?). To the extent that you, and other wine writers can do more of those sorts of tastings and reviews, you have one reader here who would certainly appreciate it. I love reading about older wines that get great reviews. I'll go right out and look for a current release of it and put it away for a decade and see how it develops.

Judy Phelps said...

I am a winemaker and this is precisely why I don't enter many of my red wines in competitions. I want the local growing conditions and nuances of the vineyard to be the star, most times that does not count for much in a big competition.

PaulG said...

Chris, yes it was a Cristom. I am glad to hear that you enjoy the reviews of older wines; I sometimes wonder if I should write about such wines since very few people are likely to have access to them. But you make a good point; it is one way to find current wines that are likely to cellar well.

Judy, there are many others like you who avoid competitions, including most of the wineries that get the highest scores from major publications. I suppose it is because they have nothing to gain, and a lot to lose. But it also means that any competition, no matter how huge, is sadly lacking in the very wines that define excellence in each category.

Chris Wallace said...

Paul, even once a month to put up a post about a wine with a bit of age on it would be nice to see. Perhaps you could try it for a while, see if it generates much comment among your readers, and determine from that if it is worth continuing. Who knows, it might encourage more people to lay some of their wines down.

PaulG said...

Good suggestion Chris, and I will make a note of it. Thanks!

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