The Judging Circuit

6 05 2009

img_7465Judging season is upon us and I have been busy judging wines, but wine competitions have come under fire lately.  LA Times writer Jerry Hirsch helped propogate the bad press by calling attention to a study conducted by retired Humboldt State professor Robert Hodgson .  It’s not new to challenge the process, but this recent four year study claims that only 10% of judges could consistently judge a wine when tasted multiple times.  This is not unusual information, most of us know that if you are presented three samples of which two are identical, but you are told that there is a difference among all three that it is almost unheard of to call out that two are the same.  Your brain creates distinction amongst the samples.  I have not seen the proof created to validate Hodgson’s claims, but I wonder about the parameters, were all the wines identical in temperature?  Were all judges tested in this way?  Were other competitions evaluated?  What time of day were the samples presented?  What about order error or the wines placed before the identical samples, this can have a dramatic effect on how that sample might taste.  There are many variables to be considered.

Frankly I am not convinced about this study until I can read the brief and fully understand the methodology.  I am saddened that at a time where so many in this industry are struggling an attack on judgings would hit.  Judgings can really help sell wine.   While Professor Hodgson says, “Consumers should have a healthy skepticism about the medals awarded to wines from the various competitions,”  I believe there is nothing about a competition that makes it less useful or less accurate than the recommendations of a retailer, magazine or other wine critic. In fact I believe panels of judges can actually be more fair than one individual’s palate no matter how critically acclaimed. 

Most critics judge open label while almost all competitions are 100 percent blind, ie the judges may have information as to the variety or the vintage and in rare instances price or origin, but they are not swayed by the label or by the reputation of the producer. Judging panels are usually diverse including winemakers, educators, retail and restaurant buyers, salespeople, writers and sometimes even consumers. The diversity of the panel allows for checks and balances while a writer that tastes for a review gives you only the impression of one palate.

Granted, judgings are varied in the quality of the judges and their prestige, so I generally try to evaluate which judgings are worth doing.  Consumers might think to do the same thing, just as Parker may appeal to some while Tanzer appeals to others, perhaps consumers can gauge the competitions that seem to fit with their general palate preferences. 

On a personal level I gauge which competitions are most enjoyable and that is usually a reflection of the calibre of judges and the sense of camaraderie amongst them. That said there are judgings that are of course well respected that I have not been invited to. Not only do judgings offer a source of information for consumer buying and give wineries medals to tout and display, but they are a great resource for wine buyers- many use them to find out what wines they like without prejudice.  One of the ways I became more versed in wines of the world was wine competitions.  Sometimes you might get a chance to try wines you would never choose to open like fruit wines, hybrids or varieties you might not normally gravitate towards.  Judging with more experienced tasters is the best way to hone your palate, especially if you have the benefit of trying a type of wine that is their specialty.  It is extremely eye-opening to evaluate wines fairly even if they are of a style of which you are not normally fond. 

Most competitions treat the wines as a group amongst themselves, for example a gold medal Syrah doesn’t need to be the best Syrah you have ever had, it’s more like a county fair judging of livestock, how does the wine match up compared to the other wines entered.  I have never tasted the wines he makes, but Hodgson claims that he conducted this study because wines he entered into competitions sometimes won gold medals and other times won nothing.  All I can say is a girl might win a crown at her home town beauty pageant but that doesn’t make her Miss America.  It all depends on the competition. img_4640




Dallas Morning News Competition (February)

When time allows I like to take in some of the local culture.  The days I was in Dallas the King Tut exhibition was in town so I was able to visit that with my friend Joel Butler, MW.  Over thew weekend we were comfortably housed at the lovely Hotel Adolphus.

Dining experiences included York Street, an amazing but tiny restaurant in an unusual location (6047 Lewis) with my friends Dr. Bob Small (he makes Dr. Bob’s Handcrafted Ice Cream try the Strawberries with Sour Cream & Brown Sugar) and Drew Hendricks of Pappas Bros. Steakhouse.  The next night was a walkaround tasting of last year’s winning wines with some of the area’s top restaurants.  Particularly notable was the White Seaweed Salad from Tei-An, so I joined Drew and our friends Meghan and Brandan there.  We had the Omakase (tasting) menu including the phenomenal pairing of buckwheat tea with a truffled risotto.  I also thought the soba course with egg was incredible.  Tei-An 1722 Routh Street, Suite 110 Dallas, TX 75201 214 220-2828

National Women’s Wine Competition (March)

In Santa Rosa the National Women’s Wine Competition offered a unique opportunity to interact with some of the most amazing women in the industry.  We hit some local dining spots such as Syrah Bistro 205 Fifth Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401 707 568-4002 and of course Willi’s Wine Bar 4404 Old Redwood Highway Santa Rosa, CA 95403 707 526-3096

San Diego International Wine Competition

Part of my love of competitions is visiting fun places!  The luxury of staying at the Westgate Hotel in San Diego can’t be beat.  Add to that a visit to Old Town San Diego (missed that this time).  I did make it to the amazing San Diego Zoo ( where I had the chance to see BABY meerkats.  That’s right BABY MEERKATS!!  (I love meerkats almost as much as wine.)  Let me tell you though, the pandas were pretty BORING.  I also ate at El Indio a fun Mexican restaurant and tortilla factory near the airport just off N I-5 (exit Washington Street and proceed north) at 3685 India Street (619) 299-0333.  It was founded in 1940.  Really good chips and taquitos (they claim they first coined the word taquito.)  We also enjoyed two meals at the Yard House, one of the better chain restaurants with an unending selection of beers on tap.  They carded me too, twice!  Made me feel great.  The gala dinner was a blast as Robert Whitley was kind enough to allow me to sing two of my songs acapella for the group to raise cash donations for Camp Oliver.   Hmm, maybe they were paying me to STOP singing?!  One of the highlights of this judging was an amazing little day glow pink wine that I thought tasted EXACTLY like Tootsie Rolls.  While fruit wines are a unique and often scoffed at judging category there was also an amazing little strawberry wine (Saint James Winery $8.99), but this “Tootsie Roll” wine was astounding.  Let’s just say that I would have been able to suck that stuff down as a Freshman in college.  It was from Trout Springs Winery and called Afternoon Delight ($19.99).  We sent it to sweepstakes so that everyone could taste it!

Los Angeles International Wine and Spirits Competition (formerly called Los Angeles County Fair Wines of the World Competition) Wine Judging May 27-29, 2009/Spirits June 1-2, 2009

Held in conjunction with the Los Angeles County Fair Association I have to admit this is my favorite competition of all.  The number and calibre of judges is amazing.  We also all know how to have a really great time.  I may hold some bias as I am the Chair of the spirits side of the competition.  The ability to judge with such an esteemed group cannot be beat.  I learned my judging skills due to the amazing help and guidance from the best on the circuit, Don Galleano, Gary Eberle, Mitch Cosentino, Darrell Corti, Dan Berger and many others.  Plus judges are often invited back to attend the Los Angeles County Fair in September where they teach consumers directly about the products they judged.  This cannot be beat, plus you get to eat fried twinkies and sno cones and watch pig races and see baby animals.  And Dr. Bob runs it so there is always ice cream!  And Tequila!  YAY!

San Francisco International (June)

The San Francisco International judging is another fun event held annually by Anthony Dias Blue.  There is a friendly rivalry between the SF competition and the LA, but Andy still keeps inviting me back, I am honored.  He and his crew of judges are some of the funnest (I know that is not a word) in the biz.  We have been known to judge hard and party hard!  There has been occasional karaoke…enough said.