Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Winning by a Nose: A Look at Wine Judging

By Julianna Hayes
Drinking out of a brown paper bag at nine in the morning would be unthinkable for most people – at least those without serious social issues.

Yet an elite group of individuals do so frequently and aren’t ashamed to admit it. I am speaking of wine judges – the people responsible for putting all that shiny hardware on bottles that the industry loves to brag about.
You might think this to be a sweet gig, but I assure you, there is nothing glamorous about it. Unless, of course, you enjoy spitting into a stryofoam cup and having purple teeth.
While you get to taste some pretty nice wines, you have to slog your way through plenty of dogs as well. Certain flights will test a judge’s stamina – just try making it through 38 icewines without weeping.

And though several people have quipped about trading “jobs” with me when I talk about it being a grueling exercise – judging can’t really be classified as work, as that would imply a pay cheque. Aside from getting reimbursed for basic travel expenses – one organization gave me a daily meal allowance of 20 bucks and expected me to get around on city transit – judges are largely volunteers.

Wine judging always leaps into the forefront during the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival when the buying public looks to the results of the annual competition for benchmark bottles. Each year dozens of wineries are decorated with some serious jewels and this year was no exception. There were a record 425-plus entries and medals were handed out to 281 wines including an astonishing 38 gold – one of the biggest yields in the competition ever.

Were the judges overly generous or are B.C. wines really that good?

Let me explain how the competition works. Though I’ve been on a number of wine judging panels, I have never tasted in this particular competition. I did observe this year and discovered that it uses the same basic premise as most.

The eight judges were divided into two panels of four and each group tasted half of the wines – standard practise for competitions of this size. The sheer enormity of the entries makes it impractical, not to mention inhuman, for the judges to taste them all.

All wines were tasted blind – this is one of the most important bits. Flights of wine were presented according to variety or style and divided by vintage, but the judges had no idea of the producer or price so there is no opportunity for bias They were given a scoring sheet on which they could jot down comments and provide a numerical score if desired, but they usually only do this for their own information. For the purposes of the competition, they were asked to tick a box recommending each wine for either a gold, silver, bronze or nothing at all.

Wines that received an average silver or bronze rating automatically received those medals and the competition was over for them. Wines with a majority gold recommendation were set aside for a second round of tasting involving all the judges.

Unlike the Lieutenant Governor Awards of Excellence in B.C. Wine, for which I judge, where only up to 12 wines are recognized, there is no limit to the number of medals that can be handed out during the Okanagan Fall Wine Festival. Thus the competition has a bit of a reputation for being charitable. The silver and bronze medals are sometimes seen to be default honours for wines incapable of scoring golds – they in essence give judges an out. What has happened as a result is that the luster has faded on the latter two medals and only those that won gold seem to capture the interests of consumers.

The debate actually came up during the session I sat in on. Coke Roth, a wine critic from Tri-Cities, Washington, who is one of the top judges in America, said the competition shouldn’t be concerned of awarding huge numbers of medals. If the wines are worthy – and he thought the ones in the competition were – then why should the numbers matter? A huge haul of medals should be considered a great thing for the local industry and the wineries should wear them proudly. It’s a valid point.

One new element in this year’s competition. In addition to awarding gold, silver and bronze, the judges were also asked to select the best white and red wine overall, as well as the best new winery. The top red honours went to Sandhill 2006 Phantom Creek Vineyard Small Lots Syrah, while the top white was Lang Vineyards 2007 Farm Reserve Riesling. The tiny Oliver winery of Dunham and Froese was selected best new winery.

Jackson-Triggs repeated history once again by winning the most golds with a total of five. But a surprise to all was the impressive showing by Peller Estates, which has never done well before. It took home four golds for the Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in its Private Reserve line. Road 13 Vineyards picked up three golds.

Wine Notes

Kalala 2007 Pinot Gris (Organic)
Appearance: Clear, pale straw colourAromas: Mineral, citrus peel, yellow peach, green apple, spice
Flavours: Green apple, lemon-lime, mineral, hints of herbal spice
Body and Finish: A fresh, dry entry with lots of zest on the palate, finishing clean
Overall Impression: Those who like a steely dry Pinot Gris, lovely and refreshing – a bronze medal winner
Cellaring Potential: Drink now
Would I Buy It?: Yes
Score: 88
Price: $16
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers

Sandhill 2006 Phantom Creek Vineyard Small Lots Syrah
Appearance: Opaque black cherry colour
Aromas: Black cherry, cassis, black pepper, jam, violet, chocolate, herbal notes, toast
Flavours: Intense black fruits, pepper, mocha, toast, herbal
Body and Finish: Luscious entry with a great deal of complexity on the palate, moderate tannins, slightly hot, elongated finish
Overall Impression: Yummy – not much else to say
Cellaring Potential: Best cellared a couple years
Would I Buy It?: Yes
Score: 92
Price: $35
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers

Road 13 2006 Merlot
Appearance: Dark magenta, ruby tones
Aromas: Red plum, cassis, caramel, prune, toast, chocolate, floral, herbaceous notes
Flavours: Jammy red fruits, spice, chocolate, smoke, mint
Body and Finish: Ripe red fruit entry, fresh on the palate, silky tannins, smooth long finish
Overall Impression: A delightfully concentrated effort that also represents great value. Gold medal winner
Cellaring Potential: Drink now and for five years
Would I Buy It?: Yes
Score: 91
Price: $24
Availability: VQA shops, private retailers

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