Forget the Numbers, Remember the Art

When discussing with friends and colleagues the merits of wine judging, the responses I receive vary from envy to hatred.  Friends perceive this as a magical position wherein I drink copious amounts of wine while marking scores with a bright red pen in a fashion reminiscent of the teacher in, “The Christmas Story”.    Others, including many of my winemaking buddies, scorn the system stating that it’s overly judgmental and devalues the “art” of wine.  So, in an attempt to better explain the process, here’s my perspective as a consumer, winemaker, scientist, educator and lastly, wine judge.

Depending on your location, there are tens of thousands of new wines released each year.  While I like to drink as much as the next gal, that’s more wine than even I can get through in a year.  And that’s saying something.  Utilizing scores as a “benchmark” for quality helps eliminate some of the “guessing game” mentality out of wine selection.  While some producers are constant winners, vintage plays a HUGE factor in wine expression and quality.  As a consumer, I’m looking, just like everyone else, for a great buy; a wine that overachieves in quality and value. How many times have I read tasting notes of a wine expecting something more complex, developed or interesting and found the wine to be decent but not nearly as good as the story written by the winemaker?  More times than I’d like to admit….especially as a wine professional.   Scores, medals and other judging competitions help me to determine what wines achieve a basic level of quality.  They help guide my purchases and give me a perspective (especially when detailed tasting notes are available) what the wine *may* taste like.  Plus, the more the merrier and if several reviewers or competitions deem a wine as “recommended”, I place more faith in those results.  It’s like a crib sheet from a fellow student; not exactly the same information you’d use to study for a pressing exam, but a great start and in a pinch, enough to make a reasonable decision.

While wearing my wine education hat, I see wine competitions as a way to educate producers and consumers about a wine.  Producers who achieve wines that score well, utilize this information as a way to learn what is acceptable in the consumer marketplace and can analyze what techniques, etc. they can utilize to increase this.  For consumers, it opens the door to new wines of character and value.  It can form a seminal bridge between these two parties by connecting each via a common ground: the development of the score and hopefully, the consumer ultimately seeking out more information and buying the product from the winery directly.  It’s an opening and a place for engagement to start.  However, the rest of the relationship is up to the winery and the winemaker.

Being a winemaker has it privileges and challenges when approaching wine scoring.  On one hand I know that critics, judges and magazines sometimes get the product all wrong.  I’ve made wines far better than I believe their score to be and scratched my head at what I perceive to be lesser wines that received greater acclaim.   With wine critics, I’m able to tell the story of the wine, involve them in the process and often times have a dynamic discussion as to the direction and goal of the product as well as the price point.  All of these can affect the final score and more importantly, the understanding of the wine professional…  Conversely, in a competition or blind tasting, the wine stands alone without a description of the art or process.  It as you’re walking into an art gallery with no direction other than, “Here’s the entire watercolor paintings, choose the best one in the gallery”.  Without the back-story of a wine, I admit some of the art is taken away and with it, part of the life of the wine.

The fate of a scientist is to be that of a skeptic.  Question everything, accept nothing, and work to disprove everything.  Facts are rare, causation difficult to prove, and the best you can hope for is correlation.  Wine scoring and competitions are not scientific events.  Studies have proven this time and time again as there is much variability in the human palate and preference.  Even the most trained tasters, tasting the same wines can taste them differently due to the outside influences involved.  Sadly, people are not robots and the variation in scores serves as proof.

As I wine judge, I enter a competition with all of these personas:  consumer, educator, winemaker, and scientist.  I am an educated consumer and professional and know what I like as well as what I don’t.  I also understand how a wine is produced which gives me an advantage when analyzing the “how” and “why” a wine evolves the way it has.  Yet, for me there is no “perfect” wine.  Thus, I aim to score wines in such a way that the winemakers will be able to use the scores to their advantage as much as the consumer.  While judging the Great Northwest Wine Competition in March, I tasted over 220 wines over a 30-hour period.   I had some wines that I’d say were undrinkable primarily due to major winemaking faults or so completely out of character that they didn’t match their category.  If I picked one of those off of the shelf for a Tuesday night dinner, I’d be unhappy and/or confused.  For these, I don’t recommend medals so that producers could understand that that wine production direction wasn’t beneficial to their brand.   Wines that I award bronzes showed typcity and a base level of quality…one that I’d drink if given to me.  Those that claim silvers show greater intensity and balance and wines that I’d choose if given a choice.  Wine that earned gold medals are wines that I’d seek out and after the competition, have.

Perhaps one of the best parts of being a wine judge is not the judging, but the learning about wine from my peers.  With different palates and concepts of wine, we banter, curse, agree, and disagree about facets of a wine (and each other) until we come up with a consensus of sorts.  Thus, there’s the art of negotiation and while I’m very persuasive, I don’t always win.  When that happens, I just make a note to learn more about the wine I scored higher or did not score as highly as my peers once the results are revealed.  As a winemaker, it allows me to taste lots of wonderful other wines and explore and learn about other great producers.  As a consumer, I get the opportunity to find and eventually buy more of the wines I loved at the competition.  And as a scientist, I just look up at the sky and think,”Forget the numbers, and remember the art of wine”.