Monday, September 21, 2009

Pardon Me, I Think My Dick Button is Undone

In recent months there has been a lot of invective aimed at Wine Competitions, the general unreliability of the medals awarded and the questionable competence of the judges involved. So they're pretty much like figure skating at the Olympics without Dick Button commentating. (Though for years when I ordered jeans from Eddie Bauer I always asked for the ones with the Dick Button. I look so cute in them.) Somehow folks have gotten the impression that wine judges are fallible and inconsistent. This seems crazy to me as a guy who has judged many times at competitions, it implies wine judges are human. Trust me, it ain't so.
Typical wine judge at work.

What's curious is that most, if not all, of those criticizing the results of wine competitions are themselves rating wines using some sort of numeric scale. And wine judges are inconsistent? There is not one famous or reliable wine critic using the 100 point or 20 point or 10 point scale who can replicate his number scores twice in a row when blind tasting a set of, say, fifteen wines. Parker has studiously avoided this situation for 25 years, and for good reason. He's fallible and inconsistent and has too much to lose by taking a test he'd certainly fail. Even though he could eat Dick Button for lunch and have room for Dorothy Hamill for dessert. But I'm not here to debate this old chestnut. I thought I'd relate a few stories from my days as a wine judge.

I was asked to judge the first year of a competition in Paso Robles. In the spirit of anything to get out of a weekend at work, I accepted. Paso Robles is one of the more interesting appellations in California for my money. There are more than 200 wineries there, maybe 10 of which are worth spending your hard-earned money on. OK, that's a little harsh. There are at least 12 that are worth your time and money. Yeah, yeah, I know, I'm going to hear from folks who think there are amazing wines in Paso Robles, but these are the same people who think American Idol winners have talent and claim they don't watch NASCAR for the accidents. Sure, there are some great wines in Paso, a handful, but you can spend a week in Paso Robles and quickly find out how little your thirty-five bucks can buy.

The first year of this competition, as I expected, was a bit disorganized. That's fine, it takes some experience to manage the insane logistics of running a wine competition. I'm pretty sure they got their volunteers from the local branch of Slow Food--the Really Slow Food People. One of the volunteers pointed to a glass in front of me and said, "What do you think of that Tobin James?" I think she'd heard it was a blind and deaf tasting.

During a long, they were all long, break, a friend of mine on a different panel walked over to my table. I asked him how it was going at his table. "Oh, fine," he said, "except for that one woman to my left..." "Why, what's wrong with her?" I glanced over at her. She was a very large woman in her late 40's wearing an unappealing short skirt--it was so short you could see her brand. "Oh, just a couple of little things," my friend told me, "first, she's wearing a lot of perfume..." "You're kidding!" I said, "at a wine competition?! Who is she, Cuckoo Chanel?" "And," my friend continued, "she's not spitting." So they had tasted about fifty wines to that point and she had consumed an ounce or so of each. That's two bottles, friends. I'm thinking she had drunk a bottle of perfume too.

I never judged in that competition again.

At a different competition I was assigned to a panel of five judges. Our first task was to taste 80 Chardonnays under $15. This is perhaps the closest I've come to suicide, if you don't count tasting at Castoro Cellars. But we endured, awarded at least twenty double golds just to annoy bloggers, and then we were assigned to taste white Italian varieties. I am a fan of white Italian varieties and have been for many years--Garganega, Arneis, Grechetto, Tocai Friulano...--so I was excited. They do tell you what variety you're tasting blind, and the first wine was a Fiano. None of the other four judges had heard of Fiano. Had no idea that Fiano was even a grape. One judge thought it was what a Fianist played. But whatever the Fiano was we were tasting, it was wonderful. Gold Medal! It was beautiful and rich, just a bit of oiliness, very intense, a bit herbal, and almost honeyed. The other four judges gave it bronzes. It was awarded a bronze. It deserved a gold more than a woman with a penis. The next wine was a Trousseau Gris. They hadn't heard of that either, but since it's not even an Italian variety, not really their fault. And so it goes...

At most competitions you are in a large room with several panels separated simply by curtains. Frankly, I'm surprised the gowns they provide aren't open in the back. Of course, if that were the case, it would be hard to tell where the evocative aroma of ass was coming from, the wine or the judges. At one competition our panel was next to a panel of two men and a woman. The woman was, probably still is, insane. She was browbeating these two guys like she was Joan Rivers on her period, though Joan Rivers hasn't menstruated since her vagina was cosmetically lifted under her chin, which makes it hard to tell which part is burping. It got so bad, she was so insulting to the two men tasting with her, that our panel got fed up with listening to her. We asked her to knock it off and she started berating us. So I thoughtfully retaliated by tossing a piece of bread over the curtain which fortuituously landed in one of her wine glasses. I thought, honestly, that I'd won a goldfish. All I got, however, was more carping. After several hours of her incessant ranting, Lady MacBeth with an M.S., we secretly lured the chairman of the competition into our curtained tasting area. He listened to her rabid chatter for about ten minutes and then asked her to leave. I think he said something along the lines of "Out, damned Snot!"

I'll probably get drummed out of judging after this post. I'm actually judging all this week so I may not be able, or in command of my wits enough, to post for a bit. But I'll be back.

So this post, Gold, Silver, or Bronze? And who cares?


Samantha Dugan said...

I dated a Fianist once, he was oily too but man....those hands, must have been the resin. I've never judged a competition, (not too sure there are that many French wine competitions here is SoCal) but I think making someone taste 80 Chardonnays...especially those under $15.00, is not worth offing yourself for. Worth killing the fukcer that talked you into it yes, but...

So it turns out we have met dude and can I just say, throwing shit in my glass was so uncalled for. And I did say, "Out damn snot"....I was talking to you.

Arthur said...

I am one of those who sees these wine competition "exposes" as a bit of gotcha "journalism". Yes, there are idiot judges and idiot wine critics who are fallible and inconsistent because: 1) they don't know shit about wine, 2) can't smell and taste worth a shit, 3) have shitty tasting methodology, 4) have shit for rating criteria. Thus their opinions are shit.

For example: "None of the other four judges had heard of Fiano." -
Well, that makes them doubly more qualified to judge than those sniping bloggers!

Methinks that a double-gold judge oughta know their shit...

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Arthur,

I was pretty surprised not one of my four fellow judges had heard of Fiano. It's not even a particularly obscure grape from Italy, and, of course, is well-known for making the great wine of Arizona, Fiano di Javelina.

My Gorgeous Samantha,

So many wines are entered in some competitions that every panel is faced with daunting flights of cheap Chardonnay, really cheap Merlot, and, even worse, Blush wines! So I wasn't singled out. And, actually, it can be incredibly entertaining to taste the crap with good judges. There is a long list of wine commentary from judges suffering through bad wines that is pretty funny (Wouldn't surprise me if Anonymous 1 repeated a few for us).

You should judge in a competition at least once. You and I on a panel would be wickedly fun. Though so much for concentrating on the wine...

Anonymous said...


I give this post AND your Dick Button a triple gold.

Charlie Olken said...

One of these days, one of you bloggers is actually going to name the woman MS in question. Last year, someone complained about a woman MS at a Napa Valley tasting who complained that all the wines tasted like coca cola. I was at a tasting a couple of years ago when a woman MS complained that Russian River Valley and Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noirs were virtually indistinguishable.

Since there are only five or six woman MS's, and a couple who live in CA, you have probably told us who she is. For my part, I am not naming names because she did pass the MS and one presumes she could identify something. I just have not figured out what yet.

And did you really want to start the 100-point debate again, especially in the middle of a discussion of tasting 80 cheap Chardonnays on an empty stomach?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Charlie,

The woman with an M.S. who was out of control was Catherine Fallis. Her last name says it all, really. I'm not worried about naming names, but since I coudn't remember most of the names of the other folks I was writing about I didn't want to single her out necessarily. But I've never seen such outrageously inappropriate and rude behavior before or since at a wine judging.

I'm not opening a debate about the 100 point scale, just laughing at all the crap thrown at wine judgings by folks misusing the numbers scales. I just love the irony. You and CGCW are not folks who misuse your number system, you and your publication have enormous integrity, but most of the bloggers berating wine judgings are guilty of using wine ratings idiotically.

What makes you think I had an empty stomach? Before judging I always eat an unusually large breakfast. Sometimes, after 80 cheap chardonnays, I can even keep it down.

Judging is a strange and fun and unique experience, and I honestly love doing it. I am often chagrined about the results, but that's the nature of the beast. I've judged with many remarkable wine folks, from Frank Prial of the NY Times to Dan Berger to Nick Ponamareff of California Grapevine and, of course, your favorite, Andy Blue. Just hanging out with them is incredibly educational and very worthwhile.

Wineries use the medal results for their own marketing. If the results were useless, judgings would go out of business. I just thought folks not in the biz might like a peek behind the curtains at what the competitions are like on the bad days.

Charlie Olken said...

The HMW says, "I've judged with many remarkable wine folks, from Frank Prial of the NY Times to Dan Berger to Nick Ponamareff of California Grapevine and, of course, your favorite, Andy Blue."

Remarkable? I'll be the judge of that.

Frank Prial--OK. I will give you that one.

Berger? Did you say BERGER??

Nick Ponamareff? Sadly, I have never tasted with him even though we started our rags at the same time and have maintained a friendship across three decades--a genuinely nice guy.

Andy Blue--you know, when he lived up here, he used to taste with us, and we kind of got along. Over the years, though I have found him to grow increasinly pompous and self-important and he is no longer fun.

Back to Berger. Someday, when I grow up, I am going to tell the world about Dan Berger. Until then, the truth remains a well-hidden secret. But, I know how to stop him dead in his tracks. I can actually make Dan Berger stop talking--but first we have to talk at double speed for about ten minutes, then I can slow him up.

Catherine Fallis. The one and only. I like her, but I did have to tell her that she did not know what was talking about re the Pinot comments.

And if you kept your breakfast down after 80 cheap Chardonnays, you deserve a medal. I will ask Berger to get you one.

Charlie Olken said...


I have received a flurry of emails regarding my implied criticism of Dan Berger.

So, let me set the record straight.

My secret inside information about how to deal with Dan is this.

We engage is active, rapid fire debate for about ten minutes (and those of you who know Dan also know that he has an opinion or two--and it turns out that I do too), and then I make him laugh.

Humor. That's the secret. Don't take life so seriously. Drag out the old Hosemaster trick and lighten up.

There are no rights and wrongs here--well, there are a few such as not drinking your DRC with a straw--so Dan and I enjoy the debate, tell each other we are wrong and then laugh a bit and tell ourselves how much fun it is being part of a business where people with intense passion can nonetheless come away from the debate with smiles on our faces.

el jefe said...

Nice post. I especially enjoyed the full twisting dismount.

Samantha Dugan said...

Least with hate mail you know people are listening to you. I did not read your comment as offensive but that might be because I read your comments on blogs all over the place and see that you don't really go after anyone...not even Gary V. I saw it as fun pokin and nuttin more. Ignore the hate mail like I ignore the vile pervy crap that gets sent to me...and speaking of which, Ron....