Tuesday, July 24, 2012

So You Want to Be a Wine Judge


Many consumers see wines advertising medals from wine competitions and have little idea what those medals mean or how they were arrived at. They do know that Gold is better than Silver, Silver is better than Bronze, and Bronze is better than any wine with any sort of pastry on the label. Really, stay away from Cupcake, Layer Cake and the newly released Urinal Cake. I’m OK with orange wine, but yellow? In this edition of the Basics of Wine Appreciation we’ll talk about wine competitions and their place in the wine business. As required of a wine judge, I am writing this completely blind and in a white coat. I may have forgotten to take my Thorazine. Which makes me slightly manic and sing “Oh, de Miltown Ladies sing dis song, Doo-dah Doo-dah.” This will make more sense as you read about wine judgings.

What is the purpose of wine competitions?

Like any competition, it is to determine winners and losers. Winners are awarded medals by the losers with spit buckets. In wine competitions, each wine is judged individually. Therefore, many wines win gold medals. They tried this system in the Olympics once, but gave it up when 20 of the 80 gymnasts wouldn’t fit on the Gold Medal podium. All those girl gymnasts up there looked like a scene from Munchkinland. Every time I watch gymnastics at the Olympics, I expect a house to fall on them. Awarding medals is the main purpose of wine competitions, but there are others. For example, they also provide a place for our endangered wine judges to get together and reproduce. There is a National Registry of Wine Judges which carefully monitors the husbandry of the herd so that inbreeding can be avoided. It’s been mildly successful.

How are the wine judges chosen?

Each wine judge is carefully screened for experience, knowledge, STD’s and felony drunk driving convictions. A minimum of three out of four is required. Then each competition tries to select its judges from different sectors of the wine business—a few wine writers perhaps, a couple of enology and viticulture professors, some sommeliers, and a handful of people no one has any idea what they’re doing there. These are usually bloggers. This cross-section of the business allows for differing opinions about what each wine merits, and often lively discussions. At a recent competition, a wine judge was stabbed with a homemade shiv made from a room service breakfast sausage by a fellow judge for arguing that the nail polish smell in the Syrah was “perfect with finger foods.” Judges are also chosen for their willingness to allow other judges to raid their Honor Bar after Last Call.

Why do wineries enter wine competitions?

Winning a Gold Medal, or a Double Gold (which is simply a Gold with extra meat and cheese), can boost sales of a wine that was nearly dead in the water. Sort of like when Olympian Greg Louganis hit his head on the diving board. Competitions are a sales tool that can be very effective if marketed correctly. Say you enter a Folle Blanche into the Waco International Wine Competition and Weenie Roast and win a Bronze. Yours was the only Folle Blanche entered, therefore your wine is “Best of Class 2012 Waco Wine Competition!” Bingo! There’s a BevMo 5¢ Sale in your future. The biggest floor stack since Dolly Parton passed out on her bathroom floor. It’s totally worth the price of entering the competition. However, winning a Bronze Medal for your high-end Zinfandel is like getting 98 points from Wine and Spirits—no one cares.

How are the wines judged?

The judges sit at a table and are served each flight of wines by the wine competition volunteers—there are many transients and drifters. Among the judges, not the volunteers. The wines come about a dozen at a time, already poured into very cheap glasses so as to give the judges the feel of being at home. The judges never see the bottles of wine they are evaluating. The judges quietly evaluate each wine knowing only the variety and vintage. Well, quietly if you don’t count grunts, groans, cellphones, dog whistles and all the instruments in the bodily orifice band. When all the judges have finished awarding each wine either Gold, Silver, Bronze or WTF?, a discussion ensues about each wine and a consensus is reached. Majority rules. So if three of the five judges decide the wine is worth a Gold Medal, it is awarded a Gold Medal even if the other two judges wouldn’t serve it to Jay McInerney’s overworked divorce lawyer. The best wine of each category, as determined by the judges, is then sent to the Sweepstakes round where every judge has a say in which wine is awarded Best in Show. Fifty-five wine judges can’t be wrong. Hey, it wasn't wine judges who ruled that corporations are people. No one who has ever worked for one would say that. Only dopes in robes.

How much credence should I give to Wine Competitions?

Sure, you watch FOX News and think it’s real. You watch American Idol and think it’s not fixed. You bought Spanish wines from The Wine Advocate. You think you have more than 350 friends because you’re on FakeBook. You think natural wines taste better. You’re in the Wall Street Journal wine club. You believe Apple isn’t selling your every move tracked by your iPhone to marketers. Is discernment your strong point? Hey, it’s only wine. Judges are human, except the MS’s, and make mistakes. And are happy to pass them along to you. 


Daniel in T-Town said...

Thank you for proving there is a fine line between funny and scary...

Which is more sad: submitting your wine to every competition in the country, or making up stickers with a gold medal and plastering the bottles with them?

Isn't a gold medal at the "your county here"-fair-and-wine-tasting-and-bachelorette-party the same as having a graduation ceremony from 2nd grade?

Since everyone can't win, we'll just make no one lose.

Thanks for making my days a little more twisted

Thomas said...

My vote: How much credence should I give to Wine Competitions?

Best list of reasons to believe in wine competitions that I have ever read.

This one would be truly funny, if it weren't true.

Thomas said...

or even if it wasn't true.

Don't Judge Me Daddy said...

I once judged at one of these competitions. Some learned professor rubbed wine on his hands and then leaned over to me and asked me to smell them.

I have never gone back. Have you?

Marcia Macomber said...

I expected the HoseMaster to say the purpose of wine competitions is a structured excuse for all the judges to drink. (Of course, they're not swallowing. But let's not get started on that topic!)

And leave my wienie dog out of this, José! She's all sloppy kisses all over the place (like some wines I know...absolutely all over the place).

And that Double Gold thing... Is that buy one , get one free?

Pamela Heiligenthal said...

No, I wanna be a cowboy!

WTF is a legit category. Why it is not used more often, I don't know.

Ron Washam, HMW said...

Hey Daniel from Toon Town,

Well, the gold stickers are usually sent to the wineries by the wine competitions, so the wineries don't make them up, they just slap them on the bottles. Unlike price tags, which are completely fictional.


I love judging in wine competitions, and at some interesting and debatable level, they do have some credence. Especially for wines from regions that cannot get reviews reliably from the major publications, they are very important. And, as you know, some competitions have very competent judges, others have results that may as well have been obtained from camels.


Yeah, that sounds about right. I was once at a judging where one judge was not only bathed in perfume, she also didn't spit. I swear, that's true. By the end of the day, and, gratefully, only about 50 wines, she smelled like a Bohemian Grove hooker. That judging I did not return to.


The most sober I ever see the people I know in the wine business is while they're judging. An hour later we're on our way, but rarely during.


I have always tried to get the people who run wine competitions to allow each panel to submit the worst wine they tasted for all the other judges to taste. Wow, there are some amazing wines entered, wines that are actually for sale to the public, that are definitely WTF. It's a weird badge of honor to have had the worst wine submitted to your panel. It's a study in winemaking faults, to be sure.

Good luck winning a Poodle, Pam!

Thomas said...


I used to love judging too, and I won't say anymore than that.

Pamela Heiligenthal said...

If you win, I challenge you to show up in poodle attire, chain and all...;) oh lala. Bonus points for a splash of pink or purple color scheme.

Thomas said...


I can see HM peeing all over the chair legs...

Pamela Heiligenthal said...

Thomas, if he marks his territory, he better give us fair warning to make a dash outta the room.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


There isn't a chance in Portland that I'll win a Poodle. First of all, I'm not mounting an email/FakeBook/Twitter campaign for votes. Plus, I don't care. And, I'm very much a loner and not a joiner, so being at a Wine Bloggers Conference is my idea of Purgatory.


I don't pee on chair legs, though I often sniff butts. It's a way of greeting I find informative.

Kathy said...

I haven't read this yet, but my judge, for whom I am cooking supper, loves it.
Talking about perfume...it is so you don't have to smell bad teeth, what they ate or smoked. Not about wine.
I haven't assessed the wine vs Olympic medals (from Utah...did Mitt organize this contract?) '
Does a US wine medal come with a gun or a TTB "Protect the People' from labels" sticker?

Anonymous said...

Only one who never was asked would make comments like that in a serious tone....to be a judge you need skills, recognizable skills, in several areas, and you taste the wines without looking at the labels or without the winemaker buying you dinner or paying for an ad....I think the word is "objective"... Moreover, gentile suggestions from counterparts that have thresholds for faults or appreciation for styles can persuade a judge to move a vote in a positive direction so the consumer gets a consensus of talents, not just one opion arising from subjectivity. Try to get on a panel....ain't easy...
A column wort reading is found at winepressnw.com from the Winter 2011/2012 edition Grapes of Roth, oddly named: "So you want to be a wine judge"... I might remind you that plagairism is a dirty deed in journalism.....

Thomas said...


The "please vote for me" requests are unseemly--to me.

In fairness, online, the practice is not limited to wine bloggers.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


I've been a wine judge for about twenty years. And I sign my name to what I write. You?

Plagiarism of a title isn't plagiarism, my friend, look it up. Beyond that, it's not an original idea, probably not even to the person you mention.


The wine on her breath would have covered up everything else, even if she'd been in a John Waters film. She didn't need perfume.



Anonymous said...

When the Supreme Court ruled that it is not against the law to falsely claim to be a war hero, doesn't it mean I can falsely claim 100 point Parker scores? That's just another form of free speech, isn't it? So, why bother to enter these competitions, just claim the medals, in fact have the labels printed with medals, and get on with it.

Beau said...

I've been invited to judge at a few events where I know some of the judges already. It's fascinating to talk to the judges and compare their reactions and results to their backgrounds. From what I can see, winemakers judge a lot differently than sommeliers or retail store owners.
So I don't trust any of them, or those shiny gold stickers.

Anonymous said...

Regarding oriface noises, did anyone here taste on a panel with the late Leon Adams? A sweet man, but more than one taster brought ear plugs. In addition to the ear plugs, I found a clothes pin on the nose helpful in judging 1970's era Sauvignon Blanc.

Ron Washam, HMW said...


Don't worry, I'll claim to win a wine blog award whether I actually do or not. It will look nice alongside my Pulitzer, Nobel and Playmate of the Year awards.

Never met Leon Adams, but I've smelled quite a few wines like him.


Yes, there is a big difference in the way folks judge according to their wine business occupation. Some look intensely for faults, others look intensely for pleasure. It's a lot like dating.

Thomas said...

A lot like dating--I never thought of it that way. Being an ex-winemaker, I look for faults when I judge, and my multiple marriages likely fall into the same category.

Now it all makes sense. Or does it make no sense? This blog always confuses me.

I would go plagiarize a blogger for fun and relaxation, if I could find one that has anything to say worth plagiarizing.

Samantha Dugan said...

Dammit Washam! Once again I get a different set of rules. So where's the passage on how you have to spend some time tasting a wine judge before you can be considered a competent "taster"?!

Steve Heimoff said...

Hosemaster, I am forming the Oakland International Wine Competition and would be pleased to have you be one of the Judges. Can't pay any money, but we're giving out Heimoff bobbleheads that affix to your car dashboard (assuming you drive). Interested?

Ron Washam, HMW said...

My Gorgeous Samantha,
Oh, everyone knows about that. It's the same for getting an M.S. No need to state the obvious.

I'd be honored to judge in the Oakland International Wine Competition. And I'd be happy to mount you on my dashboard...OK, maybe that's not what I meant.

Samantha Dugan said...

Oh great, now I have to be jealous of STEVE! too?

Thomas said...

Do wine judges drive a car after sampling all those wines???

I'll never tell.