One of the most interesting experiences I've had since starting a wine career, is learning to be a wine judge.
I applied to the International Wine & Spirit Competition when almost done the Diploma, and was accepted as an Associate Judge. This is a fantastic program in London which allows students to sit in during judging and to score the wines with the panel, with the caveat that a trainee's scores are not part of the final tally. (I'll include the link at the bottom of this article for those interested in applying).
This year I returned to the IWSC, this time as a fully fledged Judge, sitting on the USA and Canada wine panels. This year, my scores counted! Here's a rundown of what happens in the judging room, along with a few lessons I picked up from the expert tasters I worked with.
Calibrate Your Palate
Each day of judging begins with a warm up flight (or 'kite'), of two red wines and two white wines. We're given the grape varietal, vintage, and provenance of the wines on our summary sheet for the day, which also lists every flight to be judged. For example: Warm Up - Sangiovese, Chianti Classico, 2014. P1. P2. Garganega, Soave, 2015. P3. P4.
The wines are brought out by the pouring team in ISO glasses that have a little numbered sticker on the base which correlates to the wine judging list. All the bottles are stored in a separate room, and our samples come to us pre-poured, so judges never find out what producer/brands they're tasting from.
We take a few minutes to score the warm up flight, then one by one, call out our score to be recorded and tallied. The chief judge scores last. We write down the total score the wine achieved, and the average. The average is used to determine whether the wine has received a medal.
During the warm up, it's a chance to sort out your palate for the day, and calibrate your scoring to quality, which was especially important as an associate. Coming into the very first day, I wasn't sure how the scores worked!
Use The Range
Wines can be scored on a scale up to 100. One of the key lessons I took away was to use the full range of numbers, and not to sit safely in a zone of say, 77-80 points. If a wine is superlative, give it a commensurate score. If a wine is a Silver, give it a solid silver score and not barely a silver score.
If a wine is fatally flawed, it gets sub-49 (if a wine is flawed, a fresh bottle is opened and judges mark the second sample. If the second bottle is also flawed, it's a shame).
I've been asked whether a great wine will cause disagreement among judges. What generally happened with a fantastic wine was a unanimous recognition of its high quality, which was almost uncannily accurate among the panel. So, a superior wine has specific qualities which rise above subjective opinions!
Learn From Experienced Judges
Judges from around the world were on the various panels - Masters of Wine were thick on the ground, and trainees visited from Plumpton College and various corners of the globe (California, Italy, and Hungary last week). Everyone had unique perspectives that enhanced the judging experience. I had the pleasure of sitting on panels chaired by Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, who shared a miniature masterclass on scoring icewine with us.
NOSE FIRST, THEN TASTE & SCORE
The chief judge decides on how the flights of wines may be grouped together. The day starts with reds, then progresses to sparkling, then dry whites, and finishes with any sweet wines.
After the flight arrives, we commence, tasting in silence (no phones during judging). We'd nose the wines first, getting consensus on any that may be showing flaws. While nosing, I marked with an asterisk on my marking sheet any that had particularly lovely aromas.
Then, I'd work my way through the wines, making notes as I went. I tasted through all of them, scored, then tasted through again. As I re-tasted, I made a point of not looking at my previous score, to see whether my assessment was accurate against my first impression.
Once everyone was finished, we'd call out our scores, always in the same order of judges. The chief judge reviewed the scores at the end of this process, to be fair to any wines that were sitting on the boundary between medals, or between no medal and a bronze - or any wines which had been brought up or down by one judge versus a consensus of scores. I was impressed with how fair to the wines the process was!
What question do you really want to ask... is it whether judges get paid? I know I was curious.
I learned that top tier judges, such as Masters of Wine, will often be paid to be judges at the various competitions around the world, although sometimes it is just their airfare and hotel that is covered. One judge mentioned receiving first class airfare, which sounds lovely, and I wonder whether that still happens.
As an associate judge at IWSC, you are paid in experience. For full judges, there is a per diem.
Another question is about finding out who has made the wines we taste. Do we get to learn the names? No! We have to wait for the medal winners to be announced to find out. I know that I have a few marked down that I'm very excited to learn about.
Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.