I’ve been sidelined by a medical issue for the last couple of weeks and, while I am fine now, I won’t be able to taste wine for another week or two. This situation reminded me of the time I tasted literally dozens and dozens of wine every morning as a judge at the International Wine Competition Bucharest i(now rebranded as VINARIUM International Wine Contest) n 2018.
Here’s a flashback column about my “Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge.” Enjoy!
Confessions of a Rookie Wine Judge
The Wine Economist / November 27, 2018
I have declined several invitations to serve on wine competition juries, but when Catalin Paduraru asked me to be be part of the International Wine Competition Bucharest I just couldn’t say no.
Sue and I had never visited Romania and there was much I wanted to learn about the country and its wines. Besides, Catalin (along with Lucian Marcu) had somehow managed to publish a Romanian version of my book Wine Wars. So we headed to Iași, Romania’s cultural capital, where this year’s competition was held.
Reservations? I had a few because of my lack of formal training in wine tasting and my rookie juror status, so I asked a few experienced friends for advice. It’s not so hard, one veteran juror told me. You know how to taste wine, just concentrate and focus. Taste them one at a time. A Master of Wine advised me to be generous in general, except when there were clear faults, and then to cut no slack.
Wine by the Numbers
The wine competition was organized according to OIV regulations. We were grouped into three teams or “commissions” of five jurors each, three internationals and two from the home country Romania. We used the “Australian” system, I was told, where we could talk a bit amongst ourselves rather than sitting solo. As in the old days of figure skating scoring, the highest and lowest scores are thrown out for each wine and the three middle ones averaged.
The wines were evaluated on a 100-point scale divided into a number of different categories. The tablet-based OIV software made it easy to focus on thinking about the wine and my friend was right — if you think about one wine and one sensory element at a time the task is difficult, but not overwhelming.
The software gave each juror a report of his or her score for a wine along with the average score. Wines that received an average between 82 and 84.99 points earned a silver medal. 85 to 91.99 point wines were gold. 92 points and over received the Great Gold Medal. This is a pretty tough grading curve, but with many elements evaluated critically and individually, maximum scores are hard to achieve.
My team tasted 50 to 60 wines over the course of about 3 hours each morning for three days in a row. Lunch followed the judging and the wines were revealed, giving us an opportunity to see what labels were inside the closed bags.
60 wines in three hours does not leave much time for chit-chat and if you watch the video about the event you will notice how serious we all were. Staying focused for so long and moving through the wines so quickly was a challenge.
There were several aspects of the competition that took some time for this rookie to figure out. The wines were assembled by category not region (or country of origin) or grape variety. So a flight of dry white wines might include several different grape varieties and countries or regions of origin. It was therefore important to approach each wine with an open mind because the variation from glass to glass was sometimes dramatic.
Because the software reported both my score for each wine and also the team average, I was initially tempted to see the average as the “right answer” and try to think about what I must have missed if I was far off the mark. There was a certain satisfaction when we all gave a wine exactly the same total score, but I’ll bet we differed in the details.
Eventually I realized that this second-guessing was another rookie mistake since there really isn’t a right answer. Or, rather, it wasn’t my job to try to guess what the other jurors thought, but to provide my own careful judgement. The economists’ motto is degustibus non est disputandum!
Mining Gold and Silver
Sue had the best view of the process. She and an official OIV observer sat apart from the rest of us. They got to taste the wines along with one of the commissions (not mine) and they could see all of the scores come in and follow the dynamics of the tasting. It was interesting, she told me when it was all over, to see how different jurors reacted to particular wines and how the individual scores were forged into gold and silver medals.
My fellow wine economists often criticize wine competitions in general because they make seemingly objective awards on the basis of necessarily subjective and sometimes inconsistent sensory evaluation. The jurors I spoke with were aware of this problem and familiar with the research on the issue, but committed to the project nonetheless, which might account for the serious concentration and focused work ethic they all displayed. I was impressed.
Would I agree to serve on a jury again? It would depend on the circumstances. But I have already started to think about what I would do differently — how I would organize my scoring so that the final number better reflects what I sense in the glass.
Sue and I would like to thank all the wonderful people we met in Iasi. Special thanks to Catalin and Lucian, of course, and to my fellow jurors Diana Lazar, Richard Pfister, Roberto Gaudio, and Carole Cliche. Thanks as well to Prof. Valeriu Cotea, who gently coached me through my rookie experience and to Cristian Ionescu, who kept the technology working efficiently and made life easy for all of us.
Sue took these photos at one of the post-jury luncheons, where the wines were revealed and we could finally see the labels behind our scores.