Mustering the Humility and Confidence to Taste Wine
It takes equally large doses of humility and confidence to successfully participate as a judge in a wine competition. But perhaps more important, it requires an all too often lacking appreciation of the enormous diversity of wines that make up the totality of the wine world to be an adequate judge at a wine competition.
I was reminded of all these things as I spent the weekend as a judge at the Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition. As with most competitions, the judges are broken up into panels of four or five who then take on the task of judging wines in a select number of categories. I was lucky to have on my panel some very experienced and hugely knowledgeable judges who participate in competitions regularly. Still, this comforting fact only goes so far in dampening what can be an overload of diversity that the wine judge faces.
Those of us in the California wine industry and in the U.S. wine industry rarely are face to face with the real homogenization of the American wine industry and American wine marketplace. Our world is so consumed with a relatively small number of wine types, that we don't really appreciate the huge diversity of wines that are being made in this country. Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Merlot are the centers of our universe. We think we confront diversity when faced with a Chenin Blanc, a Grenache, a Mourvedre, a Petite Sirah or a Viognier. But this doesn't even touch the surface of the diversity of American wine that is encountered when judging at an American wine competition.
On Sunday I stared at two glasses of red wine that were categorized as "Minnesota Indigenous Specified Varieties". I weighed the differing qualities of various fruit wines as well as vinifera wines that were flavored with fruit. On Saturday I was faced with "Fruit Flavored Meads".
I tasted wines, vinifera and hybrid, from Missouri, Michigan, New York, Illinois, Minnesota, Delaware, New Jersey and other states and regions often ignored, forgotten or never known by those of us in the California wine industry.
These seemingly oddball wines never get reviewed in newspapers, glossy magazines or America's collection of wine review newsletters and websites. Never. Wine competitions, such this weekend's Long Beach Grand Cru Wine Competition, are often critical avenues through which these unheralded and often ignored wines can obtain attention. The Gold and Silver and Bronze medals they are awarded will play a critical role in helping them market their wines.
How do you judge a set of wines that you know so little about, let alone have ever tasted or encountered before? Not much differently than how you judge wines you are all too familiar with. You are looking for purity of expression, balance, a lack of what are usually microbial faults. If you are not familiar with the wine or the varietal, you are aided significantly if you have someone on your panel like David Stevens, a successful and well regarded consulting winemaker who CAN tell you what typical examples of some odd and unusual wine is suppose to taste like.
The experience of judging at wine competitions promotes an appreciation of the diversity of wines in America. There is no other way to put it. If you are in the wine industry, I urge you to seek out this opportunity, to muster the humility and confidence to address the challenge, and be a judge at a wine competition. It will change your perspective on the business you are in.