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FRIDAY GETAWAY DAY
06/22/2012
Friday Fishwrap
The Good Side of County Fair Wine Judgings

By Stephen Eliot

I never thought that I would come to the defense of wine competitions, but that is the stance I find myself taking as this week draws to a close. Likely spurred by the announcement of winners from the Los Angeles International Competition, unfavorable opinions on the worth of such events have been bubbling up to the surface of the generally placid waters of this week’s otherwise boring wine news. I admit that I am usually quick to join in the chorus, but these days I am feeling at least a little discomfort with both simple summary damnations of such events and those that claim scientific authority based on statistical evidence.

For a very long time, I have declined all invitations to serve as a judge in any wine competition preferring instead to taste and review wines by our own CGCW methodology. My reasons? Too many wines in too short a time, questionable credentials on the part of some judges and strong-willed individuals whose bullying ways could take the fun out of wine tasting as fast as an impacted molar. And, I was never all that sure just what the value to a consumer might really be. The long lists of medal winners seem no more than grist for the machinery of corporate advertising, and, for the judges, it becomes a pleasant junket and a chance to visit with friends on somebody else’s dime.

It has been so long, in fact, since I joined in the “fun” that I decided to set aside my beliefs, or rather see if they were still justified, and accepted invitations to judge at two events in the last couple of months, one large and one small. They were very different events, and while I am still far from an uncritical convert, I am beginning to believe that the problem with wine competitions is not that they are fatally flawed by nature but that there are just too damn many of them and that they are not created at all equal. They are no different than any other forum for evaluating and judging wines, and their worth depends on organization, sane working conditions and competent folks doing the work.

I spent lengthy, but not unduly taxing, days sharing a table with thoughtful and practiced professionals and with some bubbleheads whose bonafides were open to question. That said, I would still argue that to paint “wine competitions” with a single, very broad stroke is tantamount to equating every professional wine review, publication and writer with the barking blogger who is quick to award 95 points, two ears and a tail to last night’s eight-dollar Moscato.

Professor Robert Hodgson has been academia’s leading critical voice of wine judges in competitive tastings and the medals they award, and I have often cited his work in my own diatribes against the same. He finds that, “the principal result is that winning a Gold is predominantly a matter of chance. This is based on theory and substantiated by fact.”

The fatal flaw, however, seems to lie with the judges rather than the format itself. I understand that palate fatigue and exhaustion will dull the ability of even the most competent professional, it is why we limit ourselves to 18 to 20 wines per day when tasting for CGCW. While I think it absurd to expect judges to taste two hundred or more wines in a day, I also think that eighty to one hundred tasted in groups of a dozen or so over the course of six to eight hours is not an outrageous number. That a wine might win applause at one competition and not at another may have to do with a goodly number of things, but I question the notion that the results from good tasters given ample time are based on no more than chance.

I suppose I wish that there some way some to quantify and rank the competitions themselves. Are some better and more consistent? Are there several that tend to yield statistically similar results while others seem geared to species other than our own? I know that there are a few to which I pay attention, while I have little use for most others.

I do not plan to become a regular participant of such events, but neither will I be quite so dogmatic in my distain for them. In the end, I suppose that I now grudgingly find wine competitions as potentially useful in helping a tyro make their ways through the labyrinth that the wine aisle has become. We are constantly told that the poor consumer is terminally confused when facing the enormous numbers of wines now available for purchase. A little guidance is nice. I cannot say that I can recall a genuinely bad wine that has won a gold medal at a major event, and I would suggest that opting for a wine that shows off its gold is a smarter choice than picking one because of a cute critter on its label.

Not everyone is looking for the detail and analytical depth provided by publications geared to the wine connoisseur and collector, and these wine competitions make no claim to providing that kind of information. When a simple medal is no longer enough to satisfy your needs, be assured that there is plenty of the deep and detailed stuff to be had.


 

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Comments

No Subject
by tom merle
Posted on:6/26/2012 4:47:57 PM

You've seem to have missed the main point of Hodgson's critique. He is pointing to "chance" as the villain not necessarily because of palate fatigue, but because judges cannot replicate their findings no matter how expert they are and how few wines they taste.

And such competitions are not useful because the same wine ends up with so many different reactions from different panels in different competitions.  So the winery chooses the highest score ranking/rating, even if the wine didn't even meit a bronze in six other judgings.

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