I’m sure that after years of wondering, you will be pleased to know that wine critics and wine judges are human.
How do I know, and why do I bring it up?
I’ve spent far too much time tracking the meltdown on the Squires/eBob wine forum (lurking, really as I have not a word to add to what has been said there over, and over).
That situation proves beyond a doubt that wine critics face all the pitfalls of being human, and they succumb to a few of them, too: power, self absorption, tone deafness, and of course, arrogance. In addition, they make mistakes just like the rest of us…
Wine judges probably aren’t much different, but since most who serve in that far from lofty position do it gratis (that’s without pay), the major flaw where we are concerned may be self-absorption.
Now I ask you, who isn’t self absorbed when seeking pleasure?
There’s the rub.
When judging wine, should we be seeking pleasure?
Before I attempt to answer that question, let me digress.
I just finished judging three separate competitions over the past three months. In each of the competitions, the panel I was on faced wines that never should have been sent to compete—some never should have been bottled.
It makes me wonder what those wineries think they are doing. Or do they think most wine judges don’t know what we are doing?
Hmm. Never thought of it that way.
In most competitions, judges are instructed to evaluate the wine in front of us—not what it can be someday but what it is on that day. This becomes a problem with wines that were bottled recently and then sent to the competition. Many of these wines simply don’t show well, but they may be perfectly wonderful products.
This situation also makes me wonder what wineries are thinking. Why do they enter wines that were bottled only a few days before the competition?
To my question about pleasure: I don’t think that as a wine judge my job is to seek pleasure. But that might have to do with my background.
It’s pretty well known in the wine business that many of us who made or still make wine have a habit of first seeking what’s at fault when we evaluate wine before seeking what is not.
Other wine judges who have no technical training but have undergone sensory training often seek what is not at fault before seeking what is.
A third group of judges, those on the retail or restaurant level probably have a habit of seeking in a wine what about it will sell or pair with a meal.
Finally, wine writers might be the ones who rabidly seek what it is about the wine that gives them pleasure; after all, this is part of their job.
Put all these judges together to evaluate wine and you get a balanced consensus—at least that’s the theory behind most wine competitions these days.
The panels at competitions comprise people from the various types of judges that I describe above. It’s not as often as one might think, but it is often enough that the individual panels of judges have a wide swing in scores to warrant an intense discussion and horse-trading before arriving at a consensus score for some wines.
(In my experience, the majority of scores among the judges are not so far off that a consensus can’t be reached without lengthy discussion.)
The astute wine judge will learn a few things during consensus-building debates. But there’s always a judge or two who simply resists—cannot allow that his or her impression may be too personal, too bent on subjective pleasure, to let the wine have its just reward.
Some judges don’t like certain styles or types of wine and have a hard time accepting that because a wine is not the type that they like, that doesn’t mean it is to be summarily dismissed—it can still be a well-produced wine that is worthy of accolade. Admittedly, this is the most difficult of all wine judging decisions, but it is a decision that can be made fairly, provided the judge stops looking for pleasure.
All of this verbal perambulation about judging wine leads me to offer one piece of not-so-new advice:
Don’t believe everything you read about awards and ratings. The concept of wine evaluation has its own built-in flaws.
Of course, you can take my advice with a grain of salt, as I am in the group that seeks the flaws first. But living by that rule has allowed me to enjoy a lot more wine than I would have been able to enjoy had I been chasing what others consider the cream of the crop.
Did I just make a blog entry that shoots myself in the foot? Will I ever be invited back as a wine judge?
If you are reading this entry anywhere other than on the vinofictions blog, be aware that it has been lifted without my permission (and without recompense), and that’s a copyright infringement, no matter that the copyright information appears with it.
Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2009. All rights reserved.