I am often met with a raised eyebrow when I mention that I am off to judge at a wine competition. It seems many do not connect the concept of a so-called "award-winning" wine with the fact that the wine must have been subjected to critical evaluation in a competitive environment to make the "award" claim.
I am aware of more than 60 wine competitions in the United States, and at least an equal number around the globe. As I write this, I am about to join a panel of three other wine professionals -- wine journalists, winemakers, wine marketers, wine educators and such -- at the Dallas Morning News TexSomm wine competition in Dallas.
At this rather large competition, with more than 3,000 wines entered, there will be dozens of panels just like mine. Each panel will taste approximately 100 wines a day for two days and render a verdict on every wine. I will repeat this exercise when I judge at the Sunset Magazine wine competition in April, and again in May when I join the tasting evaluations at the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles in Bratislava, Slovakia, the world's largest wine competition.
In addition, I operate four major international wine competitions myself -- the upcoming San Diego International in March and the three "Challenges" -- Winemaker, Critics and Sommelier.
The role of the judges in these events is critical. I know I make every effort to see each wine in its best light. That said, no professional wine judge wants to convey an award on an underserving wine.
The first thing we look for is an obvious flaw. You can smell many defects in wine, thus nosing it and considering the aroma profile is usually the first order of business when tasting during a critical evaluation. Many wines are disqualified simply because they smell bad. These are "NIMMy" wines, for "not in my mouth."
If a wine passes the smell test, we move on to the taste test. I first analyze structure, balance and flavor, always on the lookout for flaws that might weaken the wine's score. If a wine is sound, then a judge must determine whether it has the personality and character to be considered for a medal.
If the answer is yes, then the question becomes one of degrees. Truly exceptional wines stand out from the crowd. In a tasting flight of 10 wines or so, they are clearly the most distinctive and impressive. Having a benchmark standout then helps a wine judge work backward to sort out lesser awards for the other wines up for medal consideration.
This rigorous evaluation has but one purpose, and that is to identify outstanding wines so that you, the ultimate end user, don't have to take the time nor go to the expense of tasting 100 cabernet sauvignons to find the dozen or so you might like.
The system isn't perfect. Good wines are sometimes overlooked by the judges. Not every wine that fails to win a medal is necessarily a flawed or bad wine. Wine is a living thing inside the bottle, ever changing and evolving. There are days when even good wines simply fail to shine.