How to train a wine judge

Friday, 19. January 2018 - 10:30

“Who’s following and who’s leading here?” 

The earnest young man from out of town, brow furrowed, a dark storm cloud gathering overhead, had suddenly touched on the existentialist core of what it means to be a wine judge in Australia.

It was day two of the four-day Advanced Wine Assessment Course (AWAC) in Adelaide, a course designed to gently lead those who might be interested, or have the right stuff, into the world of judging wine on the Australian wine show circuit.

Over a glass of Tasmanian 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, one of 30 wines encountered on the second tasting following a tranche of 24 sparkling wines, the earnest young man was called upon to explain why he had effectively failed the wine and viewed it as commercially unacceptable – which is what his score of 12 out of 20 amounted to. His reply was to the point: “I don’t want to drink it.”

There was a polite caution from his instructors, a trio composed of a wine writer, winemaker and wine sensory scientist, old hands when it came to judging wines under Australian wine show conditions: A judge’s ability to explain the reasoning behind a score is as important as the score itself. It’s the cornerstone of the entire system. Over the years, it has been the undoing of many an uncommunicative or narcissistic show judge.

“You are saying it’s faulty,” said the wine writer. “Be careful.”

“It’s a style I don’t like,” countered the young man. “Who’s following and who’s leading here?” And there it was. Don’t wine judges call the shots? Aren’t they the arbiters of taste rather than merely following trends?

It seemed like a fair question. His instructors remained unmoved. It wasn’t a matter of whether the wine was to the young man’s taste or not. His score indicated a fault in the wine and yet he could not verbalise exactly what it was. Indeed, there was no fault. The young man rolled his eyes and his gaze dropped back to the glass of Sauvignon Blanc, so too did his chance of becoming a wine judge.

The getting of wine wisdom
In a wine industry obsessed with wine shows – around 70 capital city and regional shows are held each year in Australia, and that’s not including specialist shows devoted to a particular grape variety or style of wine – it makes sense to have something like the Advanced Wine Assessment Course. It’s unique in the wine world.  

Its aim is to prepare potential wine judges with four days of intense tasting and discussion and, importantly, to give a glimpse into the daily pressures of a wine judge that often involves eight hour days of assessing anywhere between 120 to 160 wines a day. 

Judges aren’t paid, but the position comes with great respect from the industry, hence the increase in the number of AWAC courses over the years from one to four annually. Since 1992, nearly 1,200 people have completed the course, which is conducted out of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) in the Adelaide suburb of Urrbrae. Many now fill wine show ranks. Others, especially winemakers, use the course to re-calibrate tired palates, to stop developing closed “cellar palate” minds.  To gain entry you need to have “considerable” wine tasting experience, and able to pay the A$4,760 ($3,591) fee. Demand is so intense that a ballot system now operates.

In the class of AWAC No. 42:  One is a marketing man still finding his way in the wine industry after leaving advertising. One is a smiling viticulturist with a famous wine producer in Coonawarra, another a nervous young winemaker from the Adelaide Hills, and then there’s a quiet country lad from Western Australia’s Great Southern region.  A young woman with a surname familiar to wine lovers around the world says she just wants to improve her palate, but she’s not sure about wine show judging. The fourth biggest wine producer in Australia has sent its winemaker, a 20-something male with a man bun and a big personality. The class of AWAC 42 has attracted 17 people from across the country who will be tested on their ability to taste a range of 320 wines blind (some will be wine show medal winners, some not) and their scores will be compared to the scores of experienced judges. Their ability to repeat the same score for the same wine that might pop up twice over four days, an ambush in waiting for all new players, will be crucial in deciding who in the group will be awarded Dux (top pupil) and made an associate judge at the 2018 Royal Adelaide Wine Show.

For such a creative, ethereal process involving all the senses, there are plenty of rules of engagement before even the first sip:

1. Always concentrate on and judge only the wine in the glass.
2. Don’t second guess.
3. Develop endurance. 
4. Although good tasters are welcome, it’s being able to articulate thoughts about a wine that’s important.  
5. Every wine must be given a score and a comment.
6. Assess the quality of a wine. It’s not a judge’s job to say it’s a nice wine.
7. Use specific and definable words. Avoid jargon and shorthand.
8. Genetically everyone is a little different when it comes to smelling certain things. Remember only around 25% of the population are super-tasters and many are women.
9. All taste buds are about equally sensitive to all tastes (sweet, sour, salt, bitter, umani). The tongue map is “100 year-old snake oil stuff,” says sensory scientist Wes Pearson.
10. Don’t accentuate the negative in a wine. Look for the positive.

The first tasting doesn’t involve anything except trying to identify a bunch of smells from the alluring linalool (floral), the pungent rotundone (pepper) and coconut (American oak) to the nasty guaiacol (smoke taint), rotten cabbage (mercaptan) and mouldy (TBA, a compound that causes the wine to smell musty).

“Warmed up now?” asks a smiling Pearson. 

Peter Godden, the man who put the AWAC course together . in 1992, takes over. He introduces Kerri Thompson, an experienced winemaker from the Clare Valley and Peter Leske, a winemaker and former AWRI sensory scientist from the Adelaide Hills. Godden reminds everyone that the real strength of any wine show is in the discussion. But first comes the tasting and scoring which is done in silence. Scores are out of 20.

First up, 12 Rieslings from four countries. Some move slow. Getting into a rhythm takes time and experience. The nervous young winemaker from the Adelaide Hills seems to be searching for the right words. One of the oldest in the group stares off into the distance. One young guy is already finished when Peter Godden calls for scores.  Many are a long way from the finishing line.

All scores are collated via a computer and presented for everyone to see and discuss. Divisions between the experienced judges and the students arise early.

Wine six finds support from the experienced judges, but  little enthusiasm from the rest. The scores are four Gold medals, three Silver Medals, four Bronze medals and nine no medals.

“I wrote NOTW: not of this world,” says Leske. “It’s waxy and Germanic.”

“I fully support that,” says winemaker Thompson.

Godden says he loves the nose, which he describes as “phenolic, custard apple, exotic spice.”
The wine is a 2013 Rheinhessen Riesling from a quality producer.

The big reveal
By day three, students are judging repeat wines. Their ability to award the same score for the same wine tasted blind days apart will help separate those with real promise. No-one is perfect; even the experienced judges can fail to spot a fine wine. However, a judge who awards a Gold or Silver medal the first time, and then a Bronze or no medal the second, is not doing well. Such behaviour generally reveals doubt and a bad case of second guessing or, in some cases, a refusal to commit.

“There is not a lot of point to wine shows if we all stick in the middle (scores),” suggested Leske, referring to that no-man’s score area of 15 to 16 out of 20, where a wine is neither faulty nor fabulous. “And don’t second guess the people you are judging with.”

A taster’s personality – inclusive or exclusive – also counts in whether he or she will be asked to join a wine show. Those who are inclusive listen to other judges and are generally willing to be flexible in their final scores, usually after some discussion. Those who are exclusive don’t budge. They tend to be a disruptive influence. “There’s no shame in saying, ‘I’ll have another look at a wine,’ and adjusting your scores,” said Leske.

For years, Australian wine shows were about “improving the breed,” a reference to their early history as part of the agricultural shows – the first wine show was in Queensland in 1876. In those days, primary industry producers showed their products as a way of getting feedback and information from other producers on how they could all improve.  Today, wine shows are about “the pursuit of excellence” and wine show medals are a marketing tool.
Today, the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology takes the lead in deciding how shows are conducted, setting best practice guidelines after industry consultation. Courses like AWAC are important in educating aspiring judges on the technical demands of the job but. as winemaker Thompson put it plainly to the AWAC No. 42 participants, “I can’t train you to be a judge in four days,” she says. “It’s a very personal thing.”
Jeni Port