DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WINE JUDGE
Max Allen reports from the Alternative Varieties Wine Show to explain how wine judging in Australia is evolving.
I gave up judging wine shows years ago.
I’d become disillusioned with the whole show system. I didn’t like the way judges were required to sniff, sip and spit their way through up to 300 wines a day, or that single brackets of wine could number 60 or more (especially when the class in question was say, bland commercial chardonnay). I didn’t think anybody was being well served by this work load - not least because the judges became tired so the obvious, show-pony wines inevitably ended up being given medals, and the more subtle, elegant wines were ignored.
I was very cynical about wine show committees increasing entry numbers to increase revenue; winemakers have to pay $50 or more for every wine they enter and the bigger capital city shows now regularly have 4,000 or more entries (you do the maths).
And I was disheartened by the fact that many wineries view shows as little more than a marketing exercise (little medal stickers on bottles increase sales, after all), rather than a genuine opportunity to benchmark and improve quality and style.
So why am I standing in a room at the Mildura Function Centre, with six judges, two associate judges, a dozen stewards and 500 wines, awaiting judgement? Not only that, but how did I get to be chief judge?
Well, for a start, this isn’t your average wine show.
This is the 2006 Australian Alternative Varieties Wine Show (AAVWS), an annual event that has been held in Mildura each November since 1999. The show started as the very small scale Sangiovese Awards, the brainchild of restaurateur Stefano do Pieri and grapevine nurseryman, Bruce Chalmers, but soon expanded to include other non-mainstream varieties such as viognier, pinot gris, tempranillo, petit verdot and nebbiolo that, the organisers felt, were being sidelined or ignored in larger, traditional shows.
This is the first reason I agreed to take on the role of Chief Judge when wine writer Tim White stepped down from the position in 2005: the AAVWS cuts through the hype and takes the idea of the wine show back to its roots - identifying the strengths and weaknesses of grapes new to Australia, and, in doing so, helping winemakers produce better wines. This is why wine shows were established by Australia’s agricultural societies back in the 19th century: it was all about improvement of the breed in a fledgling industry.
The second reason I took the position was that it allowed me to instigate some changes to how wine shows are traditionally run.
For a start, I try and keep the numbers of wines each judge has to assess down to a minimum - no more than about 120 a day, with judging stretching out over three days. Importantly, we’ve brought the size of each class down to 30 wines or (ideally) fewer. I strongly believe that it’s much easier to concentrate on each wine (and, therefore, do it and the exhibitor justice) when assessing it in a small line-up: judging three brackets of 20 gives a much more meaningful result than judging one bracket of 60.
Bringing the numbers down means the judging happens at a leisurely pace and, crucially, allows a huge amount of time for discussion, debate and note-taking. This is the core of the AAVWS: it’s not about medals (as encouraging as they are for those winemakers who win them) as much as it’s about the written feedback supplied by the judges in the results catalogue, and the verbal feedback provided to winemakers at the exhibitors’ tasting the day after judging finishes.
Ensuring we have a good bunch of judges is, of course, the key to the quality of this feedback. Traditionally, wine show judges have been winemakers, often from the large companies - and the sometimes narrow focus of the results has often reflected this.
The AAVWS, by contrast, has always sourced its judges from a wider pool - wine writers, sommeliers, retailers, wholesalers, as well as winemakers in an effort to bring a broad variety of experience and expertise to the process. This year is no exception: the judges are Peter Godden from the Australian Wine Resarch Institute; Sally McGill, imported wine manager for wholesaler Red and White; St Hallett winemaker Matt Gant; Sydney sommelier Melissa Moore; Nick Stock, a contributor to this magazine; and New Zealand wine writer, Joelle Thomson; and the associate judges (apprentice judges, if you like, whose remarks and feedback are noted in discussion, but whose points do not affect the overall score each wine receives) are winemaker Peter Rogers and Brown Brothers viticulturist, Mark Walpole.
Most of these people are on the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology’s register of show judges, meaning they have extensive experience at other shows. And all have had great exposure to the wines of world, meaning they can place the wines they taste here in Mildura into a global context. I was particularly pleased to get Mark Walpole involved, not least because of his huge knowledge working with obscure and alternative varieties for brown Brothers: I think every wine show should include at least one judge with a deep understanding of what goes on in the vineyard.
There were two other innovations in 2006. First, we ditched the small, International Standard tasting glasses in favour of large, roomy Riedels. This made the stewards’ job more difficult (all that polishing!), but made a huge difference to the quality of judging: the larger bowl size of the Riedel glasses emphasises both the faults (if there are any) and the subtle aromas in each wine, meaning poor entries were more easily discarded and more elegant, restrained styles were given a chance to shine.
And the second innovation was to give the pink wines a proper chance. There is a strong and convincing argument that rosé shouldn’t be judged in wine shows: it is, after all, the epitome of ‘just shut up and drink it’ wine. Which is one of the reasons why pink wines seldom do well in wine shows.
So we chilled the 25 alternative variety rosés down to proper drinking temperature (ie, nice and cold), and tasted them blind, in a line-up - as you would any other class - but then sat down to discuss, take notes and give medals over lunch.
Many other wine shows in Australia - notably Adelaide and Sydney - are also instigating changes: more and more are now using Riedels or other, large-bowled glasses, and the dominance of old-school winemakers among the ranks of the judges is weakening, with new blood entering the system, often from the retail and restaurant worlds.
Hopefully, these and other changes will make Australia’s wine shows not only more meaningful for exhibitors, but also more relevant for wine drinkers.
This year’s Alternative Varieties Wine Show will take place in Mildura from Nov 7 to 10. For details of the show and its affiliated events - including a seminar of benchmark alternative varieties; blending ‘mainstream’ varieties with the new wave grapes; and the growth of biodynamics in Australian vineyards: www.aavws.com
By Max Allen
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DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WINE JUDGE