We sit, the five of us, in pristine white lab coats, as if ready to perform some bizarre experiment. The first trays of wine glasses are wheeled in, tinkling merrily, and we get to work. We swirl each glass, check the color of the wine inside and dive in with our noses and palates, letting our senses be our guides.
This is the first morning of four days of intensive wine judging for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. We, as judges, are responsible for future awards and the sales that they will result in for hundreds of wines. The responsibility of this task can be overwhelming, but the way that I deal with it is to go quiet, Zen-like, and focus, one at a time, on each glass that is directly in front of me. Otherwise, I can get overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of stimuli.
We are in a large room, divided into curtained cubicles. In each cubicle, there are three or five judges (odd numbers are needed to break ties) and a coordinator to make up a panel. There are several panels in the room.
There is low conversation, often punctuated by laughter. There is the sound of tasting; indrawn sniffs and snorts, gurgles and gargles, the sound of mouthfuls of wine being spat out, the clink of glasses, the scritch, scritch of chalk on the blackboard, the rustle of paper.
Scents of wine, this morning’s coffee, and our lunch being prepared in the kitchen waft around the room. Nobody wears perfume or cologne. We must focus on the scents in the glasses, and not get distracted by ornamental odors.
I remember the first time I judged on a wine competition panel. I sat down with four strangers, all with their own priorities and palates that I was sure were better than mine. I was terrified. I watched closely as they swirled, sipped, spat and analyzed the first flight, hoping that my ranking would be consistent with theirs. What if everyone else loved a particular wine and I hated it, or vice versa? (I later learned that that particular phenomenon is called a “high dive” by seasoned judges.) The dreaded moment came and the panel coordinator asked for our rankings. My palms were sweating and my heart was beating fast as everyone called out their ranking for the first wine “Gold!”, “Silver!”, “Gold!”, “Gold!” Whew! I had ranked the wine “Gold” too. Maybe my palate was comparable to everyone else’s! As my first morning of judging wore on and my rankings continued to be fairly consistent with the others, my confidence grew.
Even though I was spitting, I was feeling the slightest bit buzzed before lunch and aromas and flavors were starting to blend together. I needed food, and fast! I wondered to myself how all those other judges could plow through the day, apparently unaffected by tasting so many wines. Fortunately, lunch was soon served and once I had sat down with my fellow judges and enjoyed the food and conversation, I was ready to tackle the rest of the day. I later learned that I had to spit out everything, and not even swallow any tiny sips of wine, no matter how tasty.
Learning how to spit can be a challenge. We are taught that spitting in public is not polite, but spitting is a lifesaver when tasting over 100 wines in a day. The people that organize wine competitions usually provide large spit buckets for each judge, and often provide smaller, more discreet plastic spit cups. I prefer using the smaller spit cups, because as the larger spit bucket fills up, it sometimes splashes back as I add mouthfuls of discarded wine to it. Eeew! I always feel sorry for the wine competition workers that empty the spit buckets.
Even when spitting, some alcohol is absorbed into the body. To counteract the effects of alcohol and keep our palates acute, we wine judges are provided with lots of bottled water and bread. It is next to impossible to be on a low-carb diet while judging a wine competition.
I remember one year when a certain judge didn’t spit enough. By the end of the day, he was in bad shape, reeling around and muttering incoherently to himself. The other judges were disgusted with him, because he obviously couldn’t make good judging decisions if he was drunk! Wine competitions are judged by panels and when someone loses focus, it can throw the rankings of that panel off, and some deserving wine might not place as high as it should. We, as judges, take this very seriously, and do our best to maintain focus and rank all wines fairly. It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to do it.
Wine tasting and judging is unabashedly sensual. That’s why I love it. Some judges, particularly winemakers, tend to focus on the flaws in a wine – they pick a wine apart like a hungry lion picks a carcass clean. I look at the drinkability of a wine. Will other people enjoy it? I revel in the aromas and flavors that the alchemy of nature and science has gifted us with. When I taste an excellent wine, I am as happy as a dog, rolling on its back in the fresh grass, tongue lolling, paws in the air.
I pick up a glass and taste a wine. I see a spectrum of aromas and flavors that are almost colors: bright yellow for the juicy acidity of a Sauvignon Blanc, lime green for the floral notes of a Viognier, gold for the rich, buttery ripeness of a Chardonnay, satiny red for the sexy texture of Pinot Noir, velvety magenta for a mouthful of spicy, sassy Zinfandel.
When we finish with the flights, and have made our rankings (Gold, silver, bronze or no award), our panel coordinator writes the results on a chalkboard. We often argue the merits of a particular wine to raise or lower its medal. We don’t get to argue too long, because the next flight of wine glasses is always waiting to be judged, and we have many wines to taste before we sleep.
After several flights of wine, we break for lunch, served buffet style in the other room. Judges sit with new friends from their panels or with old friends from previous experiences. Spirits are high, and we talk about the wines that we tasted this morning and about the wine industry and life in general. We drink water, beer and sodas with lunch.
Much refreshed from lunch and ready to taste again, it’s back to our cubicles and more flights of wine. Again, we focus on aromas, flavors, textures and colors, and argue the results, until glass by glass and flight by flight, we are finished for the day.