“Sod the wine, I want to suck on the writing. This man White is an instinctive writer, bloody rare to find one who actually pulls it off, as in still gets a meaning across with concision. Sharp arbitrage of speed and risk, closest thing I can think of to Cicero’s ‘motus continuum animi.’

Probably takes a drink or two to connect like that: he literally paints his senses on the page.”


DBC Pierre (Vernon God Little, Ludmila’s Broken English, Lights Out In Wonderland ... Winner: Booker prize; Whitbread prize; Bollinger Wodehouse Everyman prize; James Joyce Award from the Literary & Historical Society of University College Dublin)


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18 September 2012

TOWARDS A BETTER JUDGING METHOD

The wine critic's life's a lot more gritty than the general pristine show hall imagery would suggest. Most tasting gets done without lab jackets. Or ties, for that matter.

Just Sayin' For What It's Worth
Whitey's Top Tasting Technique
Best Darn Method I Can Devise 
by PHILIP WHITE

As the discussion of the purpose and method of Australia’s wine show system continues, it does begin to seem possible that the selection of judges can be fixed, to put an end to winemakers judging their own wines, or indeed judging team leaders urging their other two judges to promote wines of the style they themselves make.

The suggestions proffered here last week triggered a vibrant fizz on Twitter and the busy wine chat fora, with many of the more prominent wine writers and emergent bloggers agreeing that something need be done.

This leaves unattended the matter of how any judge can fairly appraise the giant classes which confront them, day after day, in the biggest shows.  The pace at which the judge is obliged to mow through endless lines of glasses leads to the overlooking of delicate and finer wines, or wines of modest alcohol or oak, and any entry which appears belligerently off the style of those around it tends be regarded with suspicion.

In the late ’eighties I began conducting a Top 100 at The Adelaide Review. Not too many years later, after I’d taken the same operation to The Advertiser, the entries were in their thousands.

Over the years in which that exercise grew to a humungous scale, I gradually developed a system of judging which, in the end, was a hybrid cross of the true blind, or masked tasting, with a gradual unveiling of each wine, so that by the time I got round to writing the final reviews of the chosen hundred, I knew their identities and their source. And I was not quite so blind.

This may send a shiver of derision through those who insist on totally blind tastings, but it is no different to the course of any winewriter’s daily task, when the identity of the wine must eventually be revealed to the taster before the publication of the review.


Even if he doesn't recognise it masked, there comes a time when the critic must be aware of the identity of the wine under review ... photo Philip White
The notion of a good taster, with wide-ranging awareness of what’s on the market, tasting great wines blind, without recognizing them, or at least being suspicious that they be this or that, is like a motoring critic being given a Jaguar to review, with all its badging or branding removed.  The thought of the competent tester driving the car for a week without realizing it is in fact a Jag is nonsensical.

I admit there’s a warp here: my weakness for certain styles is no more respectable than a winemaker confident in the style he or she makes urging its promotion in a Royal Wine Show like Adelaide.

My technique required several stewards that I could call up at a day or two’s notice.  It was terrible attempting to simply work through the one-judge show day after endless day: there were times when I’d have to say I needed two days off for simple reasons of exhaustion, or the sniffles or grumps.  So this was extravagant in its way, but a necessary evil if I sought real confidence in my deliberations.

Wines were divided into classes of variety first, and set up in interminable lines of bottles, each in a numbered brown paper bag with a poured glass. 

The first sense to wear out and leave the taster is indeed the taste: the nose still works well, but added tannins, preservatives and coarse acids quickly get into the cheeks and gums and the mouth begs off.  After, say, a class of commercial Shiraz three or four hundred glasses long, the skin of the inside of my cheeks would in fact be tanned, and I could drag it out of my mouth like a sheet of cellophane.


So to spare the aural tissues, my first job was to judge on the aromas alone.  Anything that didn’t smell good was discarded without tasting, simply to preserve the tender laughing gear. You wouldn’t want to be recommending anything that didn’t smell good, anyway. 

I would work in suites of twenty wines.  Anything that didn’t pass the aroma test was unbagged and its identity recorded.  Then I would taste the rest unrevealed, note them, point them, and select the best for re-examination later in the day.  These would be re-bagged by the stewards, re-numbered and re-inserted further down the line, so they remained blind.

Out of the rest of the suite, I’d make a suggestion of a fair price for each wine, remove it from its bag, discover and record its identity, and record the retail price, which would be marked on each bottle.  If the wine was way beyond the price I thought it deserved, it would remain in the rejected lot.  But if the price was well under my estimation, and therefore a bargain, it too would be re-bagged, re-numbered, and re-inserted further on down the line so it would be encountered again, blind, for a second examination. So after each suite of twenty entries, I would have one or two candidates for the final hundred promoted to be re-tasted later in the exercise, and I would know the identities of what was cast out.

During this unbagging of each set of rejected wines, I would uncover the odd wine of great repute which hadn’t looked so good blind. To cover the chance of me misunderstanding it, this, too would be rebagged, renumbered by the stewards, and re-inserted further down the line.  I would never know where they’d crop up again for re-examination.

This meant that some wines ended up being appraised three or four times in the course of the day: they would not gain final selection without particularly forensic examination.

This meant too that as the day wore on, the wines had absorbed much oxygen, giving me a hint at their potential longevity: anything that still didn’t look really good after six or eight hours’ air was rejected.

It also meant that I had some eager anticipation of discovering what was in my final selection.  As the day passed, the quality of the wines in the diminishing queue would steadily increase.  In the end, I’d have, say, twenty sublime finalists, out of which I’d finally select, say six or ten or whatever.

When my notes and points were finalized for these beauties, the excitement of discovering what had made the ultimate cut outweighed any exhaustion: the thrill seemed to give me the energy required to apply the full focus of my sensory skills in a more intense way than I could possibly have applied at the beginning of the day.  It was always a surprising delight to discover the identities of the chosen few.  It also meant there’d be some famous classics in the cut, along with many real surprises.

To me, this method was the best for not only guaranteeing a reliable result, but left me a great deal of confidence in that result: there’s nothing worse than walking out of the tasting hall heavy with worry about possible mistakes.

I can’t imagine any way of conducting a major wine show like this: it would simply take far too long, require too many ground crew, and cost the organizer far too much money.

However, the method to me was the closest I could get to foolproof adjudgement. Having brought some fishy notions to the surface with the hand grenade lobbed in the water last week, I offer this system for consideration by those who are hard at work devising methods of improving the ways in which the wine business spends millions discovering and recommending the products it thinks are the best for us to drink.

For what it’s worth.

1 comment:

Moredsir said...

My fairly ignorant view is that wine judging must try to emulate drinking of the wine.

Surely the goal is not to work out on the day which wine is best, or which is the most unique, but to give a truly qualitative assessment of the wine.

I am fed up with seeing scores and medals indicating that winemaker B was an idiot and somehow his $20 wine is better than his $100 wine.

I'm yet to find a winemaker that foolish. Unlike judges.... and some reviewers who are crazy enough to try to taste 2000 wines in a week or 2.

The way you taste/judge wines Mr White shows due respect to both winemaker and consumer.

I think I've finished my rant except to say I currently ignore all wineshow awards, and I don't think I've been wrong yet!