And the Wine Winners are…

By Posted on Oct 06 2011 | By

Understanding How the Best Wines in a Competition Become Medalists 

The room is hushed.  Nineteen men and women at four tables labor over several glasses of wine placed in front of each of them.  The only sound is sniff and sip, followed by murmurs of quiet conversation.  After two days and 109 individual flights—comprising 564 wines—the entrants will be awarded either a bronze, silver or gold medal.  Or none at all.

This is how the seventh annual wine competition sponsored by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association, ASWA, unfolded on July 23 & 24, 2011 at the Dominion Valley Regency Club in Haymarket, Virginia.  ASWA is one of the oldest wine organizations on the East Coast and promotes the interests of wineries in seventeen states bordering the Atlantic Ocean.

But wine evaluation is seemingly an individualistic endeavor, is it not?  How can divergent views reach consensus on what’s good and what’s not?

It’s all about the participants and the methodology.

The judges & the system
The judges for this year’s competition included professionals from every discipline in the industry, many with decades long experience and numerous wine competitions on their resumes. The panels included college professors, sommeliers, an executive with the Virginia ABC, winemakers, American Wine Society certified judges, food and beverage managers, and wine educators. This writer was honored to be a member of one of the tasting panels.

Within the industry, competitions can create angst when a wine perceived by its creator as being a “Best of Show” receives a bronze medal or none at all.  And consumers may wonder how certain wines earn coveted gold medals.  Thus, it’s instructive to understand the evaluation process and underscore the professionalism that is brought to bear in choosing the winners.

At the heart of the process used by ASWA is the Modified UC Davis 20 Point Scoring System. Unlike the 100-point scale used by major wine publications, the UC Davis system separates each element of a wine and rates its individual components before awarding a total score.

All of the wines are tasted blind—coded and not bearing the name of the winery—and rated on six characteristics:

Appearance–2; Aroma—5; Taste—5; Balance—3; After Taste—3, and overall Impression–2.  The system is recognized as more objective than a single score evaluation.  Less than 14 points earns no medal; 14.5 to <15.5 a Bronze; 15.5 to <17 a Silver; and 17 to 20 a Gold.  It’s a straightforward system yet one that employs a careful analysis of every wine entered.

Here’s how it works in execution.  A wine steward and his staff orchestrate delivery of the coded wines and evaluation sheets directly to each table.  There the wines are placed in the order they appear on the sheet in front of each judge.  Each flight is identified by a varietal or category such as Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, vinifera blends, French hybrids or Native American grape wines.

Judges employ their own personal style in rating the wines.  Some assess the appearance and aroma of all the wines first before returning to taste.  Others fully rate and assigned a numerical rating to each wine before proceeding to the next.  And typically each judge smells and tastes all the wines in each flight at least twice before laying their pencil down.  When it appears everyone has concluded their evaluations, the “Table Captain” or lead judge will ask the group if it’s ready.  The panel nods their agreement and the assessment enters stage two.

Going around the table, each judge announces his or her score for the wine in question and the lead judge records them.  The five scores are then added up and divided by 5 for an average score.  For example, 15….15.5…13.5…16…17 would earn an initial rating of 15.4.  The Table Captain will announce the average score and advise the group it is nearly a silver rated wine.  “Would any judge want to revaluate their score and award a silver,” inquires the lead judge.  If a judge agrees to amend, the wine is categorized a silver and the process moves to the next wine in the flight.

On occasion, a judge will score a wine significantly off the mark of the other judges; for example, posting an 11.5 when the rest of the table rated it as 15 or better. The lead judge will request a clarification such as, “Would the gentleman wish to advise why he rated the wine low and also reevaluate it in light of the other scores?” The judge in question explains his rationale and either a retasting by all the judges ensues as a result of his concerns, or he agrees his initial assessment was low and states he will raise it to garner the wine a silver.

The point in all this give and take is to ensure no one judge unduly influences a score and that each rated wine reflects the group’s assessment.

Often people will question the ability of anyone to taste so many wines in a single competition and still accurately identify winners and losers.  But consider that none of the wines are consumed; all tastings are spit into cups before proceeding to the next wine.  And any given judge will taste about 140 wines—or 25%—not all 564 entries.  Spreading the wealth over all nineteen judges maintains the integrity of their palates.

Moreover, crackers, thin slices of roast beef and olives are available to clear the palate.  Olives are particularly good at removing the tannins left behind during red wine tasting.  Additionally, lunch breaks are ninety minutes long and significantly refresh the palate.

Easing up
On the evening of the first day’s evaluations all of the judges and wine competition management and their spouses were hosted at an upscale restaurant for dinner.  Conversations, wine related and not, enlivened the evening and forged further camaraderie among the group.

The next morning the entire cast reassembled for a continuation of the tastings.  The morning session went briskly and by noon the last of the flights had been judged and lunch was served in the Regency’s Club dining room.  At 1:45, the highlight of the competition was conducted back in the tasting room.  It was time to select the “Best of Show”; the one wine that prevailed over all 564 submissions to be named the wine of wines.

The process took additional time to stage since each judge had to have glasses of each wine awarded a Best of Category status staged at their seat.  Then the doors of the tasting swung open and the judges took their places before the arrayed “Magnificent 15”.

The objective here was as simple as it was elegant.  Evaluate and select the top five wines out of the 15 in order of preference.  Reds and whites competed together for the first time.  The judges were looking for simply the best wine in the house.  After thirty minutes of careful evaluation, five glasses were tightly grouped before each magistrate along with a sheet ranking their selections #1 through #5.  A tally of the sheets by the competition management identified the winner.

At this point, the inner sanctum of the wine steward’s room was opened to all.  Participants were invited to taste whatever wines they desired directly from bottles they had been evaluating over the last two days; prior to this point no one knew what wineries had chosen to participate in the competition.  For a list of all the judges and award winning wines visit the ASWA web site.

On October 13, the Association will hold an awards ceremony on Capitol Hill under the auspices of the Congressional Wine Caucus showcasing this year’s winners. The winning wines are then normally presented at the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium in Sacramento,CA and other national wine consumer events.

East Coast wines are increasingly being recognized nationally for their quality. The ascendency of these regional wines is driven in large part by the recognition provided by the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association. It is the objective of the ASWA to promote the East Coast as a quality wine producing region.

May the association live long and prosper. 

Published in the Fall 2011 edition of the Piedmont Virginian magazine.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES