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The Wine Judging Circuit

The Wine Judging Circuit

Rebecca Chapa | Chef's Blade

Judging season is upon us and I have been busy judging wines, but the wine competitions themselves have come under fire lately. LA Times writer Jerry Hirsch helped propagate the bad press by calling attention to a study conducted by retired Humboldt State professor Robert Hodgson. It’s not new to challenge the process, but this recent four year study claims that only 10% of judges could consistently judge a wine when tasted multiple times. This is not unusual information, most of us know that if you are presented three samples of which two are identical, but you are told that there is a difference among all three that it is almost unheard of to call out that two are the same. Your brain creates distinction amongst the samples. I have not seen the proof created to validate Hodgson’s claims but I wonder about the parameters, were all the wines identical in temperature? Were all judges tested in this way? Were other competitions evaluated? What time of day were the samples presented? What about order error or the wines placed before the identical samples, which can have a dramatic effect on how that sample might taste. There are many variables to be considered.

Frankly, I am not convinced about this study until I can read the brief and fully understand the methodology. I am saddened that at a time where so many in this industry are struggling, an attack on judgings would hit. Judgings can really help sell wine. While Professor Hodgson says, “Consumers should have a healthy skepticism about the medals awarded to wines from the various competitions,” I believe there is nothing about a competition that makes it less useful or less accurate than the recommendations of a retailer, magazine, or other wine critic. In fact I believe panels of judges can actually be more fair than one individual’s palate no matter how critically acclaimed.

Most critics judge open label while almost all competitions are 100 percent blind, ie the judges may have information as to the variety or the vintage and in rare instances, price or origin, but they are not swayed by the label or by the reputation of the producer. Judging panels are usually diverse including winemakers, educators, retail and restaurant buyers, salespeople, writers, and sometimes even consumers. The diversity of the panel allows for checks and balances while a writer that tastes for a review gives you only the impression of one palate.

Granted, judgings are varied in the quality of the judges and their prestige, so I generally try to evaluate which judgings are worth doing. Consumers might think to do the same thing, just as Parker may appeal to some while Tanzer appeals to others, perhaps consumers can gauge the competitions that seem to fit with their general palate preferences.