This is the 47th year of the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition. For four days, 40 judges from all walks of life will judge more than 2,000 entries from more than 300 wineries and negociants , who purchase wine for their own label.
The competition draws wine entries from California only, however judges come from the world over. Among them will be Dimitri Tchelistcheff from Maui, a veteran enologist and son of Andre Tchelistcheff, and George LePre, chief sommelier at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Lodging and travel expenses are paid, plus $75-per-day compensation, but in earlier days many judges paid their own way for the honor of sitting through hours of grueling taste evaluation.
Tasting competitions have increased in recent years with as many as 50 throughout the nation, some worthy of consumer reliance and some not. Whichever results are followed, it is essential that consumers ascertain a competition's experience, program procedures and goals. Also, review the background and seasoning of judges for integrity and competence. Of course, the simplest and most effective test is to acquire award-winning wines and judge for yourself.
Keep in mind, as judges do, variety of styles, vintages and origins of the wines in making personal determinations. Buy at least four to six wines in a given class and run through a taste test for personal preference. Note, too, that judges are not always right. On occasion mistakes are made in the light of the many wines tasted and the influence of a most telling factor, palate fatigue. A judge can be otherwise competent, but if the palate is tired, his or her judgment is worthless.
Judging Result Only a Guide
At best, a judging result is only a guide that suggests that a wine is good, possibly great. More often than not, a judge can be convinced that a specific bottle is good only because others in the class are not.
For consumers, however, it is a delightful exercise to acquire not only gold medal bottles, but other winners as well. I have often tasted bronze and silver medalists I preferred over the golds, much to the chagrin of my fellow judges. Judging wines is not scientific. It represents taste experience and a judging consensus.
Since I have been its chairman for 20 years, I concede a prejudice for the L.A. competition. Many of our judges have 15 years or more experience here, the kind of lengthy seasoning rarely seen in more recently established competitions. One judge, Dr. Paul Scholten, began judging in Los Angeles in the late '50s when he was paid $25 per day while tasting in a primitive, non-air-conditioned, closed-in room on the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona; a dramatic change from today's modern air-conditioned, quiet, efficient facility.
There are several essential features about Los Angeles' tasting program. Most judges have tasted with one another, which makes it easier to discuss wine merit, using mutually familiar terminology. For instance, if a judge asserts there is too much grassiness in a Sauvignon Blanc, the other understands without further explanation. Evaluations of excessive alcohol and insufficient varietal character are often misunderstood when judges have not had an opportunity to taste together.
Another feature is the tasting pace. Judging panels of four members each begin at 7 a.m. when palates are freshest. The panels are assigned various classes, some of which may take the full four days to evaluate. No other competition in the world has the luxury of spending that kind of time on a single class, and if that happens, other on-call outside judges complete assignments. If a panel member tires, he or she is encouraged to quit for the day, while the three remaining panelists continue.
Make no mistake, judging wine is hard work. The key is to bring concentration and intensity of effort without any intrusive noises or tastes.
Exchange and Discussion
In Los Angeles a final medal determination is made only after an exchange and discussion ensues. This interaction of opinions provides the best results because no single judge is infallible. Although an accord is necessary for official award rendering, it is the ongoing taste reactions freely exchanged that are the basis of a serious wine judging.
A prime ingredient in Los Angeles is the varied backgrounds of judges, namely wine scientists, enologists and dedicated amateurs. Although the latter may not articulate a given wine characteristic in professional enologic terminology, that does not invalidate the judgment. Wine scientists from University of California at Davis have told me several times that they have enjoyed the give-and-take exchange with enthusiastic amateur panelists who give no quarter when defending their choices. Some confided that they learned something new from those whose palates may be more seasoned by worldwide vineyard visitations as well as a decade or two of greater label exposure.