When folks hear I'll be a judge at a wine competition, their reaction is almost always the same: What fun. What a blast. Great fun. Don't fall over. Etc. Ha, ha.
Fact is, evaluating wine is no fun at all. It's hard work and far different from enjoying wine in its most sybaritic location, at the dinner table. Oh, sure, there's occasional enjoyment when a wine judge does find a wine that is so exciting that it stands out and entices him or her to actually sip it and not spit.
But otherwise, for some 95% of the wines made today, the routine is so routine that it's exhausting not to mention painful. And it starts with the first flight of wines on the first day of a wine competition.
A server brings a flight of something like White Zinfandel. The colors are amusing. Mostly they are pale pink, but some have a curious iridescent pink/violet hue, others are flat out orange, and still others have a bronze color that indicates the wine is old and dull.
A whiff of a few confirms that what we have here is more than anything a lesson in chemical discovery. Among the aromas I got recently from a flight of such wines were medicine, onion, bubble gum, earthy-dirty, overripe bananas, sulfur, tomato juice, wet cardboard, cooked beans and nothing.
Less Than Pristine
This last aroma--none--is the most puzzling because the "wine," such as it is, has zilch that tips you off that grapes were used. The other aromas listed here indicate that wine making procedures were less than pristine.
Then there are the aromas that are wine-like and pleasant, but which confuse the issue just the same. There was a "White Zinfandel" I had recently that smelled just like an excellent Chenin Blanc. Nice wine, but what does a judge do? Award it a gold medal because it tastes good, even if it doesn't have a passing resemblance to White Zinfandel?
A major problem exists with White Zinfandel. Demand for it has risen so fast it has exceeded the supply of available grapes, and thus many wine makers are making it from 75% Zinfandel and 25% something else.
Occasionally, that something else is of poor quality, but a lot of wine makers figure, what the heck, most people who drink White Zinfandel do so because it's "chic" not to mention sweet, and that it's typically served at arctic temperatures, and this all but covers up aromas as charming as medicine, bananas, tomato soup, etc.
(The state of California has recently cracked down on some growers who have sold cheaper grapes and passed them off as scarce Zinfandel so more of this exciting gurgitation can occur.)
Back to our wine competition regimen. Often you have a flight of 12 such mystical wines followed by another flight of 12, then another, and so forth. After a while, the lack of acidity, the flabby nature of the oxen, bores you and angers you. Then, after a time, the strange aromas become so off-putting that you don't even want to sip the wine.
Bob Thompson, the Napa Valley-based wine author and columnist, came up with a code system for his tasting note book: DNPIM. It applies to wine whose aroma is so atypical of the category, so strange, that Thompson jots down the fact that he Did Not Put In Mouth this foul and fetid fluid.
But what of those wines that you deem to taste? They may have an aroma at least warranting consideration for a medal, but they can still offer pain and suffering to an unwitting judge.
I use, as an example, my experience with the 1983 Cabernet Sauvignons of California's North Coast, which I was asked to judge two years ago at the San Francisco Fair and Exposition. The aromas were not the problem. It was the tannin, that astringent element (also found in tea) that dries the mouth.
Following the first flight of these 1983 Cabernets, one fellow judge said, "This isn't going to be any fun." His teeth, 12 wines into a grouping of more than 90, were already stained purple.
Couldn't See the Bottom
Thompson, as good and assiduous a judge as he is, admits that he's been tempted on occasion to eschew tasting a wine that has a nice aroma but such a deep, dark, broodingly opaque color that Thompson is prompted to note in his tasting book the letters CSB --that he Couldn't See the Bottom of the glass.
Still, in the interest of science, we persevere and sip, cautiously, such behemoths in the faint, fleeting hope that there may be something redeeming lurking within.
Then come the other pitfalls of judging.
The wine judge must contend with a variety of styles of wine. Should a Chardonnay be as lean and gaunt as a Foreign Legion rescuee? Should it contain enough oak to fool a woodcarver? Should it have the aroma of butter or the smell of an overripe pineapple?
And what about Sauvignon Blanc: stony and anvil-like or herbaceous to the point of weediness? Or Zinfandel: quaffable frivolity or a substitute for port? Wine judges who are on the same panel and who disagree on style questions often get into some monumental arguments on just these points.