Who Am I to Judge?

This is not how it’s supposed to be. Hundreds of wines served and sipped – without food – only to be spit.

This way of drinking is entirely unnatural. Too much wine is not consumed.

I had been invited to judge wine at a competition for amateur and commercial selections. In one day, I tried dozens of different wines, one after another. All at once, this way of judging wine is too technical, objective, and subjective. A scoring rubric forces nuanced descriptions into numeric grades. A simple number allows for little insight into a wine. “Fifteen” reveals little of how the wine smelled, how it felt on my tongue. I had to separate myself from the wines, disregarding whether they were to my personal liking. Yet I am human – this separation can be difficult to maintain.

Wine is made with care. I fell in love with wine while working at a winery: strolling in the vineyards, working on the winery floor, and pouring in the tasting room.

Judging in a nondescript room, without any sense of a wine’s terroir and culture and without food pairings, seems devoid of the passion that makes the wine world so exciting, that inspires the diverse cast of characters in the industry. Winemakers, sommeliers, and wine buyers all learn to evaluate wine. Yet, in their work, judgment occurs within particular contexts. They make wines that reflect vineyards and vintages. In restaurants and stores, wines are selected according to the buyer’s knowledge of menus and clientele. Within these contexts, winemakers and wine professionals celebrate the individuality of wines. In most competitions, which include dozens, if not hundreds, of wines, and often employ a standardized rubric, the celebration of uniqueness is lost. It’s like trying to grade creative writing assignments in state tests.

Despite the frustrating and unusual experience of judging in wine competitions, I recognize the importance of critical evaluation. Judges offer constructive criticism to amateur and young winemakers. They help narrow down the overwhelming number of wines for wholesale and retail sales. Critical sommeliers build their wine lists, and wine buyers select their product lines.

Consumers, too, can taste critically. I encourage you to do so! Sniff before sipping. Hold the wine in your mouth. At home, when you’re tasting one or two wines, please, by all means, swallow. (When we taste dozens, we have to spit.) Wait and see if the wine has a long finish, or if the flavor quickly dissipates. Do you like it? Can you say why or why not? Taste and talk with others, including friends, wine shop staff, and tasting room pourers. Build your critical palate, recognizing your preferences while remaining open to trying new wines. You might even find you disagree with leading wine critics on some wines. Hey, we’re all human.

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