Judging the judges

It’s been deliciously liberating to be away from my laptop, emails and social media for two weeks.

The downside of such a luxury was facing the backlog once I lifted the lid and logged on! But I still so thoroughly enjoy what I do that I could look to the end of this tiresome task with eagerness.

For someone who writes about wine, it’s important to keep up to date with news, trends and generally how wine is faring out there in the world for one’s own scribbles to remain relevant. This is much more demanding than it used to be, but thanks to social media such as Twitter (yes, it can be an incredibly useful source), Facebook, the odd newsletter and chat among friends, the wheat is not so difficult to separate from the chaff.

Relevance cannot rely on the written word alone; tasting is equally important. How can you write about wine credibly without having some idea of what it tastes like? This is particularly so here in South Africa, given the roller-coaster developments in styles and ‘renaissance’ of old neglected varieties.

In his 11th May Decanter column, highly-regarded UK wine writer, Andrew Jefford expresses some wise thoughts. ‘Experience in wine tasting is vital, since most of wine’s interest is predicated on difference, but it is not acquired mathematically, by gross accumulation. It is, rather, the use you make of your experiences that counts. … It’s how your tasting faculties are wired to your brain which makes experience valuable …’
In other words, it’s important to taste as widely as possible, but at the same time learn from the experience; it doesn’t necessarily lead to being a better taster. I agree.

I like the further advice Jefford offers, lest one thinks wine is the only thing from which you can learn about smell and taste: ‘Don’t just taste wine; taste everything in exactly the same sort of way in which you taste wine. Smell the air, the flowers, the washing, your children’s hair. Taste different teas, coffees, sauces or soups as if they were wine. Take a break from wine, but never switch your palate off; exercise slows the loss of every faculty.’

Nothing lasts for ever, including taste and smell. Whatever our level of palate acuity, or insight – and it’s different for each of us – maximum level is reached around 11 years old; I doubt many of us would be deep into wine tasting at that age, more likely still pushing spinach to the side of our plate! Our sense of smell also diminishes with age, though at the opposite end of the age spectrum, as this especially happens after reaching 70.

Turning from the theory to the practical in the local context; are local competition organisers getting the balance right between experience and age of judges?

The composition of local judging panels frequently features people who’ve been involved with wine for many decades, and so with years’ of experience. But how much of that experience involves current trends? Are these judges familiar with Orange wines for example, the growing number and styles of cinsaut solo and in blends or Verdelho? This, of course, applies to all judges, not just the older generation.

Veritas bannerI’m not aware of criteria applied when judges are selected for the majority of the numerous local shows but to qualify ad infinitum as a judge on Veritas requires passing a single test. In theory, this means I could still judge on that show, having passed in 1991. Whether I (who don’t participate), or the tens of others, from all backgrounds in the industry, who do form the panels, are still competent to do so, is another matter.

Michael Fridjhon takes a progressive and strict approach to judges on the Trophy Wine Show, selecting top tasters from his annual Wine Academy to serve initially as associate judges, with the goal of eventually elevating the deserving to full judge status.

OMTWSlogoWithin his policy of rotating his core of local judges, he keeps a balance of experience and youth/new blood. And this leads to another point I believe needs to be borne in mind.

The profile of today’s wine drinkers is changing; there are many younger people now interested in and drinking wine. Educators such as Cathy Marston with her WSET courses and the SA Sommeliers Association are attracting younger people to learn about wine and not be intimidated by it. The young, hip winemakers are also very much drawcards in themselves.

If all these shows (not to mention other, individual opinions) are to be relevant to these younger, new and informed winelovers, surely the judges will need to be equally, if not more informed and on the ball.


One thought on “Judging the judges

  1. Dear Angela,

    In life there are many self appointed judges, least the wine and restaurant trade. Indeed “quis custodiet ipsos custodes”

    Nic Barrow
    Le Lude


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