Departments First Words — 02 March 2013
Purple haze: What it’s like to be a wine judge

By Mark Gauert

City & Shore Magazine

We think it’s easy.

We see bottles of wine rated with numbers on shelves at stores, and we pick the one rated 89 instead of the one rated 75. We are busy, and tired, and we don’t have time to sample each and every wine on the shelf and decide for ourselves if the 89 is really 14 points better than the 75.

Earthy or elegant? Flowery or fruity? Smooth or piquant? We don’t know. We just want a nice glass of wine at the end of our busy, and tiring, day – not a master class on tannins.

We want something easy.

What we do not see up on the shelves, however, are the good people making it easier for us. The helpful – maybe even heroic – few who sit down with bottle after bottle (after bottle) and consider each one for its characteristics of clarity, aroma, taste. They do it for us, because it’s their job and because we do not have the time nor the energy – not to mention the hepatic fortitude – to sample wines until we have found the gems.

And maybe, because we are busy and tired, the thought of being a wine judge sounds like pretty easy, even fun, work.

It is not.

I know because I sat in on just one day of the two-day judging three years ago at the American Fine Wine Competition and observed the judges sampling each of the 630 wines entered in the competition. I know because watching the 24 judges file out of the tasting room at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management at Florida International University brought to mind 24 miners coming up out of a mine.

Miners, that is, with purple teeth, ruddy noses and ravenous hunger.

At lunch overlooking Biscayne Bay at FIU, the judges let on that sampling so many wines can trigger a salivatory response that wildly sharpens the appetite. They were still a lively group after two days of triggering – hundreds of wines clearly had not dulled their sense of humor. What does a sommelier who has just sampled hundreds of wines drink with a plate piled with steak and mushrooms on his lunch break?

“Mountain Dew,’’ deadpanned judge Don Derocher, a fine sommelier now at Angle restaurant in Manalapan.

No, not really. I turned away for a moment to chat with Master of Wine Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan, and when I turned back the resourceful Derocher had managed to score an excellent 2010 Del Dotto Chardonnay and a 2009 McGah Family Cellars Scarlett Cabernet Sauvignon for the table. Even when they were not working on our behalf, the wine judges were working on our behalf.

They traded philosophies of winemaking over lunch, played a few insider wine jokes on each other, smiled big purple smiles only wine insiders would understand. And then, after lunch, they all filed back into the mine – I mean the tasting room – and swirled, smelled, sipped and spit their way through another 100 or so reds to find the Best of Class, the Best of Show and the gold medalists.

Toward the end of the last day of judging, a couple of the judges had to leave, and the president of the American Fine Wine Competition, Shari Gherman, looked around the room for a quick replacement.

“You want to sit in on the Dessert Wine competition?” she asked.

I’d never actually tasted a dessert wine, but how hard could it be, I thought, judging something that combined two of my favorite things: Dessert and Wine.

“Sure,” I said.

I sat with the three other judges at a round table – and we stared down at the six glasses filled with about two-fingers of chilled white dessert wine each. My first flight, their umpteenth.

The first wine tasted sweet, I thought, and I scribbled that on the official form I got for judging. The second, less sweet, I wrote. The third – surprise! – like brie cheese. The fourth, smelled sweet again – like spring flowers.

But when I lifted it to my lips, I swear, it tasted like someone had crushed out a cigarette in the glass.

“Bleeech,’’ we judges said, almost in unison, and quickly utilizing the conveniently located spit cups.

“That’s some bad dessert wine,” I said, suddenly an expert.

When it came to delivering a final judgment, I was inclined to award a gold medal to the wine that tasted like brie – simply because it was amazing to me that a winemaker could actually make a wine taste like brie.

“A dessert wine is not supposed to taste like cheese,’’ judge Delius Shirley, the proprietor of Ortanique in Coral Gables, helpfully noted.

I deferred, and, in the end, we four judges were as unanimous in our choice for the gold medalist as we were for our choice for no medal.

That’s what it’s like to judge a wine contest. One moment, you’re smelling spring flowers; the next, cigarette butt in a glass.

We should remember the wine judges who frequently face such dangers when we’re shopping after a busy day, or sitting around the tables this year at the American Fine Wine Competition Gala, a wine and dinner extravaganza for charity April 29, at the Design Center of the Americas in Dania Beach. If you come, I will raise a glass with you to these hard-working judges who sat down with bottle after bottle (after bottle) to help us find – and enjoy – the red and white gems from the mine.

Thanks to them, that part will be easy.


The 10th annual American Fine Wine Invitational (AFWI) Charity Wine Gala, a celebration of the past 10 years that AFWI has been promoting the world-class wines produced in America. More than 800 wines will be poured at the event on April 29, accompanied by a feast, winery-tasting rooms hosted by the winemakers, auctions, music and more. A portion of the proceeds will benefit the Dolphins Cancer Challenge. 6:30 p.m. at Design Center of the Americas (DCOTA), 1855 Griffin Road, Dania Beach. $300. 561-504-0206,


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