Departments — 17 January 2013
What’s it like to be a wine judge?

Anyone can rate a glass of wine or two, but more than 600? The author discovers there are some tips to the sips.

Editor’s note: This year’s American Fine Wine Competition judging will take place this weekend (Jan. 20-21) at Florida International University in North Miami Beach. Winners of South Florida’s home-grown, nationally recognized wine competition will be announced at an invitation-only event Feb. 1 in Fort Lauderdale, a followup event open to the public Feb. 5 at American Social on Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale and a wine carnival and consumer challenge Feb. 21 in Boca Raton, all leading up to a gala for the Diabetes Research Institute, pairing the wines with a gourmet dinner, April 4 at the Boca Raton Resort. (See  www.americanfinewinecompetition.org, e-mail info@AmericanFineWineCompetition.com, or call 561-504-8463 for event and ticket information). What’s it like to be a wine judge? Here’s an account from a previous judging.

***

The Wine Angel set my glass down on the judging table, and smiled.
“The chardonnays are coming first,” she said. “There’ll be four of them.”
“Four of them?”
“Yes,” she said. “Then will come the pinot noirs, the cabernets and the syrahs.”
“Four more … of each?” I said. “We’re going to drink 16 glasses of wine?”
“Yes,” she said.
I gulped. (Air.)
The Wine Angel smiled.
“Cheers!” she said.
I knew the judges at the American Fine Wine Competition would be sampling 630 wines. Could I sip, smell and swirl my way through this mini preview of “just” 16?
I looked around the dining room of the Jet Runway Café at Fort Lauderdale’s Executive Airport, host for the preview. I do love wine, at least when it’s good … but, questions began to pop into my 0.00-alcohol content mind.
Did the Wine Angel really just say we’d be drinking 16 wines? In one sitting? In an hour and a half? Do real wine judges really do that?
More urgently, I wondered who was going to be driving me home tonight. Would I even remember how to get there?
It does seem like a lot of wine, said AFWC co-founder Monty Preiser, a Palm Beach County resident who also publishes The Preiser Key to Napa Valley. But a good judge doesn’t have to drink a lot to know whether a wine’s any good.
“That’s a relief,” I said. Because after drinking 16 glasses of wine in 1 1/2 hours, I’m not sure I’d be able to make a sober judgment about the state of my shoelaces, let alone the oakiness of my chardonnay.
“You take a gulp of the wine and you’re going to swish it throughout your mouth and use all your taste receptors,” Preiser demonstrated. “Then, you’re going to open your mouth a little bit – and this is where the gross part comes in if you haven’t ever seen it – you’re going to bring some back air through your mouth and nose – retro smell, so to speak – and that brings the air over the wine and again into your nose.”
Back air over liquid, getting into my mouth and nose? Sounded like what happened the last time I tried snorkeling. The time I thought I was going to drown.
That won’t happen here, Preiser reassured. Instead of drinking the wine after you’ve tasted it, you just spit it into the plastic cup the Wine Angel had conveniently placed next to my stemware.
“That way you don’t have to swallow the wine to get the entire feel and entire finish of the wine,” he said.
That sounded almost … manageable. Even nice.
If I didn’t drown.
“Somebody asked how we happened to start this competition,” said Sara Preiser, Monty’s wife and a co-founder of the [now 6]-year-old AFWC. “Because we’ve all been judges in competitions around the country. And at least four out of the five flights [we taste at other competitions] were not good wines.”
Judges know it takes a lot of swirling, smelling, sipping – and, yes, spitting – to winnow a wine list down to wines really worth recommending. With enough work, they can pair a wine with almost any dish. Even … red cabbage. (Pinot noir. Trust me).
At times, “the spit cup is your friend,” Sara Preiser affirmed. Sometimes in competitions, “It will help you…”
“Get through the evening,” said Shari Gherman, president of the AFWC, finishing Sara’s sentence.
At last year’s competition, Gherman invited more than 515 wines – primarily from California, Washington, Oregon, New York, Ohio and New Mexico – to enter the American Fine Wine Competition, convened at the Lincoln Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. [This year, she has wrangled more than 600 for the judging and the follow-up gala dinner on April 4].
Some of the wines are from well-known estates; some are from wineries only producing 300-400 cases a year – Brochelle syrah and Mithra cabernet sauvignon, for example, two relatively unknown Napa standouts. One year, the judges awarded Best of Show in the white wine category to a 2008 pinot grigio from Ferrante Winery in Geneva … Ohio.
  Ohio! Who knew?
I will tell you, now that I’ve participated in an official, unofficial wine-tasting preview: A room full of clear-minded, hard-working judges we can depend on to sample the wines for us.
[This year's 22 judges - among them wine experts and sommeliers with experience at the Ritz-Carlton Fort Lauderdale, The Breakers in Palm Beach, Chops Lobster Bar and Ortanique in Coral Gables, among others – will sit and sample all 600-plus wines Jan. 20-21. All the wines will be paired with a gourmet meal prepared by chefs Dean Max, Angelo Elia, Norman Van Aken and Christina Machamer  for the gala dinner on April 4, which benefits the Diabetes Research Institute and 4Pets Charities].

Because of the judges, and their hard work, we will not have to worry what wines to drink with the meal. Even if it includes red cabbage.
The preview tastings at the Jet Runway Café ends, and I’ve swirled, smelled, sipped – and spit – all 16 glasses of wine. And, because I didn’t really drink the wines – just tasted them – I am as sober as a judge.   Well, a wine judge.
It’s been an excellent exercise. But it’s like running a few laps around the block compared with the 600-plus wine marathon the real judges will run.
We mere aficionados could, of course, set out to try wines on our own. But, as Sara Preiser reminds from her experience as a judge, we’d almost certainly drink a lot of poor wine over a long period – at considerable expense – before we found the gems.
And “seriously,” Gherman says, “life’s too short to drink poor wine.”

***

Mark Gauert is the editor & publisher of City & Shore Magazine. He can be reached at mgauert@cityandshore.com.

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