What makes a good wine judge?

By , 4 May 2011



Competition line up

Competition line-up.

Colleague Angela Lloyd wrote an article for the April issue of WineLand magazine on what makes a good wine judge. Towards this, she put a set of questions to various local and international judges. Here are my answers:

1) Why do you act as a judge? Having stumbled into wine writing, I quickly realised that I needed to hone my palate if my commentary was to be relevant. I tasted as widely as possible, got as much official accreditation as possible, and was subsequently invited onto panels. Of course, it also supplements the meagre salary of a wine writer.

2) Which competitions do you/have you judged on? Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, the various Wine magazine competitions. As of last year, I also taste for Platter’s, which while not a competition goes some way to shaping the market.

3) Are there any competitions you wouldn’t judge on, should you be invited? In a local context, I feel the only relevant institutions are Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, Platter’s, Veritas and Wine magazine. The Absa Top 10 Pinotage competition is also important as a stand-alone competition. The rest lack authority, serve to confuse more than enlighten.

4) What qualifications should apply to anyone acting as a judge on local competitions – both official and in terms of experience? I think the wine evaluation course as run by Stellenbosch University is a good minimum qualification. The Wine Judging Academy run by Wine magazine in conjunction with Michael Fridjhon, now in its fifth year, has also been a good means of identifying new talent. In terms of experience, this can only be gained by putting in the hours and there should be more of a dialogue between senior and junior tasters.

5) Panel composition:
a) What is the best number of judges per panel?
Either three or five. Odd number required so that there will always be somebody to act as a “tie-breaker”. More than five and the “averaging effect” becomes too great.

b) What composition of judges makes for a sound panel? It is desirable to have individuals from the widest possible range of backgrounds: production, trade, media, etc. All panellists must have a minimum level of wine knowledge and experience, but how to measure this is difficult. To some extent, it is a matter of natural talent.

c) Specialist or all-rounder; should a judge specialise or be expected to judge all wine styles? I think judges should be expected to judge most if not all categories on the basis that the fundamental aesthetic issues (balance, complexity, length) remain the same regardless. That said, there are niche categories (fortifieds, Noble Late Harvest) where it would be helpful to have at least one specialist in attendance.

d) Panel dynamics – is this important; can it affect results? Panel dynamics play a huge role, the fundamental issue being that there is always a panel norm which comes into play, some judges subscribing  to this more easily than others. It is not desirable that all judges move towards the average simply to avoid conflict but conversely a judge should not take an extreme position for the sake of it. Here a chairman who is not only a good taster but who also has good interpersonal skills is very necessary.

6) Judging methodology:
a) Glass preference; should there be a standard glass used for all shows?
The Riedel Chianti as used at Vinexpo is supposedly one of the most versatile tasting glasses in the world but the ISO tasting glass is adequate. Standardisation is an impossible ideal…

b) Scoring system preference and why? Judges should be familiar with all scoring systems on the basis that they ultimately come to the same thing: 18/20 = 95/100 = 5 Stars = gold.

c) Wines served in groups or all on table together; does either benefit the results? Logistics notwithstanding, I prefer to work with all wines on the table together and the various judges tasting in different directions. This accommodates the sometimes dramatic changes that happen to wine in the glass over the period of two or three hours.

d) What is the ideal number of wines tasted daily? I find 70 quite manageable. There will be instances were judges are expected to work through far more than this, and while it is not impossible, it does become very taxing.

e) Discussion and a consensus result or averaged scores; which produces the better results? I most definitely prefer discussion: wine assessment is an exercise in philosophy far more than it is an exercise in mathematics.

7) Which of the competitions you judge or have judged on do you feel gives the wines a good opportunity to show well and the judges a good opportunity to arrive at the fairest results? See my answer to Q. 3. I generally have great respect those active as wine critics locally and I think arriving at the best results is the outcome of an ongoing dialogue towards a shared aesthetic, each set of results informing the next.

8) Should judges be paid? Please give reasons. Judges should most definitely be paid. They are expected to apply knowledge and experience gained over many years and often involving significant expense (the great kindness of the industry notwithstanding).

9) Please give your comments on the overall standard of judging in South Africa and what is being or should be done further to improve it, especially with regard to the younger generation? On the whole, I think the talent pool is of a high quality if not very deep. As stated above, there should be more interplay between senior and junior tasters.


1 comment(s)

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    Kwispedoor | 4 May 2011

    I’ve never had the privilege to officially judge wines, but I’ve been to literally countless blind tastings over many years and in my experience it helps if a taster really likes a very wide variety of wines. Too many times, despite best intentions to the contrary, a taster’s score will be slightly (or even badly) warped because of preference.

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