New Mexico, Wine, Wine Judging, Wine Tasting

Don’t Wear White…

…And other lessons I’ve learned from being a wine judge.

“But, I’m not a wine judge!” you say. Well, don’t be too sure about that. Answer a few questions before you disregard this post as being irrelevant to you.

Q1. Do you like to drink wine? (Not just a Cab Sauv, or a Chardonnay…but all WINE)

Q2. When you drink wine, do you notice the color, aroma, and taste?

Q3. Can you tell the difference between “good” and “bad” wine regardless of your personal style preference?

If you answered YES to even one of these questions, you might be on your way to becoming a wine judge.

I’m a wine enthusiast. A consumer. A blogger. I never considered myself a wine judge until, well, until I actually judged a wine competition.

Let me say at the outset, judging a wine competition in real life is not like the wine judging competitions you see in Hallmark movies. It isn’t the glamorous, nail-biting, in-and-out of love event you see on television. In real life, there are several judging panels, sitting at tables, tasting wine and discussing it. There is a lot of comradery and the sense that everyone at the table wants to get it right.

AND Let me assure you that the anticipation of judging is more intimidating than the actual judging.

Photo Credit: Martha Powell

This week I had the honor of serving on the judging panel of the New Mexico State Fair Wine Competition. Besides discovering that I knew a whole lot more about wine than I realized, I learned some other valuable lessons that will serve me well the next time—and there will be a next time.

Lesson 1: Don’t wear white

Judging the Land of Enchantment’s wine competition is not a dressy affair. You sit at a table with 4 other judges and wait for each wine flight to be brought to the table. Most people wear dark or patterned tops, and jeans. I wore a white t-shirt and linen slacks. The servers carry large trays of wine to the judging table. If one of them trips or bumps into your chair…well…you get the picture. (While that almost happened to me, thankfully, a crisis was averted.) The greater chance of getting red wine on your white shirt happens when you actually pick up the glass to start your assessment. Pourers and servers have a mammoth task and every now and then, some wine will drip down the rim of the glass. As soon as you pick up the glass, the wine is going to drop onto your shirt. And, yes, that DID happen to me. One of my fellow judges said, “I thought when you sat down you were really brave and confident to be wearing white.”

Corollary to Lesson 1 : Never travel to any wine event without a Tide To Go® pen.

Lesson 2: Don’t swallow

Photo Credit: Martha Powell

Judging wine is a bit different than doing a wine tasting. Here’s the difference: My table judged 53 wines…BEFORE LUNCH! Can you imagine swallowing 53 pours of wine in 3 hours? While you may not realize it, that comes out to somewhere between 2 and 3 full bottles of wine. Judges are given a spit cup and a dump bucket for a reason. Use them!

Corollary to Lesson 2: Be well hydrated before you start judging.

Also, spit out the water you use to rinse your palate. (Unless of course you’re really thirsty). It doesn’t take long to fill up on water and pretty soon you will feel uneasy—making it difficult to focus on the task at hand.

Lesson 3: Be Confident, but Humble

You are a judge because the event organizers value your opinion. What you smell and taste is more than likely going to be similar to what your tablemates smell and taste…but not always. When you score a wine, be confident in sharing why you gave it the score you gave AND be willing to change your score up or down in order to help your panel come to an appropriate decision. Sometimes you will be able to convince your colleagues to increase their score and sometimes you may have to lower yours – and vice versa.

Corollary to Lesson 3:  You will learn A LOT from your fellow judges.

Most wine enthusiasts really want to learn about wine. There may be some judges on your panel more experienced than you, but others just know different things about wine than you do. And guess what? You probably know some things about wine that the others at your table don’t know. Approaching the judging from many different parts of the wine industry—consumers, winemakers, certified judges, wine educators, etc.—is what helps the panel come to the most accurate decision about each wine.

Lesson 4: EAT!

Eat a good meal before you start judging. A good meal to consume prior to drinking wine will include proteins, fats, and fiber with limited processed carbs. Tasting a lot of teeny-tiny sips of wine will add up and the tannins, acidity, alcohol, and sugar levels will do a number on your body if your stomach is empty, or you loaded up on donuts and coffee before the event. I don’t advise mints, gum, garlic, or other strong flavors that can stick with you for awhile and seriously effect the wine you are about to taste.

I have actually developed my own pre-wine drinking concoction consisting of Organic apple juice/cider, frozen fruit, raw baby spinach, protein powder, fiber powder, and plain Greek Yogurt. It’s delicious! and a perfect pre-wine drinking drink.

Corollary to Lesson 4: Most of the time there will be a palate cleanser

You may find oyster crackers, saltines, etc. on the table if you need them. I have to eat gluten free, so I bring my own unsalted, bland crackers or pita bread. I find bringing my preferred food is the best way for me to stay consistent.

Other things to know before you judge wine!

  1. Don’t wear cologne or perfume and be careful that your clean dark shirt doesn’t smell strongly of deodorant or Downey fabric softener. But make sure you don’t stink.
  2. Don’t wear lipstick, lip gloss, chapstick, etc.
  3. If you need to “neutralize” your nose – because you will be judging with your olfactory senses—carry a small container of coffee beans or be ready to sniff your arm—seriously! It works.
  4. What better way to become a wine judge than to practice?! Start drinking and thinking about wine in a more intentional way. Not only will that make you a better judge, you will enjoy your wine so much more and, when that happens, you are living your best wine life.

Sometimes just knowing what to expect and how to maneuver a judging event makes the whole thing much less intimidating. Although wine tasting is highly subjective, there is a specific framework for judging wine that guides you through the process. I’ll talk more about tasting and judging in future posts.

Final Thoughts

Photo Credit: Martha Powell

I have to say, that the biggest eye-opener for me was realizing how much organization is required and how many volunteers are needed just to host a relatively small wine competition. Long before wine judging day, all of the submitted wines must be categorized, entered into the data base and coded. Then all of the judges are put into panels and the panels are assigned various wine flights for judging. It takes DAYS just to complete the planning. Then, behind-the-scenes volunteers must open bottles, label every glass with the proper code, distribute the wine to the judges, remove the glasses, and run the ballots back to the scorekeeper. There are people who re-cork the bottles, put them back in the appropriate boxes, wash the glasses, empty the dump buckets, refill the palate cleansers, bring water…the list goes on and on.

Photo Credit: Trevas Younger

If you don’t feel comfortable judging, but you want to be part of a wine event, let me encourage you to become a member of your regional or local wine group. In New Mexico, it’s the New Mexico Vine & Wine Society. Their website is currently being rebuilt, but you can connect with the Middle Rio Grande Chapter on Facebook and they will direct you to the correct group.

If you have judged a wine competition anywhere or would like to share your wine tasting adventures, I’d love to hear from you. Please comment or email me. There will be future posts on tasting and judging wines.

In the meantime…

Keep living your best wine life!