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Lessons from Judging a Wine Competition
By Jessica Dupuy
May 10, 2023
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Last week I had the opportunity to sit in as a judge for the Texsom International Wine Awards (TIWA).  It was an opportunity and a pleasure I’ve enjoyed a few times previously, and I always walk away feeling that I've learned many new things regarding wine, tasting, and fellowship.  Some of these lessons are most pertinent to those in the wine trade who may be asked to judge a competition at some point, but others can be illuminating for anyone who loves wines and wishes to become a more critical and appreciative taster.

Texsom judging is generally structured into about a dozen panels of four judges, each tasked with blind-tasting wines from within specific regions of the world.  In other competitions, it is not uncommon for wines to be organized by grape variety, with wines competing against one another from all over the world.  For instance, you may have Cabernet Sauvignon from California, France, Chile, and Australia in one flight.  They are all blind tasted to see which Cabernets are the strongest.  With Texsom, the judging is focused on particular regions and then broken down by variety within smaller regions.  

For instance, I was on the Texas panel, which meant we judged wines based on the Texas appellation, such as the Texas High Plains, and varieties broken down within that.  Texas High Plains Cabernet, Sauvignon, Texas High Plains Tempranillo, Texas High Plains Albariño, etc.  Both formats offer their pros and cons.  In the case of Texsom, I've found that it provides an informative and useful snapshot of a region and an understanding of what is doing well.  For a lesser-known wine-growing region such as Texas, evaluating the results from year to year can also offer a picture of where things are headed.  

Results for the Texsom International Wine Awards are not yet released, so I'm not at liberty to say what those understandings or takeaways are for Texas.  However, I did come away with quite a few learning experiences worth sharing.  One of the best parts of judging alongside others within the wine industry is what you can learn from their knowledge and expertise.  In this case, judges come from all walks of the wine industry, including winemaking, importing, distribution, wine writing, and more.  Sitting and tasting among them offers a great opportunity to sharpen your palate and broaden your understanding of what is in the glass.

Evaluating wines at TIWA reminded me of a few essential tips that have helped guide the blind-tasting process.

Taste Thoughtfully, But Don't Overthink It
Sitting down to your first flight of wines can feel intimidating, particularly when you're on a time crunch to get through 125 wines in one day.  Pacing yourself is essential, keeping in mind that you want to give each wine a fair shot and that you would like to finish sometime before the sun sets.

When I approach the morning's first flight, I like to smell all the wines before swirling them…just a quick sniff of what is in front of me to set my senses.  After that, I dig straight in with the first wine, write some notes on aromas and flavors, and give an initial conclusion.  I won't go into all the details about tasting each wine, but I will say that after a few days of this process, I realized that the most important thing is not to overthink it.  If your choices are "no award," Bronze, Silver, or Gold, your gut reaction is generally a good thing to go with.  Smell and taste a few times, but your initial experience is the least likely to lie to you.  You know if it's good.  You know if it's not.  And you know if it's somewhere in between.  

Don't forget that you have a panel tasting the same wines, and each of you will have a chance to give your impressions at the end of the flight.  This is where judging gets fun, especially if you're all calibrated in your tasting opinions.  Listening to their thoughts and reasoning ultimately helps you get to a final result, and if you're all doing it right, no feelings have to get hurt.  Naturally, this holds true even if you’re just part of a friendly tasting group rather than working as a competition judge.  In either case, keeping the word “judgment” in mind can be helpful.  A judgment is not the same as an “objective finding” like a laboratory result, but rather an informed decision that can be further informed by considering the differing judgments of others.

It's Not Enough to Have An Opinion.  You Need to Back It Up

As you go through each of the wines, getting your initial impressions down is important.  Simply liking something or not liking something isn't good enough.  You need to know why, and be able to express that.  It helps to have had training and studying through different certifications, but it's not necessary.  As long as you know how to describe aromas, flavors, structure, and finish, that help support your judgment.  Knowing what you think about the wine helps you, your panel, and eventually the producer (assuming they get feedback from the results.)  Ultimately this leads to a better foundation for what makes the wine worthy of a medal—or not.  But don't come to the table with a simple yes or no answer.  This lesson also holds true for those who participate in informal tasting groups.  You’ll contribute more if you provide specific reasons that led to your judgment, and doing so will encourage your friends to do the same—which will benefit all who are tasting together.

Be Open to Letting Things Surprise You
This is important.  Especially when you're judging something from lesser-known regions.  It's great to know an area.  I've covered the Texas wine industry for more than 13 years.  But while I feel like I've got a good grip on what's going on, what's valuable to me is when I sit with judges who are not from Texas.  This is especially true regarding judges who may be experiencing Texas wine for the first time, but who have a very informed palate on wines worldwide.  They help bring perspective, and more importantly, they help me keep my mind open to discoveries.  I love when people are genuinely excited about a region with which they are less familiar.  But I love it when they can help me rediscover it as well.  It reminds me of why I stick with it.

Listen To the Panel.  It's Not About Being Right
While it's important to be able to define why you like or don't like a wine, it's also important not to hold too tightly to your impressions.  Being a judge, whether for the law or for wine, is about weighing everything in front of you and making an informed and balanced decision.  It's not a fight to win or a victory to be had.  After all, tasting wine is subjective.  Your palate changes daily, as do the palates of those tasting with you.  This is why it's important to discuss your pros and cons.  This is how you come to an informed judgment about what is in front of you.  Be open to what others may think, and remember where their impressions are originally coming from.  If they're winemakers, they think differently about a wine than someone who works the restaurant floor and is trying to sell wines to a customer.  All those backgrounds can help with a final conclusion.

It's Not Just About the Wine.  The People Are Pretty Great, Too
Based on the number of times I've referenced the importance of a judging panel, it probably goes without saying that judging in a wine competition is not just about the wine itself.  It's about the people who have come together to discuss something that excites them about what they do for a living.  It reminds us that there are farmers and winemakers who are working hard to try to make something meaningful to them and are willing to submit that for your assessment.

I've learned so much from the people I have tasted with over the years, and I have had more fun listening to some of the feedback I've heard from them.  Some judges are creative and exuberant with their descriptions.  Others are more methodical and intentional with their deductions.  Everyone has a unique way of sharing their impressions, and they're all infinitely valuable for helping you form a broader perspective on wine.  Even if you’re not a member of the wine trade or a potential competition judge, I believe you’ll find this same lesson holds true if you taste with a group of friends, prompting you to articulate your reasons for evaluating wines, and learning from the evaluations of others