Wednesday, November 21, 2007

From Ripple to RagApple: Judge as Ye Be Judged

This is part 2 of the From Ripple to RagApple series.  If you are just joining me, you may want to start from the beginning of this series.

In the early years my skills in both making and judging wine were somewhat ad hoc, cobbled together from the advice and suggestions of diverse sources.  Then the American Wine Society National Organization began a program to certify wine judges.  There was a little training that basically included tasting and coming up with descriptors of the aromas and flavors (terms like cherry, chocolate, tree fruit, often used by wine writers and judges).  There was discussion lead by many long time wine professionals who had been doing this for many years.   Then came a written test and a tasting test.  At the 1983 conference, I passed the test and became an officially certified wine judge.  The following year, I took over the Wine Judge Certification Program for the Society and ran it for several years.  Much has been added to the training portion over the years and it is now a 3 year study program with one all day class each year covering different aspects of wine judging.  I have had the most incredible experiences with the American Wine Society.  Besides the fact that I have lifelong friends, many for the entire 27+ years I have been a member, I have had the privilege to judge with people as famous as Robert Mondavi and Louis Martini, among others.  The conferences are incredible, with numerous educational programs and opportunities.

In 1986, I received an invitation to go to New York and participate in a testing experience to become internationally certified as a wine judge.  It was one of the most difficult tests I have ever taken.  The test consisted of several parts.  The first part was a tasting of small amounts of white wine in four one-ounce plastic cups.  It was basically the same wine but from four different vineyards owned by the same winery in France.  The idea was to smell and to taste them and to write down as many descriptions as came to mind that might show a difference between them.  They were very similar and thus, this was no easy task.  After that flight (a set of wines in a row) was taken away, another flight came out with the same four wines but in a different order.  The idea was to match the second flight to the first.  Just to make sure we didn’t get lucky, they did it a third time.  The next part of the test was exactly the same, except it involved red wine.  After that portion of the test was completed, we were tested for our sensory knowledge.  Once again, one ounce samples were brought out in flights of four.  Each flight had a different sensory component in different levels of strength but completely out of order.  The components were sweetness (residual sugar), tannin (a component found in a high degree in tea, lesser in wine, which gives it its astringency), acid, and alcohol.  The test was to put them in order from lowest to highest.  The last part of the test was for recognition of flaws.  Approximately 9 flawed wines were presented and they were to be identified as to what the flaws were.  Examples of the flaws were such things as excessive sulfite, oxidation, bacterial faults such as pediococcus, hydrogen sulfide (the odor of rotten eggs), and mercaptan, which is a rubbery aroma that occurs when hydrogen sulfide is not dealt with in a timely manner (for more info on common wine flaws, stay tuned for my upcoming posts on this topic).  50 people took the test.  Only 3 of us were not yet in the wine industry.  The other 47 were involved in the industry in some capacity, many of whom I knew, including winemakers, wine writers, distributors and such.  Of the 50 people who took the test, only 3 passed that day, and I was one of them.  I truly feel it changed my life.

As an internationally certified wine judge, I now judged regularly for Intervin International, which was the organization that created the test.  Those competitions alternated between Canada and the United States and included wines from all over the world.  I judged every year until the passing of the founder, Andrew Sharp, in 2000, after which the competition no longer continued.  I now judge or have judged at the American Wine Society International, Finger Lakes International, California State Competition, Indiana International, Pacific Rim International, Vinifera Winegrowers Association and the Missouri State Competition.  It is a wonderful opportunity to keep my palate fresh and in tune with what is going on in the wine world and meet and learn from so many experts in the industry.

Next Week: Turning Pro


  1. Chris is showing us your very pretty web page. I am looking forward to picking your brain in a passive sort of way!

  2. I'm up to Chapter 3 in your story, Linda, and looking forward to the next one. Congratulations! What a great endeavor! Keep 'em coming! I echo all the fine comments about the American Wine Society -- the place where our friendship began.
    I'm forwarding your story to John Koemple, an aspiring wine maker, one of my wine students and, along with his wife, Ann, a new AWS member. We three were in North Carolina for the AWS conference earlier this month. It was good to see you and Tom and thanks to the both of you for all your work. And now you add this blog to your list of credits. Just shows you can't keep a good woman down. -- Elaine