All wines at wine competitions are judged blind. In other words, the judges never see the bottles as they are staged in another location where judges are not allowed. In the case of the California State Competition, it is actually another building. This ensures that there is no preferential treatment given to any brand. The wines are poured into numbered glasses and placed on carts to be transported to our building. The numbers on the glasses must correspond to the numbers on our judging sheets, of course.
For the large Chardonnay category, we get our 98 wines for the day in 3 flights or groups. So about 32 to 34 wines placed on the table for each judge. This is a large volume compared to most competitions where a judge rarely gets over 10 wines at a time. To facilitate the judging, one of our fellow judges, Richard Peterson, PhD, has come up with an excellent way to judge large flights, not surprisingly called, “the Peterson Method”. The first thing we do is smell each wine. As we smell them, we rearrange them in groups by aroma. Wines that have outstanding aromas go in the gold medal group, a little lesser aroma in the silver group, lesser still, in the bronze group. If there is any off aroma or no aroma, these wines are relegated to the no award group. We then try to put the wines in order from the most desirable aroma to the least in each group.
After this is done, it is time to actually taste the wines. Needless to say, we do not swallow any of the wine or we wouldn’t make it to lunch. So a small amount of each wine is tasted and spit out. Often we make notes on the judging sheets as to flavor, balance, aromas, finish and such. As the wines are being tasted, we rearrange our groups. Sometimes a wine that smells wonderful is very deficient in the taste, or does not have proper balance of fruit and acid or good integration of oak. There are many factors to take into consideration. This moves the wine down the line to another category, sometimes even knocking it out of the medal picture altogether. In other cases, a wine with a more subdued aroma may be a knockout with all of the flavor, balance, richness and aftertaste anyone could want in a Chardonnay. And so that wine gets moved up a notch or two.
If any of the judges feels that a sample is flawed, the option is available to have a second bottle opened and all judges get a re-pour of that second bottle. The most common problem is a “corked” wine, meaning a wine that has a bad cork that has caused a musty odor or flavor or has just diminished the wine in some way. Most judges are very sensitive to this problem. I know I am. Generally this is a one bottle problem and the re-pour that comes out does not have the flaw. Many of these wines have gone on to receive gold medals.
After all judges have marked their scores, it is time to turn our attention to our clerk who moderates the next part of the judging process. He or she will read off the wine number and we will each give our scores. If one judge finds that they are really out of sync with the rest of the judges, it is common for judges to re-taste that wine with the possibility that something was missed. Judges have the option to change their scores if they wish. If all 4 judges award a gold medal, the wine receives a double-gold. These are fairly rare and quite coveted. After judging all 3 of our flights today, we find that we have awarded two double-gold medals. That makes everyone happy. They are wonderful wines and we look forward to seeing the results of the competition so we can find out which wines they are and go buy some of them.