Sometimes it’s good to look back on a trip from a short distance. A couple of weeks ago I returned home from eight eventful days in Canada’s Niagara region (there have been trips to Portugal and South Africa since). It was a blast, and I brought back many fond memories. This was the first time I’d travelled on work with a family member in tow: I brought along younger son Louis, who’s 17. While I was touring the Niagara wine region and then judging wine, he was helping out round the back at the WineAlign National Wine Awards of Canada (NWACs). Each day, after work, he got to join in the evening activities with the rest of us, which included some fun in boats and helicopters. He also got a chance to see me in action: just what does Dad do when he goes away on these trips? I have encouraged him to emphasize on his return that it is pretty much all hard work, and that there is only a limited amount of fun involved. [Sometimes it’s best not to be completely truthful.]
It’s the second year that I’ve taken part in the NWACs, and it reconfirmed to me that this is a great competition. Both times I’ve been protected from the less good Canadian wines by skipping the first round of judging (giving me a chance to visit vineyards), and joining the other judges for the finals. This gives me a great chance to get a good overview of what’s going on in Canada. The standard of judging is high, bringing together top wine people from around the country, all of whom have plenty of experience and good palates. The organization is first-rate, too, making it easy to focus on the wine. And the social program in the evenings is really fun, and gives us a chance to hang out with key winegrowers from the region in a relatively informal setting. One of the most interesting things is that as soon as judging finishes, we get given a folder with all our notes and scores, plus the identity of the wines. Each of us can then see how we rated wines that we already know: for example, in one of the Chardonnay flights, I was pleased to find that I’d given the highest scores to one producer’s wines that I’ve plugged heavily here in the past.
Seeing our own scores is super-interesting on a number of levels. First, we need to be humble in the face of wine, especially when we are sitting down with a flight of 12 wines blind in a competition setting where all you know is the grape variety (or varieties). No one is perfect and sometimes you can get it wrong, giving a score that’s not appropriate for the wine. But there’s also the sense that blind tasting in this manner helps keep us honest. If I taste a wine sitting down with a convincing winemaker with a great reputation, that wine will tend to get the benefit of the doubt, and may get a higher score than if it had been tasted blind. It’s always possible that we might see complexity when there is none there. However, there is also the possibility that the lack of information could lead to a wine being under-rated: knowing where it has come from and who has made it – and the track record of earlier vintages of the same wine – can give us the confidence and trust that leads to an appropriately higher score. Great wines can sometimes suffer from being tasted blind, not because of us seeing things that aren’t there, but because we look harder in the right places and find things we might otherwise have missed.
Some highlights, in no particular order. Being welcomed once again into the wonderful family of WineAlign critics who are all super-nice people. The way Louis fitted into a team and worked hard without complaining as volunteer labour. Seeing the Niagara falls close up, then from the Hornblower (the boat on the Canadian side that takes us, plastic ponchoed up, close to the action), and then viewing them from above in a helicopter. Visiting some really good Niagara wineries for the first time. Getting another snapshot of the rapidly evolving Canadian wine scene. Nightclubbing in Niagara falls with my son.
Don’t mention this to the organizers, but I suspect that this week is such a highlight in the calendar that most of the WineAlign judges would do it for free!