Co-chairing at the International Wine Challenge

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It’s Thursday. Day five of judging at the International Wine Challenge. This year, because of the Covid situation, we’ve had to change things a bit. Sadly we are missing the international judges this year, which is a big loss, because they bring a lot of perspective to proceedings. And teams are down from five to three, to enable the appropriate spacing. We’ve also moved to two large rooms from one – again, for spacing reasons.

The panels are staying the same each day, too – one of the highlights of judging here was tasting with different people each day. I used to really enjoy being a panel chair largely because of this. Your team each day might include one or two people you knew, but also people you’d never judged with before. Tuckman’s stages of group development were evident – usually by mid-morning you’d got through to the performing stage (see here).

My job for the last few years has been as a co-chair. There are six of us, and our job is to act as moderators. We retaste each flight as it comes off the floor, and look at the verdict delivered by the panel. One co-chair will do the first pass, and mark any proposed changes to the panel’s score. A second co-chair will then look at any wines where a change has been suggested, and will agree or disagree with the change. Any change requires the agreement of two co-chairs.

We don’t make changes for the sake of it. The panels have spent a good while deliberating, so we use the medical principal of primum non nocere (above all, do no harm). The last thing we want to do it mess up some fundamentally good results.

Panels are important. Research shows that when it comes to making decisions, two heads seem to be better than one.

But judging wine is difficult. It’s not as simple as saying, how much do I like this wine? Experience and skill helps, and being able to taste well in a competition setting is quite a talent.

We find that the panels do a great job most of the time. We have a feedback process that looks to promote the best judges, and sometimes we have to let judges go (although this might be because of their interpersonal skills in working as a team as much as their tasting ability).

But sometimes in our co-chairing we find a flight that has been scored meanly, or praised excessively. Our job is to have the sort of perspective – from tasting everything – that we can even things out. And some wines get missed: real gems that have somehow not been spotted.

Any competition is judged by the results, not the process. We want the best wines to win. We think for the sake of producers who have paid to enter their wines, they deserve every chance, and the safety net of the co-chair process really does help make this happen.

After today, we have one more day of judging, and then a much-needed weekend off, before trophies on Monday and Tuesday.

Reminder: this blog is irregularly updated, but there are daily updates on the main wineanorak site.

wine journalist and flavour obsessive

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