This week I have been judging in Tranche 1 of the 2017 version of the international Wine Challenge (IWC). After eight years as a panel chair, I’m now a co-chair along with Tim Atkin, Peter McCombie, Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe, and also new this year, Sarah Abbott.
Over recent years, some panel chairs have taken guest slots as co-chairs to help with the workload, but this year the IWC decided to make a couple of official hires. This was prompted by the resignation of Sam Harrop. That two of us have been brought in speaks of what big shoes Sam’s were to fill. Sam has been resident in New Zealand for a few years now, and committing to three weeks each year away from his family, in addition to all his consulting work, was getting to be too much. He’s really missed, not least for his work on the faults reporting – a job that has been handed on to me.
So how has it gone? I’ll explain what the job is, and then you’ll see it is quite a tough but rewarding gig.
The role of the co-chairs is to act as a safety net, to add consistency and rigour to the judging. The panels on the floor – around 20 of them each date – taste through flights and then score them. In the first stage, it’s a sifting process: is the wine medal worthy or not? At this stage there are just three categories that wines need to be placed into. The first is medal. This is where the panel think the wine is worth at least a bronze medal. The second is commended: a good wine, but not worthy of a medal. The third is out.
The flights come off the floor with all the paperwork, and we then work through them, tasting – at this stage – just the commended and out categories. This is, of course, all done blind. We have no more information than the panels: grape variety, country, region, vintage, residual sugar. We are making sure that no good wines have been overlooked. It’s not very rewarding tasting just the worst wines, but it’s a necessary job.
If one of us thinks a wine should be reinstated, then we indicate it on the sheet, and another co-chair has to agree for the change to be made. So we don’t change scores on a whim. Some panel chairs are tougher than others. Certain panel chairs have pet hates and we need to make sure no wine is unfairly booted out.
In the second round, we are looking at the wines that made the cut from round one. Once again, the panels make their verdict. There are three medal classes: gold, silver and bronze. And at this stage a wine can still be ‘commended’ or ‘out’. Some bad wines are deliberately put back in to keep the panels on their toes. The process on the floor involves discussion and finding consensus, and panel chairs aren’t just chosen because they are good tasters: they must also be skilled at getting the best out of a panel. There’s a strength in this sort of competition in having more than one person’s view, and good panel chairs make use of the people in the team – which is usually of five tasters, including an associate.
One of the strengths of this competition is the training of wine judges. Everyone starts at the bottom as an associate, and you can only climb the tree by performing well. Not only do the team members get rated by the panel chair, but also they rate the panel chair. People are sometimes demoted or not invited back on the basis of this feedback, as well as being promoted. There’s a lot of competition for tasting places at the IWC because it is such a good training environment.
The tasting environment on the floor itself is important. It’s professional but relaxed. There are no white coats and we taste standing up. There’s also background music, provided by Tim Atkin’s iPod. There’s a good energy in the room.
As with the first stage, the flights come back from the floor to the co-chairs. One of us tastes through them and suggests any changes that are needed. Then any change is validated by a second co-chair. We’re reluctant to change a score but sometimes we need to. This moderating keeps things even, and helps adjust for generous or mean panels. Say, for example, there are six flights of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. We try to make sure that they are judged with equal rigour and that the standard is the same across all six flights, even though they are judged by different panels. Sometimes three or four of us will taste the same wine if it needs extra attention. In particular, we want to make sure Gold medal wines really deserve this accolade.
So how have I found this week? Hard work, for sure. I’m looking at a lot of wines, and it does cause some palate fatigue by the end of the day. But there’s a balancing point: the utility of having the safety net of co-chairs outweighs the risk of palate fatigue from the workload. But overall, it’s a great experience. You get an amazing overview across a wide range of wine styles, at different quality levels. As long as you have a robust set of teeth, and more than a little stamina, co-chairing is a brilliant gig to get.
We’re just about to start the final day of Tranche 1. Then, in April, we have two more weeks of this. That will be a lot of work, but I’m looking forward to it.