Competition nonsense – part 3, the last

The final installment (I almost promise) of this season’s competition-bashing efforts. But no-one can say I don’t try (Tim Atkin says I try far too much…). And I also try to be consistent – I understandably don’t get many requests to judge on big shows any more, but I had the opportunity today to gratefully but firmly turn one down….

(Instead, I tasted and rated  the five calibration samples that get sent round each year by the Platter Guide organisers. The aim is to help the team of judges try to keep some similarity of standard. The calibration samples will all receive a final rating, and we tasters will be furnished with large numbers of little bottles of the stuff to continually refer to, to help us keep on the same track, hopefully.

Anyway, here’s the last bash, reprinted from the Mail & Guardian, 10-16 June 2011:

“Any insightful thoughts on the results?” a winemaker friend emailed me after the results of the Trophy Wine Show (TWS) were announced. I could only reply (mustering what insight I could): “The results are the same this year as they always have been and always will be. A mix of rubbish and valid. That is, there’s an element of lottery.”

Michael Fridjhon, chairperson and convener of the show, raises part of the problem in Icons, the book giving the results of the show. As he said: “Research conducted at a number of American wine shows reveals that many of the so-called experts are at best inconsistent and at worst simply incompetent.”

But, apart from lauding the results of his own competition, he said that, notwithstanding the difficulties, “it does seem better to subject wines to a formal screening process than to leave judgment and selection entirely to chance”.

Better indeed but whether this is the best way of “formally screening” wines is another matter. The alternative for the harried consumer seeking advice is not only “chance” — recommendation by friends or advisers with shared tastes also works, for example. And a case can be made for the much more laborious comparative process in producing something like the John Platter Guide (on which I work, to acknowledge my interests) although that too is an admittedly imperfect solution.

So what’s the problem with these competitions (including Veritas, Michelangelo and the tastings organised by Wine magazine)?

Leaving aside some frankly ludicrous omissions and inclusions in the awards lists, the major evidence that there is indeed a problem comes in the extraordinary disparity in the results. When Thelema Shiraz is named “Best Red Wine Overall” and Paul Cluver Chardonnay 2007 the “Best White” at the TWS, but at the prestigious International Wine Challenge both rate lower than the bronze medal level, it is not an anomaly — it is part of a pattern that must trouble anyone who is paying attention.

Producers understand this pattern and those wanting a shiny sticker to help sell their bottles (any sticker will do, really, as hardly anyone is paying attention) adapt to the situation. They enter as many of these expensive competitions as they can afford and then trumpet a good result or understandably ignore a contradictory bad one — there’s a good chance that they’ll get both.

So what’s the problem? Largely, it’s simply that no judge, however talented, can make consistently useful assessments of between 100 and 200 wines in one day. Apart from the sheer exhaustion involved in concentrating for so long, there are technical reasons — for example, a build-up of some residual components in the mouth (how sure can you be that the tannin or acid you sense as part of the balance of the wine in your mouth is not actually the legacy of the wine last spat out?).

Also, as everyone knows (except wine competition judges), it’s a foolish thing to make pronouncements after fleeting acquaintance with a wine, when you have no background information (considering pedigree is as useful in making predictions about a wine as about a racehorse).

Wine competitions make their organisers a lot of money but mislead innocent winelovers with their spurious certainties. It would be good if we could find a more plausible way of sifting through the glorious plethora of wines available.


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