Several weeks ago, as part of my trip back to Dry Creek Valley, my friend Donald Goodkin, who is on the Board of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV), asked if I would be interested in being a judge, of sorts, at a blind tasting in Dry Creek.
Since starting my blog, I have many great opportunities, met scores of great people, and tasted countless wines, but I had never been asked to be a judge. I instantly thought of several questions: What is the format? Are there any other judges? Who is entered? Are there awards for the winners? Why me?
So in face of all these questions racing through my head I said:
That was it.
Actually, I said one more thing:
“Let me ask my wife.”
We were, after all, visiting her family and I was already going to be gone for more than half the time we out there. I think I even felt a bit guilty (for a brief period) asking for some more time away. After pondering a bit, she acquiesced and I waited for details.
It turned out that the blind tasting was part of the annual Dry Creek Valley Scholarship Picnic, an event organized by the WDCV and the Dry Creek Valley Association (DCVA). The picnic and auction raises money to support the Dry Creek Valley Scholarship Fund, which “was established as a cooperative effort by the DCVA and WDCV to provide financial aid to graduating high school seniors for the purpose of continuing their education in college.”
[This year, the picnic and auction ended up raising close to $25,000 for the scholarship fund, the highest total in the history of the event.]
As the day approached, I became increasingly more nervous, since details from Donald were rather scarce (in hindsight, I think Donald simply wanted to make me sweat a bit). On the morning of the event, Donald indicated that he wanted me taste through all the wines (53!), make an honest assessment, and pick the top three wines in each variety.
All the attendees to the picnic would also be tasting, but they were only assigned one of the four varieties, and they were to vote for their top three wines in their assigned variety. Those votes would be tabulated and “People’s Choice” winners would be announced at the end of the evening.
As I approached the first table it really hit me: I was in for a rather long haul. Not only were there a ton of wines to go through, but there were also tons of people milling about—and I like it when there are people milling about, particularly when the milling includes consuming wine. The problem? The more I milled the less I would swirl and taste, and it was clear time was going to be an issue. I did some rough math: 2 hours and 53 wines meant about two minutes on each wine.
Moments after I started, the tables became crowded, and my job got a bit more difficult. I was going to have to curb my desire to talk to people and bob and weave through the masses.
I made my way through the sixteen Sauvignon Blancs, talking to a few people along the way (both Doug Nalle and Barry Collier were there). After tasting #16, I glanced at my watch, an hour and fifteen minutes had passed—45 minutes to taste through the remaining 38 wines.
Over the next 45 minutes, I was in a zone—slosh, swirl, sniff, sip, spit, scribble some scores. Repeat.
At the end, I gave my choices to Donald and that was it. As far as I know, until now, my results were not known to anyone else, so in the end it was a very low-key, low pressure event, but at the time I was certainly sweating it out and trying to carefully evaluate each wine.
|People’s Choice||Dry Creek Vineyard||Pedroncelli||Preston|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Dry Creek Vineyard||Pech Merle||Cornstock|
|People’s Choice||Wilson||Mazzocco||Ferrari Carano|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Ferrari Carano||Road House||Pedroncelli|
|People’s Choice||Collier Falls||Mounts||Wilson|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Gustafson||Fritz||Mounts|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Wilson||Mounts||Copain Sally Weed|
While there was some overlap between my thoughts and the popular vote, it is clear that wine assessment is personal—are my results any more legitimate than the “popular vote”? Hardly. Perhaps Donald, when announcing the winners of the People’s Choice vote put it best:
“Congratulations to the winners! You are the ‘Peoples Choice’ for Dry Creek Valley. Do not underestimate the importance of this award. The ‘People’ may not be internationally recognized wine tasting experts, but they know what they like. And they like your wines best.”
So, what did I learn?
Above all else, blind judging is tough—sure, there were a few obstacles: I was not supposed to re-visit any wines (although I did a couple of times), it was not the “normal” way I evaluate wines (I prefer to taste wines in the context of a meal), and the event itself was designed to be social and it was very hard for me to switch that aspect “off”. But in the end, I actually enjoyed the entire process immensely.
I also found that I have a newfound respect/skepticism for the “professional” tasters and judges. It requires a keen focus and substantial stamina to make it through and be just as fresh and focused on the last as you were on the first. Therein lies the skepticism: I had two hours to taste 53 wines and I was struggling. Some professional tasters do twice that (or more), usually in less time. Even if the rate was one a minute, that barely gives you time to scribble a few notes.
As a result of the process, I formulated several new questions:
- Do “experts” really know all that much more than anyone else? Does it even matter?
- Can you accurately make a sound judgment on a wine in two minutes (or less)?
- Can you eliminate context from evaluating wine?
Before this event, I was pretty certain that it was pure folly to taste wines this way. After the tasting? I might be coming around just a bit—the juxtaposition of wines quickly, one after another, certainly enabled comparison.
After the tasting, there was a fantastic potluck picnic, where I got to meet a slew of wonderful people over some fantastic food. There was also wine, of course, and after tasting through all those wines, I really did not feel like drinking anymore.
Yeah, that didn’t last.
I’ve done stuff like this before. it’s pretty demanding on your palate, senses, etc… Funny one of your questions was can you evaluate a wine in under 2 minutes. I’ve worked with a few somms in training and I’ve always said to them you have to get this note done in 2 minutes or less. First impressions are usually the best. Press onto the next one in line.
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I agree that you can get an idea about a wine in 2 minutes, but as you know, wine can change a lot over the course of drinking a bottle, so it can depend on “which” two minutes you get (i.e., just open, open for an hour, etc.)….
Unfortunately, guys like us that taste wines critically typically have a window in which we taste and write our note. Professionals basically do the same. Taste, note, move on. Following a wine over a couple of hours is the fun that is known as dinner, chatting with dear friends, etc…
You are certainly right, but I guess it would be a worthwhile experiment to taste a wine blind in a controlled environment as part of a large blind tasting and then taste one (or more) of those wines in more of a dinner-type setting and see how consistent you are….
wow, very interesting. It is hard to evaluate wines in this format, as I’m sure social aspect gets in the way, and then you need to work your way through the people, which also takes away from your ability to do this tasting quickly. In the quiet setting, depending on the amount of notes you want to take, 2 minutes is an ample amount of time – and it is possible to go faster. I also agree with wineismylife – first impression is usually the best. Definitely a fun exercise!
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There are certainly a lot of ways to skin a cat, I just like to take a little more time I guess.
54 wines? Ouch. Even when spitting, I’m done after about 10. Sounds like a fun event, though!
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It was a ton of fun, that’s for sure!
Wow! I bet that WAS a challenge, but quite fun, all the same. Pretty cool that you were asked to participate in this event. For me, it would have been quite difficult. I found it challenging tasting wine after wine after wine at the WBC14, can’t imagine this format. Thanks for sharing your experience for those of us that haven’t been in this realm before. Take care,
Miki “This is the LIfe” Winer
WBC can be tough since it is as social as it is “serious”. I really had to try hard to focus on the task at hand–not always easy!
again. i want your life.