Some years ago, I was invited to attend a food and wine fest in Adelaide, Australia. It was a great trip with visits to wineries, restaurants and markets, and lots and lots of tastings. The days started early and lasted long into the evening, but it’s hard to complain when you are being wined and dined on the best, flown or ferried to some of the prettiest landscapes and loaded down with all sorts of gifts. There came a day, however, when I was seriously beginning to wonder what I had gotten myself into. That moment came on a morning at a winery when I, the only travel writer amidst dozens of food and wine writers, was included in a red wine tasting. It was 9 am when they began bringing the wines to our table. All around me the other writers were taking notes, entering information into laptop computer programs and making comments that really made little sense to me. For my part, I just sipped and spit, sipped and spit, sipped and spit. And swished with water every chance I got.
The only thought I give to wine judging these days is when I head to the Newport Seafood & Wine Festival and try to decide what wines to buy. Obviously, the gold is always enticing, but I’ve been known to sample the silver and bronze and even those with no bling suspended around their necks.
What I hadn’t given thought to was how those medals are awarded. Who competes? Who judges? And do those medals really matter?
Lorna Davis, executive director of the Greater Newport Chamber of Commerce, was more than happy to enlighten me. It turns out this behind-the-scenes effort that most of us probably give little thought is a big part of the festival’s success.
The competition takes place in early February in a hotel hospitality suite where this year veteran judges tasted wines from 80 festival participants.
“Only the wineries that are in the festival can enter their wine and they can only enter up to three different kinds to be judged,” said Davis, AKA as the queen of the Newport cheering squad. “We usually end up with 180 different wines to judge. They put them in flights. It’s blind judging — the wines are represented only by a number — and each judge is polled and they score or don’t score the wine. It can be bronze, silver or gold or no score. If it’s a no score, it means they don’t think that it is worthy of a medal. Then they discuss it. If they taste a wine and there is a question about the cork or the wine wasn’t sealed properly or is spoiled, they will open a fresh bottle and taste it. Most wineries that come to the festival participate. Often that’s why we have a waiting list. It’s a really prestigious competition and has come to be known among wine connoisseurs. It’s one of the longest standing ones in the northwest.”
The judging lasts for two days with a break for lunch and ending with dinner each evening. Some of the judges write food and wine columns and one comes all the way from Colorado.
One of the high points comes when the Best of Show is announced, Davis said.
“A couple of years ago, Ponzi Winery — one of the oldest wineries in Oregon — won Best of Show. The judges were all delightfully surprised because they don’t know when they name the best of show who the winery is and the big reveal is always an exciting moment in the competition. It’s fun to see the looks on their faces when the winners are revealed. Ponzi produces fantastic wine, but they had never taken Best of Show. It won for a Chardonnay. A couple of years before a sparkling wine took best of show.
“We honestly feel the competition is one of the reasons the festival has been so successful. It is known as the competition to win. The judges are some of the unsung heroes of the event. We need to pat them on the back more often.”
And knowing what I know about judging, I have to agree.
On that morning in Australia, we tasted 42 reds, and what I remember most was not a particular wine or what I learned about judging or my new appreciation for spitting and swishing, but that midway through those flights of red, I would have given my eye teeth for a Pepsi.
Lori Tobias is the author of the novel “Wander” and a journalist of many years. Follow her at loritobias.com.