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How to Become a Wine Judge

He was about 55 years of age, short sleeve shirt, jeans, and a big grin on his face. He approached us, barely able to conceal a giggle. He had a humorous question; one he was certain was so novel and clever we would have never heard it before. “How do I get that job?” he laughed.

I was judging a wine competition with another 20 judges. The competition took place before the public and this jovial query came so often that we had a pool based upon when the question would first be asked. I had 9:10 in the pool — a mere ten minutes after the competition started. I looked at my watch; it was 9:05. We would be asked the question two more times before 9:10. Over the course of the day, this question was asked about 30 times. Each time, someone patiently explained the amount of knowledge one had to accumulate about wine to become a judge and invited that person to start their wine education so that one day they too could be judging.

The question did make me think, though. What the heck was I doing there? How did I become a wine judge?

I was raised in a family that did not drink wine. Sure, on the Sabbath we’d have a glass of Manischewitz Concord or blackberry wine but who ever heard of Cabernet or Sauvignon Blanc, let alone Sangiovese or Saperavi? Even when I started drinking wine in my late twenties, for example, I knew the label said Syrah, but I had no idea what that really meant.

Steps to becoming a wine judge

Today I am the Director of Education for the American Wine Society and I ran the Wine Judge Certification Program for several years. Somehow, over the years, I gained some wine knowledge. So, what does it take to become an American Wine Society (AWS) certified wine judge?

First, the student needs to love wine. The key term here is “wine.” A love of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay is not enough. A wine judge with no sense of adventure is a lousy wine judge. Anyone who has judged more than a handful of competitions has sat next to the celebrity wine judge who thinks all white wines should taste like a heavily oaked Chardonnay or that all reds should be fruit bombs. To be a good wine judge, you need to taste wines made in a wide variety of styles and from as many different varieties as you can. This is not simply so you have a good understanding of varietal characteristics, but also because a wine judge needs to know how regional differences influence style. A great Chardonnay may have some oak or none, depending upon the style the winemaker is going for. If you insist upon one style or the other, judging is not for you. 

That sense of adventure is particularly important in the United States. Most competitions in the United States include not only Vitis vinifera (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and the other European varieties we see on the bottles), but also native, hybrid, and fruit wines. Bottles of Concord, Baco Noir, Vidal Blanc, Diamond, apple, and peach wines are made every year and the winemakers behind these wines want their creations judged. In the AWS program, you need not only to be willing to judge those wines fairly, but you also need to be excited to do so. 

Second, a wine judge needs to appreciate how much pride the winemakers have in their wines and how much hard work went into making them. So, a good wine judge needs to take their job seriously. Competitions are not about the judges; they are about the wines and the people who make them. 

Being serious about learning different styles and varieties is only the beginning. You must be familiar with varieties and styles before you start to judge. Judging is not on-the-job training. No winemaker wants their baby judged by someone who lacks familiarity with that variety or style. Students in the AWS program understand the requirement that they go beyond their comfort zone. They search for wines and styles they have never tried and taste them with an open mind. 

Next, AWS students learn about themselves and their individual taste perceptions. We all have different levels of taste perception and recognition. What is too sweet to one person might be perfect to someone else. What is bitter to your spouse might be tasty to you. In judging, you must recognize these variances when you taste. Do you find that wine cloying because it is unbalanced or is it because you have a low level of perception for sweetness? 

Assess your own tasting

How do you assess your own taste biases? A good way to test yourself is by preparing different levels of key variables and working to determine your level of perception of some of the main components in wine: Acid, sugar, and alcohol.

To perform these tests, you will need bottled water. Tap water tends to have chlorine or carbon aromatics that can interfere with your ability to perceive the acids, sugars, and alcohols in the wine, particularly when you are testing those variables at lower levels. You will also need to buy some tartaric acid from a wine supply store and some 80-proof vodka. When I did these tests, I prepared the samples in plastic water bottles that I stored in the refrigerator and used to test myself several times over a period of weeks. Be sure to mark the bottles; my wife took one of my high-acid bottles to work with her one day thinking it was her favorite flavor of vitamin water . . . nope.

Set aside a bottle of plain water for comparison. Then prepare your samples as set forth below:

Sweetness Levels

0.5% Sweetness: 1⁄2 tsp. sugar in 12 oz. (355 mL) water
l.0% Sweetness: 1 tsp. sugar in 12 oz. (355 mL) water
2.0% Sweetness: 2 tsp. sugar in 12 oz. (355 mL) water

Mix the above ingredients until dissolved in three separate glasses. Taste each glass and analyze your impressions.

Acidity Levels

0.2% Acidity: 1⁄8 tsp. tartaric acid in 12 oz. (355 mL) water
0.4% Acidity: 1⁄4 tsp. tartaric acid in 12 oz. (355 mL) water
0.75% Acidity: A scant 1⁄2 tsp. tartaric acid in 12 oz. (355 mL) water

Dissolve each sample, pour into three separate glasses. Again, taste and reflect.

There are many wines on the market at 0.7 acidity. But by itself, the water with this level of acid will seem rather harsh. A good test is to blend a little of the harsh 0.75 acid mixture with some sugar, say 2 teaspoons. Do not use the sugar water, as this has the effect of diluting the acid mix. With the added sugar, you will note the acid will become less harsh. Adding more sugar lessens the harshness to a greater degree. This moderating effect is why some high-acid wines, such as some Rieslings, have residual sugar, to balance out those high acids.

Alcohol Levels

4% level: 1.25 oz. (37 mL) vodka to 12.7 oz. (375 mL) water 
10% level: 3.1 oz. (93 mL) vodka to 12.7 oz. (375 mL) water

Again, taste the different levels. Then add more alcohol or less depending upon how low the 4% seems to you, or how hot the 10% appears. Add some of the high acid mix and a few teaspoons of sugar to the alcohol mix. Compare how those additions change your perceptions of the alcohol, acids, and sugars. You will develop an increased understanding of the interplay of these components.

Another fun experiment is using some inexpensive Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon and adding just a touch of the tartaric acid to the wine. Taste and see how the addition of a little acid will change how you experience the wine. I have used this trick to “help” flabby wines. It does not help a lot, but it can assist with the balance, and you may be surprised that the aroma changes as well. 

Scoring

Once you have gained understanding of your own perception levels and biases, you are ready to learn to score the wines. Scoring methods differ among wine competitions. Some use a 100-point scale and judge wines against each other, regardless of variety. Thus, for instance, a Concord is measured against a first growth Bordeaux. In truth, this system can seem a bit unfair as some varieties will not have the complexity, finish, and excitement necessary for 100 points on that scale, although they are fine examples of their type.

Other competitions are more like pedigree dog shows; that is, by the standards of the variety, how does this wine score? Under this system, a Concord is judged against the requirements for a Concord, and a Chardonnay against a Chardonnay. Most US competitions are judged according to this standard. The question is “if a buyer is looking for a Sauvignon Blanc, is this a good example of a Sauvignon Blanc?” Most of these are medal competitions. A gold medal Merlot signifies that the wine is a very good example of a Merlot. In the AWS program, we teach students how to judge according to this measure. 

The AWS program uses a variation of the 20-point wine scoring system first developed at UC-Davis. It consists of five categories, each with individual point allocations: Appearance (3 points), Aroma (6 points), Taste (6 points), Aftertaste (3 points), and Overall Impression (2 points). 

There are other systems out there, but the 20-point system is commonly used in US competitions, including the WineMaker International Amateur Wine Competition. Under this system, a score of ten is “commercially acceptable.” Typically, twelve is needed to earn a bronze, although this varies based on the competition. 

Most wines are going to be “commercially acceptable.” This is a phrase many judging students initially misunderstand. Many wine-loving students think that the wines they customarily drink are the measure of what is “commercially acceptable,” however this is not the case. Most of the wines sold in the world are straightforward. 55% of wines sold in the US are under $8/bottle and the average bottle price is $10. About 45%, representing millions of bottles a year, are sold in the $3–$6 range. It would be the height of snobbery to suggest that the biggest selling wines in the world are not “commercially acceptable.” The fact is, they are acceptable. That most aspiring wine judges are accustomed to drinking more expensive wines does not change this. In truth, most wines that are balanced and without significant flaws are going to score close to, or above, the bronze medal level. 

Before scoring you must first remember what you are doing. A judge’s primary job is to communicate what they are tasting to the winemaker and why the wine is being scored in a particular way. You are judging, not writing tasting notes for a magazine or blog. There is no need to use flowery language. In fact, that is strongly discouraged. Leave “the wine whispers soft notes of cardamom and candied jack fruit” for another day.

Appearance

The threshold category of appearance is often overstated. Wine drinkers like appearance. We look at the colors of everything from fruits and vegetables to clothing. While easy and intuitive, observations of color are of limited utility in wine judging. 

Nonetheless, notes on appearance do have some value. Looking at a glass of wine, we perceive qualities of color, clarity, and brilliance. These can be clues to the condition of the wine. A wine that has browned may be oxidized; a wine that is cloudy or dull may have bacteriological or stability issues. Too much SO2 can bleach color out of a wine. However, ruminating on the legs visible on the interior of the glass or opining on the shade of crimson is not a good use of our time. Wines come is a vast variety of hues; a Pinot Noir can range from light to dark ruby. 

Color can be described as light, medium, or deep with lemon, yellow, gold, or straw all being fine for whites and ruby, brick, purple, and garnet fine for reds. But don’t send the winemaker scurrying to their kid’s Crayola box to figure out what color “magenta” or “maize” is. Keep it simple. 

Wines that have a little browning may be marked down, assuming the wine should not have any browning. A young Cabernet? Maybe a knock. A Sherry or well-aged wine? No deduction at all. 

Consequently, unless a wine’s appearance reveals a significant issue such as oxidation, bacteria, or excess SO2, the score is most likely a three in the AWS scoring system.

Aroma

Aroma is the most important sense in wine judging, as marked by the large share of possible points (6) in the AWS system, yet often is taken for granted. We assume, for instance, that a peach smells like a peach. But, typically, we are lazy and undiscerning when we encounter familiar sources of aroma. We see the peach and assume it will smell familiarly peach-like. But what if we take the sight away? Accurately creating wine judging notes requires that you be accurate with your observations. 

A good exercise is to have a friend rummage about in your spice cabinet and refrigerator and pass items under your nose while you are blindfolded (so it better be someone you trust). Can you accurately identify thyme? Clove? Mustard? Apple? Strawberry jam? You may be surprised. 

And don’t smell these things with little whiffs. We are not smelling durian and trying to see if we can handle the aroma. We are training ourselves to recognize aromas. So, take a large, deep smell of the item. Are there things you smell everyday but which, without the ability to see them first, have trouble identifying? 

Aroma also plays a huge role in the third category, taste. Taste is a very limited sense. Most of what we “taste” is aroma experienced through the retro nasal cavity. This is the same cavity that allows us to shoot milk through our nose when we laugh and explains why you taste little when you have a cold. 

If you take a touch of cinnamon on your finger and touch it to your tongue while your nose is plugged, you will not “taste” the cinnamon. You will sense something gritty in your mouth, but the flavor of the spice does not come through until you unplug your nose. 

The perception of “taste” we pick up through the retro nasal cavity may be stronger than what we pick up through the nostrils alone. This is because the wine in our mouth is being heated, volatilizing the aromas in the wine. Moreover, in our mouth the wine gains additional surface area and is exposed to oxygen. These factors further volatilize the aromas. Saliva also acts to help break down the wine chemically, causing changes in the flavors.

The judge should try to find several aromas from each wine. At the same time, the judge should NOT merely list a bunch of aromas to be expected in the given wine variety. This may create the false impression of a finding of complexity in a wine that is, in fact, simple. Again, the judge should be honest and direct.

So, what about scoring the aromas? How intense are the aromas? When the wine is poured in front of you, can aromas be detected before even lifting the glass? Must the wine be swirled and smelled over without getting anything? A wine with aromas that are easy to detect, even if an aspiring judge cannot yet identify them, will score better than one where they need to swirl and swirl to find anything.

Also consider complexity. Can the judge pick out several fruits, but nothing earthy or floral? Can they pick out a bushel of fruits? All these factors need to be considered in assessing the score a judge will give a wine.

For example, let’s assume a glass of Chablis has strong aromas of lemon, grapefruit, yellow apple, pear, flint, cream, and vanilla. This wine would certainly score higher than a wine where you must dig hard to find aromas of lemon, flint, and pear. 

In practicing, it can be helpful to use an aroma wheel to help figure out what aromas are in the wine. For example, looking at the citrus fruits to see whether lemon, lime, or grapefruit comes through in the wine, and then moving to the tree fruits and doing the same. Training will make this easier as time goes by.

Taste

Taste, while intertwined with aroma, does have other aspects to consider. Specifically, as humans we perceive salt, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami tastes. Absent a glass of Manzanilla or Muscadet, salt probably will not come into play. A sour wine is also unusual. Umami tastes such as soy sauce, molasses, and teriyaki are occasionally found in red wines.

Bitterness does tend to appear. However, the astringency from tannins should not be confused with bitterness. The quinine in tonic water is bitter; tannins are more typically drying and astringent. 

In assessing taste of a wine, the primary components evaluated are sweetness, acidity, tannins, and alcohol. 

The Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) and the Court of Master Sommeliers consider each of these components with a level of low, medium, or high, with medium further split into medium (+) and medium (-). However, notes in a wine judging form on these components only need to express relative qualities of acid and alcohol when they are high or low, keeping in mind the variety of the wine A Sancerre will have noticeable acidity. Accordingly, judges will note that such a wine is acidic or tart. By contrast, a wine lacking in acid may be described as flabby or low acid. A similar practice applies to sugar. Judges will note if there is residual sugar but stating a Cabernet is “dry” is unnecessary. Particularly with red wines, judges will describe the tannins, as that is often an important factor in assessing the reds. 

If everything in the wine is “just right” then it is expressed as “balanced” — not “medium acid, medium + alcohol, medium tannins, dry,” just “balanced.” If the wine is out of balance, judges often repeat the component that was out of whack — “alcohol is high rendering wine out of balance.”

Body is how the wine feels in your mouth: Skim milk? Whole milk? Sauternes is full-bodied; a Kabinett is likely light-bodied.

Aftertaste

The fourth component in the AWS scoring system is aftertaste. The judge should always say how long the finish is: Short, medium, long. Keep it simple. Then mention what is tasted on the finish. Does it finish with raspberry and cherry? Mineral? Acid and eggplant? 

A long and enjoyable finish is going to be a three. A medium, pleasant, finish will be a 2–2.5 depending upon how pleasant it is. A wine with a short, pleasant finish may receive a score of 1.5–2 depending upon how pleasant and short it is. The acid and eggplant finish? That scores less than one regardless of length.

Overall impression

Overall impression is where judges, supposedly, get to express themselves and not be totally objective about a wine. So, can they say, “This wine tastes like an armpit?” Well, not really. Winemakers are real people, and judges need to be respectful. We want to be helpful and offer useful suggestions. So overall impression is a place where judges tend to repeat the issues they found, where there are issues, or mention a lack of complexity or a lack of aromatic or flavor intensity. Overall impression is also a place where a job well done might be mentioned. It is NOT a place to get overly picky with the points. A two should be reserved for an excellent wine, but a 1 is not the only option. A 1.5 is a fair score for a well-made wine with a few minor issues.

Faults

A discussion of all the faults you might find in a wine is far beyond the scope of this article. Refer to Christiana McDougal’s two recent articles on the subject “When Wines Go Bad” in the June-July 2019 issue and “More Winemaking Pitfalls” in the October-November 2019 issue for an overview of the common wine faults. 

Implicit in evaluating the score of a wine, through all categories of the AWS (or any) system, is understanding wine faults. In the AWS program, students are tested on faults annually. Unfortunately, wine judging students can get a little too enthusiastic about finding faults. They study so hard to recognize faults that they get overly excited when they believe they have found one. They may conclude, “This wine has VA (volatile acidity)” and then knock the score down. There are two key factors in fault identification: Identifying the issue and recognizing when it really is a fault. 

Many wines have characteristics that, at different levels, are not faults. Amarone often has VA, some southern Rhônes may have Brettanomyces, and many wines may have reductive elements (volatile-reduced sulfur compounds). Such symptoms are not always faults. A judge must recognize how much is too much and weigh this knowledge in determining whether a wine is faulted. 

Faults are difficult to study, inasmuch as there are not wine stores that purposely sell a selection of faulted wine for students to experience. There are fault kits made by companies such as Wine Awakenings, Enartis Vinquiry, and Le Nez du Vin that can be helpful. The difficulty is that the faults in those kits are pure faults; there are no aromas of wine to interfere with them. Further, faults often do not appear alone. You may have a wine with VA, ethyl acetate, and lactic acid faults, all appearing together. So, while the fault kits may be helpful, they do not present a true picture of how faults may appear in wine. 

Conclusion 

Finally, judging a wine requires assessment of all the foregoing components individually and then in consultation with your fellow judges. As in all endeavors, as a wine judge, you need to accept that you are not perfect. You may sometimes be wrong. Working with and learning from fellow judges, re-tasting and accepting that we may have made an error in our thinking is a big part of judging. This does not mean that you will always agree, but you need to be open and listen to your fellow judges and, if you still disagree, have an articulated reason for your decision beyond your personal likes or dislikes.

Becoming an AWS wine judge requires an understanding of all the aforementioned, a lot of practice, and the ability to consistently judge wines. The program takes three years to complete and can be very humbling. Students in the wine judge certification program work on their skills for three years and still, even at graduation, are not yet smooth in their judging. In a competition, judges may judge 100 or more wines a day and doing so quickly and consistently takes a lot of practice. But when students have completed the AWS program, they are ready to work competitions, hone their skills, and enjoy the rewarding world of wine judging (as well as improve their own winemaking based on what they’ve learned). 

Anyone interested in learning more about the AWS and becoming a certified wine judge can do so at www.americanwinesociety.org