Congrats on getting invited to your first ever wine judging! I’ve been judging wine competitions, both for home and commercial winemakers, for over 15 years now and they’re always a great way to keep your palate fresh. You’re right to assume that there is some protocol involved, as well as some “to do’s” and some “not to do’s.” Following are some of my favorite informational tidbits to help you know what to expect, how to have a good day-of, as well as to increase your chances of getting asked back next time.
Wine competitions are usually either run by local wine clubs, as part of a fair, or by various publications. Entrants pay the organization a fee per bottle, which helps pay for the venue, supplies, and logistics. Panels of judges then taste the wines blind (i.e. they don’t know the producer or the AVA, etc.). It’s almost always an unpaid, volunteer activity. The folks who organize and put it on are also almost always volunteers too — and these things take a lot of time to put on, so it’s important to always treat them with the utmost respect. You’ll see that many of the items on the list below are about being respectful — a key to becoming a respected wine judge yourself.
- Know where you’re supposed to go well ahead of time: One of the keys is to show up slightly early, or on time. To do that, make sure you know your destination, the parking situation, if you need a permit and the traffic patterns in the area the day you’ll be traveling.
- Keep your scents to a minimum: Bathe with unscented products the morning of and definitely don’t wear any perfume or cologne. Be careful of wearing a jacket or sweater that may contain scent or tobacco smoke from previous days. These smells can linger and disrupt your palate and that of others.
- Eat a good breakfast with lots of protein: You want to be well-fortified, but no garlic or onions. Even though you’ll be spitting, you’ll still be absorbing some alcohol during the course of the day. Avoiding onions and garlic makes sure you won’t be bringing anything malodorous to the judging table.
- Show up on time: This is obviously critical and leaves an impression.
- While others are judging, minimize noise: You’re likely to know other folks who are also judging. There’s definitely a time for socializing and networking, but not when your table or others are “on the job.” Even though there will always be a low buzz of chit chat in the room, it’s never done to be boisterous or interrupt a group of judges mid-flight. If you need to approach someone during judging time, do it quietly after a flight is complete. Otherwise wait until lunch or other judging breaks for catching up with friends.
- Be respectful of volunteers/clerks: Every competition I’ve judged has been set up so that flights of anywhere from 6–14 wines in a class will be set before a team of three to five judges. Each judge quietly evaluates his or her wines, taking enough time to spend time with each, but moving at a professionally quick clip. Often, each table has an assigned clerk who records score or rank of each wine in the set (and sometimes the award). There may also be other assistants in the room who will bring the flights out to the tables, clear the tables, and empty the dump buckets. These folks are almost always unpaid volunteers so please be polite and cheerful with them — they’re doing it as a labor of love!
- Eat a good lunch: I’ve never been to a wine competition where lunch isn’t served. Having something in the stomach, as well as staying hydrated, is key to happy judges and to getting good results from the judges (which is the ultimate goal of the competition, after all). Some “old school” competitions serve beer during lunch as a palate cleanser . . . definitely not necessary, even if somewhat traditional.
- Spit, stay hydrated, and stay focused: If you finish your flight before your fellow panelists, it’s OK to check your Instagram account. Just be sure you’re ready to focus when it’s time to focus. Always spit using the cups provided and drink plenty of the provided water throughout the day. Slipping under the table at your first wine competition is never a pretty look and is guaranteed to make sure you don’t get a return invite.
- Ask questions: Not sure how the scoring system works? Not sure if you’re supposed to rank the samples or award “medals” like bronze, silver or gold? Not sure what Brianna varietal wine should taste like? Be sure to ask your table clerk or the organizers if you’re unsure. Often, it’s important to think with your “consumer hat” and even if you don’t personally like a wine style presented, try to evaluate it against its peers on its own merits.
- Send a thank-you note to the organizer: Your mom was right. Even if it’s an email, a kind thank-you note is always appreciated by the organizers!
But . . . most of all, take your time and have fun. There’s so much camaraderie to be had in the world of wine judging, it’s always one of the things I enjoy most about my job.