Breakfast of champions, Tim Pawsey photo

In anticipation of next week’s BC Lieutenant Governor’s Awards for Excellence announcement, we thought we’d revisit this column about wine judging that ran in the North Shore News a while back. Some folks have moved on to other things but … well, you’ll get the gist.


Sometime this summer, when you were busy devouring that trashy novel on the beach, I was on the business end of a couple of hundred glasses of wine—not all at once, mind you: We had at least a day and a half to come up with the goods.

As someone who now instinctively swirls and sniffs even a distinctly lacking-in-aromatics glass of mineral water, the curiosities of wine judging have become quite normal.  Yet mention to someone blissfully unaware of the joys—and pitfalls—of such viticultural scrutiny that you’re about to work through 20 Chardonnays before ten in the morning (let alone noon) and chances are they’ll look at you gently askance, with that regard they kept for their alcoholic great uncle. (Who quite possibly did pass away well preserved from too much Boodles…)

Wine judges are as varied as the juices they swirl, sniff, sip, spit and pronounce upon: a unique breed of characters that range from long suffering scribes (like me) to uber palates like David Scholefield (former senior portfolio manager at the BC Liquor Board, who now runs Vancouver Magazine’s annual power judging is VP Wine Strategy & Liquid Art Selections for Trialto) and Wine Access guru Tony Gismondi (who, while celebrated for his tasting prowess, is less well known for his wicked impersonations between flights).

Tasting cohorts reflected in the copper ceiling

There is, however, a common bond. Wine judges love their work.  They have to.  It takes a certain fortitude to stare down a row of glasses and know that, somewhere in here, lurks not only a winner but a wine that will knock your socks off—assuming you’ve washed your socks, of course. (Years ago I once judged next to a guy who despite his ability to hunt down an oxidized wine at 20 paces had obviously yet to discover the satisfying aromas of Tide or Cheer.  But I digress.)

Another thrills to the sounds of bird calls on his iPod and has been known to occasionally disappear in search of rare warblers before the medal discussion.  And yet another has propelled a panel to sleep with over the top descriptors of viognier ‘perfumed with the hint of a fallen rose petal on concrete, warmed in the morning sun.’

Some judges love to show off, nailing that one glass well down the order that’s slightly corked with lightning efficiency; and loudly requesting a re-pour—before their peers have even finished nosing the first entry.  (Joy breaks out in the ranks, of course, when the invigilator reveals the wine is under screw cap, thankfully an increasingly common occurrence.

Others whip out the Times crossword to knock off between flights—no doubt to prove that the only thing better than a prodigious proboscis is a stellar vocabulary—or at least a thesaurus that roams beyond the bounds of enology.

Marjorie King knows a thing or two about the secret life of wine judges. She’s the woman who put the Okanagan Wine Festival judging on the BC map and developed the ‘double blind’ technique used to make sure that all wines are kept anonymous (even to the facilitator); and that such events are conducted with utmost fairness—and at least a modicum of decorum.

King recalls a ‘tasting from hell’ when invited judges from either side of the Atlantic generated ‘an amazing display of continental differences’ that resulted in the one hating everything the other loved, and vice versa.

The long time facilitator also oversaw the VQA tasting panel for many years, which allowed plenty of insight into variations of palatable (and otherwise) opinion.  Flawed wines often produce the most spirited discussion. In fact, it can often come down to a matter of personal taste.  Or, as King points out, “a firm whiff of hydrogen sulfide that could ‘knock your head off’ may be deadly to one—but ‘naughty and promiscuous’ to another.”

Then there’s the question of just how many wines the palate (and the brain) can truly address at one sitting.  The pros call it palate fatigue: that moment when your mouth just plain puckers up from a barrage of tannins, or worse.

The phrase that BC judges fear the most?  The icewine flight.  That moment—just when you think it’s all behind you—when the panel discovers that everyone and their dog has decided to enter their prized elixir (what little survived the birds and bears), which these days could be made with anything from Riesling (ideal) to Marechal Foch (maybe not)—a vine that Sumac Ridge founder Harry McWatters suggests best belongs on the barbecue: burned.

An icewine flight of 20 wines is the taster’s ultimate nightmare, as off-the-scale sugars and bracing acidity can combine to produce a tooth-ache of jurassic proportions like no other—and with only one known cure: Beer.

‘You can’t make good wine without good beer,’ is a favourite expression among winemakers the world over.  And, indeed, in the case of languishing wine judges, at the end of the day, a cleansing ale is often the only way to sooth the savaged palate. And even enough to make you forget that coming up first thing in the morning … is a flight of 35 Cabernets.