Behind the Scenes

Meet the Judge

The 2013 Air New Zealand Wine Awards

The Air New Zealand Wine Awards help us ordinary folk know the best from the rest. Toast gets behind the scenes on the judgement day.

Come on wine drinkers, you’ve all thought it at some point: that being a wine awards judge must surely be some never-ending Bacchanalian feast – sprawling on plush sofas as minions ply you with wines, the fate of which you can determine with one archly raised eyebrow. It turns out the reality is a little less fantastical, and a lot more methodical hard work. But a few minutes chatting to long-serving Air NZ Wine Awards judge Jim Harre and you realise it’s no less fascinating for all that.

“The main things that surprise people are how involved the process is and just how the wines are rated. We judge in terms of varietal characteristics. Is it true to its variety? It’s not about whether you like them or not,” Harre says. Personal taste is too subjective. “If you don’t like kidneys, you’re never going to like them – it doesn’t matter how they’re served. The same is true for wine varieties, so we’re looking for a standard of quality. “So when I’m smelling a wine for example, I’m not thinking ‘this pinot gris has hints of pear with custard’, instead I’m thinking about whether there’s anything I smell which is not true to variety, or is potentially a fault in the wine.” The other things judges are not there to do is dictate wine trends. If a winemaker wants to experiment with varieties, it’s not up to the judges to decide if they’ll accept the experiment. “We just judge on how well they’ve made the wine. Otherwise you remove any chance of evolution and development in the industry.”

Harre judges wine competitions in the US, UK and Asia and believes the New Zealand judging process is the most rigorous. The Air NZ wine awards begin with the team of stewards who have the crucial responsibility of sorting the pallets and pallets of wine into the correct tasting order.

“All we ever see as a judge is the number on the glass,” says Harre. “There’s incredible trust that they’ve got it right – imagine if they messed up the numbers!”

To further protect the integrity of the results the stewards and judges have no contact aside from balletic processions of them delivering each tasting to the table. That done, each five-member judging panel sets to work, each trying the wines separately with no discussion. “I will go through and smell the first 20 wines and make notes on anything that stands out. Then I’ll go through and taste and write more notes.”

At this stage Harre marks anything he thinks is a high medal contender a 17 – “but everyone has a different system”. Then he re-tastes those wines, along with the first and last wine of each flight, “as they may not have had a fair tasting”.

“And I’ll re-taste anything like a really heavily oaked chardonnay, and a wine either side of it, to make sure they weren’t masked by it.” After that, Harre decides which wines are medal winners.

Then the fun really begins. The judges then go into a round table discussion to share their scores and debate the medal winners. “Interestingly most of the time our scores are within half a mark of each other.” At this point it comes down to a consensus.

“I think it surprises people that it’s a consensus. But everybody has a different palate so you have to be prepared to compromise,” says Harre.

By the end of a judging day Harre reckons the top wines will have been tasted about 37 times.

Which brings us back to those black teeth. “Yes, that is really the only downside. You’re putting a lot of acid in your mouth over the day. It softens the enamel so you can’t clean your teeth for about eight hours after. You’ll never get a wine judge to smile after the first day of judging.” But let’s be honest, the question we want to know, is just how often do the judges actually drink the wine they’re tasting instead of spitting. “Well I never do. I’m really religious about spitting,” Harre says. It’s important to take the process seriously he adds. “After all this is somebody’s livelihood, their passion.” But does spending a good portion of your time tasting wine, mean you stop enjoying it when you’re not on the job? “When I sit down with a glass of wine over a meal I will casually look at the label but most of the time I will just taste it purely as a consumer,” Harre says.

And the first thing he drinks after a day of judging? A beer.

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