Who Gets To Judge?
By Doug Fabbioli
Any form of competition needs to have people involved as officials, experts, or judges to make sure the process is fair. Wine competitions are no different. But how do people get to be chosen as a wine judge and is there a process that leads to becoming one?
In order to be able to judge a subject, one needs to be an expert in that subject. There also needs to be the desire: the willingness to do what is needed to become educated and prepared. For wine education one way to enhance your knowledge is the WSET program (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). The courses start out relatively light and simple at Level 1, and then a person can continue through the program with more challenging wines, subject matter, and tests in order to train the palate as well as the brain. Time in the industry helps a lot as well. Making wine, selling wine, buying wine, even just being intentional about tasting wine with others are all good for gaining the knowledge. The idea is to understand the grape growing and winemaking process in such a way that one can taste a wine, identify characters in the wine, and judge whether that character is good or bad based on the typical characteristics of that wine and style. Sounds easy, doesn’t it?
A friend of mine as well as of the Virginia Wine industry is Kathy Wiedemann. She says “My journey to being a wine judge has been long, encompassing a decade of wine studies, tasting thousands of wines, and having a deep passion for wine. I consider myself an unofficial wine ambassador for Virginia wine as it is where I truly found that passion. Having worked for seven years just about every weekend in VA wine, I’ve seen the amount of hard work, craftsmanship, and love that goes into each and every bottle.” As for becoming a judge, Kathy says “A friend was a wine judge at the 2021 VA Governor’s cup competition and was posting about it on social media and I responded that it was a goal of mine to judge that competition. My comment was seen and ultimately led to being invited to be a judge.” These days Kathy is pursuing the WSET Diploma level, always looking to further her knowledge and improve her skills.
As with any professional growth, mentoring comes into play. Finding a person who is doing what you hope to do and who is willing to share some of the knowledge and steps needed to get to that position is very helpful. If someone is looking to get into wine judging, a great place to break in is by supporting the competition as a steward. Each competition needs people to organize, pour, serve and track the wines during the judging. It is a challenging job of service, and it is a volunteer position, but it gets one in the room and often tasting the wines after they are judged.
Competitions can be focused by region, varietal or wine style. As for the style of the judging, while each competition has its methodology, judging is based on objective methods with a goal of keeping personal preferences out of the mix. Some will have notes on style definitions available to guide judges through lesser known varietals. This will hopefully help judge wines more fairly as not every judge knows of every grape and every region.
The opportunity to be a wine judge will grow with the experience, success and profile of the taster. As one who has judged a few competitions over the years, I can tell you it is not an easy thing to do, no matter how fun it sounds. Being fair is a responsibility and a challenge, especially as the day goes on. And as a producer and one who is judged, I appreciate the work that goes into the process of the wine competition. From the organizers and promoters to the stewards and the judges, all the pieces need to work together to achieve the goals. Honesty and fairness with a relatively subjective product can be a challenge with wine and with society, but you keep trying to do the best you can.
Wishing you all a very Happy Holiday Season! Be sure to celebrate with some Virginia Vintages!