Judging in context

There is a subtle, inquisitive thrill to sitting down to blind taste a dozen glasses of unknown liquid. Even repeated eight times over five days, as at the latest Decanter World Wine Awards, the excitement doesn’t wear off. Twelve shades of lemon or gold, ruby or garnet, and among them, perhaps, a wine of real beauty, interest and distinction. 

As soon as you lift the glass, however, things start to get a bit more complicated. What are the criteria for judging? Is it objective or subjective, or a bit of both? It is about absolute quality or relative quality? Does typicity matter or does it just have to be good wine? Should price feature?

These are big and interesting questions, answered variously by the different judging competitions. The matter of price has proven particularly controversial. Two recent letters to Decanter were scathing about the recent introduction of price bands to the magazine’s panel tastings. The accusation was that knowing the price would mean top wines would be scored according to their status and that wines under £15 – the lowest of three price bands – would be scored down. I was surprised. Behind the words of the letters there seems to be a profound distrust of the people judging the wines. Yet, as a wine judge myself, the only thing better than discovering a wine of beauty, interest and distinction in a blind tasting line-up is discovering a wine of beauty, interest and distinction that is under £15.  

It seems to me that these charges are grounded in the belief that the quality will always rise to the top and good tasters will always spot it regardless of price, therefore knowing the price is irrelevant. And in most cases, that’s true. But what about value, something we cannot offer an opinion on without seeing the price? 

Under the cold glare of objective, absolute quality, cheaper wines are less likely to be rewarded when you don’t know their price. Based on my conversations with fellow judges, I would suggest that price bands offer useful information that is likely to highlight cheaper wines that punch above their weight, and punish overpriced aspirational wines that don’t offer value.

True, not all judges are attuned to the fine details of retail pricing in individual markets, and it is essential to get the pricing correct and consistent. But in reality, you can’t really hide such things. Any wine-literate judge will automatically assign broad price points to most wine flights once they know what the wines in question are. 

The more context you have for the wine – including origin, grapes and general style – the more likely you are to do it justice. That’s why so many of the trade take issue with numerical scores, because without a note it can’t situate a wine in a wider context of style. Tasting completely blind removes the potential for an Ayn Rand moment of individual glory when you triumph over the forces of mystery and enigma, revealed to all your peers as a mighty taster, but tasting with context means there’s a much greater chance of being fair to the wine and appreciating it for what it is trying to express (arguably more important than personal victory).

Context, in the end, is vital. It’s the difference between enjoying a tall glass of ouzo on a Greek island and Googling ouzo recipes” four years later from rainy London. Price is an important element of that context, perhaps the most decisive one, for the majority of drinkers. Wine judges and critics have a duty to use that information intelligently and responsibly rather than ignore it.

Jason Millar is the retail director at independent wine merchant Theatre of Wine. He can be contacted at  jason@theatreofwine.com and found on Twitter @jasondmillar

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