WENATCHEE — Wine judging is hard, stressful and palate-exhausting work.
Particularly if you are a neophyte to the job as I was Thursday when more than 200 wines were judged for the 2012 North Central Wine Awards.
I was there mainly as a backroom worker — preparing the wines for the double-blind judging by the panel of eight wine experts and two moderators. I was also there to report on the event and judging process.
In that reporting capacity, I was allowed to sit in on judgings of a couple of wine flights. I got my own table, score sheets, spitting cup and bucket of sawdust.
After each group of wines is judged, the spit cup and wine left in the glasses are poured into the sawdust bucket. The wood shavings soak up the wine and the aromas so they don’t interfere with the next group of wines.
I also got a bottle of water and a paper plate of sliced mushrooms, chunks of bland cheese and some oyster crackers to cleanse my palate, if needed, between wines.
I felt very official as my fellow backroom workers set a flight of 10 wineglasses of merlot in front of me. In addition to the wine, I got a taste of the pressure involved in attempting fair and knowledgeable criticism of products made with much time, money, years of experience, and yes, love, heart and soul. As an amateur grape grower and winemaker, I do know something about the work and excitement that goes into each bottle of wine.
I swirled the ounce of wine in each glass and inspected it for color and clarity. I brought each glass to my nose and breathed in the aromas each wine had to offer. Lots of oak, vanilla and smoke were there. Some were fruity and floral. Others offered less pleasant aromas.
I tasted each one. Just a sip. Judges don’t drink the wines, they sip, wash the wine around their mouth to hit all those different taste buds, and then spit them out into the cup. Otherwise, they would certainly be laying on the floor babbling incoherently about tannins and acids after tasting 120 wines. At least that’s where I would be.
Even sober, I didn’t understand much of what the other judges were saying about oxidation, strange gases, oak, liveliness and subtle nuances of fruit, tobacco and shoe leather.
Some of the wines I liked, round and full with tastes of ripe cherries and raspberries and mouth-pleasing textures. Some seemed too stringent with tannins that puckered my mouth, or too alcoholic. By the time I went through the 10 wines and started sniffing and tasting them a second time, the aromas and flavors had changed, confirming my own belief that young wines need lots of exposure to air out of the bottle to develop their full flavor potential.
My ratings and appraisals weren’t included in the scoring, which is too bad. They might have helped a few wines that I would be glad to drink.
Some of the judges were pretty tough, holding the wines up to higher standards, other wines and known flaws that were far beyond me.
It was an interesting and educational experience to be sure. But sitting in on the judging of 17 entries of merlot and later 10 entries of malbec was truly more exhausting than carting around cases of wine, organizing, decanting, pouring and serving wines through the rest of the 12-hour day of judging.
The judges, all professionals who had worked many other competitions, appraised more than 220 wines from 40 wineries that day, and then several a second time for best of show honors. How they do it, I don’t know.
All seemed pleased with the results, saying the medal tally was in line with other competitions. All of the wines, they said, had merit and were sure to have loyal followers even if not at the medal-earning level.
All acknowledged North Central Washington as an up and coming wine region that — while still trying to catch up to some areas — has a lot to offer and is ideally well-suited to many grape varieties, especially colder-climate grapes like riesling, gewurtraminer and syrah.
Judges who participated in last year’s NCW Wine Awards — the first held by Foothills magazine — thought local wines had improved in quality.
Award winners will be announced in the August issue of Foothills magazine and at the NCW Wine Awards Invitational gala event Aug. 26.
This story first appeared on Winemaker’s Journal, a blog on the Wenatchee World website