ood morning, Ms. Larner. This is Verona, the Veneto, northern Italy. Each year in March, dozens of carefully qualified agents, both foreign and Italian, assemble here to participate in the Vinitaly Concorso Enologico Internazionale. Their objective is to taste 3,622 wines, in four-minute intervals, over five days, assess and analyze each sample according to rigid sensorial and scientific criteria while resisting the easy trappings of alcohol enjoyment. Your mission, Monica, should you decide to accept it, is to infiltrate the group, study the ways and habits of the wine judge, and above all: spit don’t swallow. This tape will self-destruct in five seconds. Good luck.
A few years ago I accepted an invitation to represent the United States as one of 90 international wine judges at Vinitaly’s prestigious wine competition. Some 13,000 uncorked bottles, 25,000 used glasses and 700 decanters later I determined wine judging is hard work reserved only to qualified professionals endowed with above average olfactorial fortitude. I learned many other important things, not all of which I remember.
Here, for those who want to hazard similar competitions, is my final report:
Day 1: 6 a.m. wake-up call. Rendezvous at the fortress-like VeronaFiera complex where the wine competition is held. Formal introductions to the other 89 judges, many of whom represent the world’s emerging wine markets with special emphasis on eastern block nations and the Far East. Introduction to the man who would become our fearless leader over the next 120 hours: the Juries’ President Giuseppe Martelli — reputed to be the most disciplined man in Italy. Dr. Martelli dutifully explains competition regulations. No talking during the tasting, no passing of wine glasses between judges and no telefonini allowed.
If a wine appears corked, we may request a second sample but not a third. His faithful number two, identified cryptically as Lawyer Prosperini, puts in a brief appearance. He supervises monitoring of bottles, masking their identities and recalculates judges’ scores after they are submitted. Judges are assigned to 18 commissions, each consisting of two foreign journalists, one foreign enologist and two Italian enologists according to article 9 of the competition regulations.
Music from the movie “Rocky” accompanies us as we take our assigned seats in the tasting room. Then, silence. Enter stage left: A team of sommeliers marches in neat formation and begin pouring. We scrutinize wine for the next four hours. Towards the end of the afternoon tasting session, a cell phone rings. Unidentified owner does not acknowledge and lets it go unanswered.
Day 2: Gone with the Wind theme song opens morning session. We move from white wine to reds. I assign numerical points to “limpidity,” “genuineness,” “refinement,” “harmony,” and “persistence” on a 100-point scale. Mental note to check if “genuineness” is in fact a word.
At the end of the session, Dr. Martelli reads aloud the names of the judges who miscalculated their scores the previous day. They are instructed to report to Lawyer Prosperini in an undisclosed location. A sense of unease blankets the room. My name is not called.
Day 3: Awkward medieval medley is today’s opening music. Most of the day is a haze but I am confident it involves alcohol. Even if you don’t drink wine, your body absorbs five percent of the alcohol, or so I am told. My gums begin to ache because of acidity and my teeth are discolored from tannins. Missed the spit bucket and stained my blouse.
Day 4: Sparkling wines are poured. Have difficulty in assigning scores to “bubble size” and “bubble persistence.” Seek counsel, and am advised to give high scores to “bubbles whose moral compass appears to be pointed in the right direction.” This helps.
Day 5: Tasting wine proves an arduous task after a rather extreme evening in which a fellow wine commissioner (from Australia) proclaimed 3:30 a.m. the opportune moment to explore the depths of the hotel mini bar offerings.
Midway through the fifth day, the wine competition is officially proclaimed over. Judges shake hands, embrace and take group photo. There is a sense of accomplishment and belonging to a greater cause. Dr. Martelli has presided over yet another successful Concorso.
No time for nap before dinner.
Fatigue and exhaustion set in. Oh no, is that more wine being poured into my glass? Wine judges attending gala dinner finale with obligatory congratulatory speeches and find brief relief in writing messages on grissini bread sticks (“break only in emergency,” “not to be recycled,” “slippery when wet,” “size does not matter” and “to be continued” on broken stick) and passing them covertly from table to table. Note: baked grissini are ideal surface for secret note taking.
The next day many of us will return to our respective countries. Mission Inebriate is over.
Conclusions: Wine tasting does not a drinking problem make…. or does it?
Judge for Yourself
Judges evaluate three factors — the sight, smell and taste of wine — but before they assign scores, they must be able to articulate their impressions with words. Recognizing what you taste (“green pepper,” “citrus fruit” or “leather”) is half the battle and understanding basic terms will help you appreciate wine.
To evaluate sight, wines should be held at a 45-degree angle against a bright background or sheet of paper. A “brilliant” wine boasts sparkling clarity and a “dull” wine may look murky. Evaluating color, the second aspect of “sight,” is as important as clarity. Wines are red, white or pink, or variations of the above.
Whites range from an almost transparent greenish tint to deep amber. Reds vary from pale purple to brownish brick and their hue is determined by the time the juice/wine is kept on the skins before, during and after fermentation, and the time spent in oak or bottle aging. Rosé, or rosato wines, go from light pink to coral red. They typically are made from red grapes that have had brief contact with their skins and then treated as if they were white wines.
After judging sight, judges evaluate smell — referred to as the “nose” of a wine. This is the perfume wine gives off, especially when swirled in its glass, and is measured in terms of “aroma” and “bouquet.”
Fortunately, there is an easy way to differentiate between the two. “Aroma” is derived from the grape itself. Sangiovese used in Chianti usually has a cherry, plumy and even earthy aroma; Nebbiolo used in Barolo has whiffs of anise, some tobacco and chocolate.
“Bouquet,” on the other hand, comes from the winemaking process and is largely influenced by the styles and length of oak used, if at all. Words like “leathery,” “vanilla,” or “buttery” come to mind. If a wine tastes “woody,” it may suffer from improper aging. Excess oak in the bouquet overwhelms desirable grape aromas and can make for a boring wine.
Some wines have no nose at all, and others reveal their worst flaws to the nostrils. If a wine smells remotely like the cork, it has probably been contaminated. “Corked” wine is the industry’s biggest problem and experts say three to five percent of all bottles on the market are ruined because of it. If the wine smells moldy or like a wet dog, it may be due to spoilage yeast from rotten grapes or unclean barrels. If you smell sulfur (the rotten egg variety) there may have been a problem during fermentation. In some defective whites, you can smell sulfur dioxide (a burnt match). Wines that have been oxidized, or exposed to too much air, smell like sherry and if you smell vinegar, you’re facing a hopelessly flawed wine.
Once sight and smell have been scrutinized, the judge must evaluate taste. How the wine hits the palate confirms the findings of both the eyes and the nose. To fully taste wine, swirl it in your mouth so that it hits the most sensitive part of the tongue at the tip, sides and the back while slowly sucking in air. Oddly, the tongue itself cannot taste aromas. What you are doing by swishing wine in your mouth is using your olfactory, or “smelling” through your mouth.
A pleasantly tart wine is one with an agreeable degree of the four acids (citric, malic, tartaric and lactic) naturally present in wine. Together they make up “acidity,” which is what you taste in lemon juice. Astringency, derived from tannins in red wines, is also a good thing in moderation. Tannins make your mouth pucker and your tongue feels like sandpaper. Tannin is found in grape skins/stems and oak and if you want to taste it, bite into an unripe persimmon.
Lastly, aftertaste or “finish” is a measure of how long a wine leaves an impression in your mouth. A below average wine will linger in your mouth for less than two seconds and an exceptional wine will last as long as ten, so keep an eye on the clock. If all these elements are in harmony — without excess acidity or tannin — a wine is deemed “balanced.”