'Everyone's a winner, baby that's the truth.'
Wine show judging sounds absolutely idyllic.
You imagine endless days casting a knowing eye over a smorgasbord of wines (with someone else pouring) and then parlaying into booze-soaked judges' dinners, where outdoing each other with unicorn wines to drink is effectively a sport.
Yet the harsh reality of this life is excruciatingly apparent at 9:01 on the third day of judging. Gone is the stinging memory of last night's corked Bordeaux, and instead, you face a neverending lineup of current vintage Sauvignon Blanc on the table.
Quickly, you start questioning a) when it's lunchtime and b) what you're doing with your life.
Really, the problem is that most shows are just too welcoming - any wine can be entered, no matter whether it's any good. There's no filter, no hierarchy, just a chance for a winemaker to bag some silverware. And it's a numbers game, too - enter enough shows worldwide, and eventually, a weary judge somewhere will like it.
As a result, many competitions have grown into gigantic affairs, where judges sift through classes that might be sixty wines deep, even now in the 2020s. And out of those five dozen wines, there might be just a handful (if any) that are gold medal quality, with endless rows of haystack wines required to be slogged through to locate that elusive medal-winning needle.
But this context is why I loved judging at the 2023 Winewise Championship in Canberra this week. Indeed, this is my third time judging here because I like it so much.
This runs like a classic wine show, with judges served blind (so no judge knows the identity of the wines) in 'classes' of similar varieties or styles. But there is a twist - every wine that is entered in the 2023 Winewise Championship is required to have won a gold medal from an Australian wine show. No exceptions. It means a judge or two somewhere else in the country has already given every entrant a tick of approval, and we're enjoying the spoils.
It also means that, unlike the traditional ethos of Australian wine shows - which is as much about rewarding technical excellence as quality - the goal of the championship ramps up to more like a trophy judging, where you compare the best of the best (with no filler).
Indeed, wines are judged in classes of just six wines and ranked like a traditional wine show trophy judging - where you give 5 points to the wine you rate the best in the bracket, 4 to the second best, 3 to the third etc. etc. until your least favourite (which gets 0 points). Then, all the judges' rankings are tallied, and the wine with the most points goes through to the next round (or takes home a trophy).
But it's not easy. It's hard work. You have to look for ever finer details when every wine is of such a high standard. As fellow judge Dean O'Reilly said this week, it all becomes 'a hair-splitting contest'. It's also mentally draining, with more concentration required to get things right. Heck, I was cooked by the end of each day (and it wasn't the extra glasses of the epic B13 Bollinger).
To give a prime example, we had a taste off (like a final of the best brackets) of six Chardonnay on Tuesday morning that contained some of the top names in Australian premium wine. No, I can't spell out brands (results will be out soon!), but you'll know them. And every one of those six wines I loved/ would happily drink. They were glorious, world-class Chardonnay in a few shades (lighter/taut to more rich/grandiose) that all could and should have won.
The eventual winner wasn't my favourite, nor even my second favourite. But they were all so delicious that I felt like clapping my hands (and heading off to lunch).
You could repeat this situation again and again throughout the show. A 2022 Semillon class looked so even-handed that I ached for the wines that didn't win. A large 2021 Shiraz lineup also had so many non-winning winners, and the final Cabernet trophy taste-off was just a joy of stylistic differences. Grenache, Riesling, Pinot Noir and some interesting Barbera... the highlights go on.
There were disappointments, of course. The Pinot Gris and Pinot Grigio lineup was boring (just drink Riesling), and the Fiano class did nothing for me. Plus, there were a small handful of wines where you start questioning how it was possible that any judge could give it a medal instead of tipping it down the sink.
Was everyone on the panel too hungover to tell?
That's not the takeaway here, though. Instead, as I realised on the long, dull drive home to Sydney yesterday (interrupted by a servo stop where I scored strange looks thanks to my Shiraz-blackened teeth), the joy of the 2023 Winewise Championships was simply about tasting lots of excellent wines.
So often in judging, whether it's wine, beer, mince pies, what school to send your kids etc., it's more about picking out what's wrong rather than celebrating what's right. In this case, I expected every wine to be good quality, so it removed a slab of negativity, leaving me to revel in how great our local vino can be (especially the gold medal standard wines like this).
Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to buy some of the Bollinger to one-up everyone at the next wine show...
Andrew has judged at wine shows locally and worldwide for 15+ years and always looks forward to the fortified class.