They share acute sensitivity, a grandfather’s patience and a spittoon the size of a 12-piece bucket from KFC.
Wine judges are a strange breed indeed. Who else would travel thousands of miles, usually for little or no money, just to sit in a fluorescent hotel conference room all day and spit out everything they put in their mouth?
Though certainly not a glamorous job, wine judges and the competitions they serve provide tangible benefits for wineries, retailers and consumers.
Competition panels usually consist of four to five professionals from varied capacities in the wine industry. Both men and women sommeliers, wine buyers, restaurateurs, wine writers and winemakers are combined and blended among each panel so as to include a wide spectrum of experiences.
Each judge evaluates multiple flights of wines throughout the day, scoring every wine individually. After all panelists have completed the flight, a lively discussion ensues where a consensus decision is made as to whether the wine is award worthy, and if so, what color medal to bestow. A panelist can expect to evaluate around 100 wines per day.
With only approximately seven out of 100 wines tasted being awarded gold medals and more than half being discarded with the dreaded “no award,” typically judges are subjected to a day brimming with dreadful flavors and fragrances. Aromas of sweat socks, moldy cardboard and wet dog suffocate their nostrils in search of the next beautiful wine. And when the elusive gold medal-caliber entry finally does hit a judge’s palate, it is quickly scored and then subjected to a tragic fate when expectorated, along with all others entries, into a large vessel of frothing yuck.
Gold medal winners are marketed proudly as such, and more easily sell out at the winery. Consumers who buy award winners are sure to have a quality bottle to enjoy as it was pre-tasted and given a quality seal of approval by a panel of professionals.
“Not all wineries can get their wines in front of The Wine Spectator or Robert Parker,” said Robert Whitley, director of The San Diego International Wine Competition and The Critics Challenge. "(Competition results) serve as a consumer guide to wines that professionals have taken a liking to.”
Winemaker and winery owner Larry Stanton of the Paso Robles-based Cerro Prieto Vineyard was recently awarded two gold medals for his 2006 Cerro Prieto Merlot at Whitley’s competitions. He appreciates other benefits competitions provide.
“Its more than the award, it provides confirmation that what we are doing is correct,” he said.
Competition directors and judges get most of the notoriety, but none of these events would be possible without the hard work in the back room where the true lifeblood of competitions exist. Thousands of bottles must be lined up, categorized, computerized, opened, precisely poured and carted to the judges. This thankless task is performed quietly and efficiently by some of the most organized people in the wine industry.
For your consumer guide to the results of Whitley’s competitions, visit
- For more information on Cerro Prieto Vineyards, visit