RECENTLY, I returned from judging two very prestigious wine competitions. Like all such exercises, it involves a lot of discipline, a lot of late nights and early mornings, and lots and lots of wine. But the one thing that’s to be imbued in absolutely unbelievable amounts is not the number of business cards or canapés, but humility.
Now, what business could such a mute outdated virtue have at an event, where it’s all about impressing others with your vast knowledge and standing your ground when it comes to awarding a wine? Yes, I, too, have always wondered that. In fact, I also wonder just how they manage to fit in all those big egos and massive heads into spaces as small as stadiums!
And yet I turn up every year, relentless in my journey to hone my wine tasting skills, drinking in the knowledge that seems to brim over from the many gathered luminaries—even ones who are absolute tosspots. As long as they know something more than me, I am happy to tolerate them for some time.
So how does humility help in a wine tasting, especially in a blind one, where nobody will know any better? You could cry yourself hoarse that the previous flight of wines were from Bordeaux and you could be entirely wrong, but by the time the results are compiled—and you find out the percentage of Merlot in one particular wine wasn’t the stated 80%—none would be the smarter. And in spite of it all, you may still be invited back next year to inflict more judges with your egotistical brand of self-promotion.
Trouble is, to do that is to miss out on the joys that a blind tasting can offer. It is best, I believe, to keep your head down, mouth shut and ears and nose open. The lower your head, greater are the chances you will be closer to the glass and will smell something that you may have missed earlier. A shut mouth will automatically open up the other sensory faculties, which could help you listen and learn more about a region or a grape—someone else is sure to be elucidating on such. And an open nose helps just in case you catch that Brett-riddled wine before others do—or worse still, award it a gold medal! Brett smells like discarded Hansaplasts/Band-aids or an unkempt barnyard in case you need a reference point!
So in all humility, here are the five things I picked up from my recent stints as senior judge at the International Wine Challenge and the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles:
1) Never be too sure, for what you may think is one wine could be entirely another. It was one thing to guess styles and regions when most wines were French and Italian, but today, with wines coming in from China to Bulgaria (and even India), there is no telling who will churn out what wine styles.
2) Never be presumptuous. Just because the first sip didn’t go down well, don’t be quick to write off a wine. Give it a second chance.
3) Objectivity over subjectivity. You may abhor a wine style or a grape, or you may eschew oak, but it doesn’t justify marking down a wine because of it.
4) Be pleasant. Most people who make wine—leaving aside the greedy corporate types—make it out of love. In such, they are artists, so their expressions may be askew to you or at a sheer tangent to your tastes, but it doesn’t mean they are wrong. Try and award personality and character rather than culling for consistency and conformity.
5) That said, let me hastily add that just because we are to award the outliers doesn’t mean being a maverick is the key to a medal. The tricky path to tread is all about being innovative without losing focus of the traditions that built the repute of the wine style/region in the first place.
The writer is a sommelier