Coke Roth

So you want to be a wine judge

Ed. note: Beginning with this issue, Coke Roth will share stories -- mostly true -- from his adventures in tasting Northwest wine over the past five decades.

Other than being asked the origins of my name (long story, another time), I most frequently get asked how I became a wine judge.

Prior to entering law school at the age of 40, I ran the Tri-City branch of Roth Distributing Co., a multigeneration beer and wine wholesale operation. From the time I was a tyke, wine quality aspects intrigued me, so a life-long marriage occurred between my occupation and recreation.

There was foreign study in Germany during my junior year of college, working for Gallo just after my undergraduate studies, a gentle nudge from my wonderful father and membership in the Sigma Chi fraternity (actually, that was primarily beer). All seem to be the most likely reasons why I could not get my nose out of a glass.

However, I suppose the formal beginning came in 1976 when Bob Wing, wine competition superintendent of the Nez Perce County Fair in Lewiston, Idaho, invited Washington grape grower Maury Balcom and me to be wine judges at the fair. I was so honored because I was going to be a rock star at the Nez Perce County Fair.

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Dressed in a paisley tie and orange plaid bell bottom pants (lookin' groovy), I sat with the other judges at classroom-style tables, in a building with a door 30 feet from the bovine barn. The wines in brown bags were displayed behind us on shelves. A couple of feet in front of us was a flimsy rope, to keep the mosh pit of onlookers in their own zone.

As we were thoughtfully tasting through wines that ranged from Cabernet Sauvignon to dandelion, a man -- a very large man -- leaned over the rope and yelled "Yur judgin' maa waaaahn!" He was dressed in bib overalls, tipping the scales 80 pounds heavier than the grand champion hog, a chain saw in hand and a toothless grin. He leaned back and said, "Hopin' ya lahk it," and it was not by coincidence that we did, the olfactory distraction from the bovine barn notwithstanding. It was a pea pod wine, emerald green in color, with perfect balance and varietal character. A gold medal -- with or without his compelling presence.

So, you wanna be a wine judge? Be careful what you wish for.

While it is enviable, it is not easy. It is, indeed, cool being a wine judge; the paid-for trips, the deluxe accommodations, terrific food, fun people and great wines all invoke jealousy from the wine-drinking crowd. Judging a couple dozen wines at the Nez Perce County Fair is mere child's play compared with the 100-200 per day you normally expect at a large competition; my personal record was 237, and if you don't spit all the wine out, you'll be napping by noon.

I advise people to never get too impressed with one wine critic, rather believing a panel of judges is a better quality filter. I know more than the average bear about wine, but no one can tell you what you like. A typical wine panel consists of food, sales, media and technical people, and only when the stars align do you get medals. Indeed, the system is not perfect. And panels don't catch it all, either.

The night before one international judging in Canada, we judges were at a little Italian restaurant drinking expensive Italian wine. A fellow judge spotted one wine on the menu, a screw-top $7, liter-size bottle from Chile. Unbeknownst to us, the next day our hands-down prejudging favorite was entered into the competition, and every judge voted no medal, including me.

So, the old "time and place" lesson was learned at a relatively young age: Wine competitions have the same blemishes as any of the other indicators except that there may be some chance that not all of the same judges will make the same mistake at the same time.

Most of the wine judges I have met during my 36 years of running and judging wine competitions have vast experience in food and wine. The best wine judges are those who do not place too much emphasis on their own likes and dislikes, but rather use the time-and-place memory skills to balance organoleptic acuity with subjectivity.

Whenever and wherever I judge, I remember the following analogy: Cindy Crawford has a mole on her face, and actor George Clooney has a hairy back (I assume). The point is, if you concentrate on only those small blemishes, you are missing out on a lot of fine horse flesh. Accordingly, the best wine judges do not overemphasize small faults in a wine; instead, they understand that the sterile and sometimes fatiguing atmosphere of the judging table must be weighed in favor of the wine.

Wine will be consumed with friends, over dinner or otherwise enjoyed by consumers who are not bothered by the mole. Moreover, good wine judges are not afraid to move off of their original position. My good friend and fellow Wine Press Northwest columnist Dan Berger and I will frequently go from a bronze to a gold based on a retaste and compelling arguments by our talented counterparts.

In closing, you can use particular indicators from columnists and wine competitions as rough guidelines on what you want to drink. However, the guy in the paisley print tie and orange plaid bell bottoms advises you to be your own judge. I advise you to drink wine you like in moderation -- frequently.

Coke Roth is an attorney who lives in Richland, Wash. He is an original member of Wine Press Northwest's tasting panel. Learn more about him at cokerothlaw.com.

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