Wine shows — what do they mean?

What do wine shows mean? What goes on behind all those white-coated judges we’ve seen recently on TV news – in September’s Canberra Regional Show, October’s International Riesling Challenge and this month’s National Wine Show of Australia?

Who are the judges? What attracts them to serve without pay, not just in our three high-profile local events, but also in the dozens of Aussie and international wine shows, challenges and awards conducted every year?

Can we rely on their judgement? Are the award-winning wines that we buy exactly the same as those tasted by the judges? And does anyone judge the judges? What’s in a wine show for producers? And what’s in it for drinkers?

The answers we get sometimes depend on whom we ask. The late Len Evans, perhaps the most influential figure in modern Australian show judging, believed that wine shows existed primarily to improve the breed – a view consistent with the origin of our wine shows in agricultural societies.

If we ask producers, we’ll get a mixed response. They’ll say they’re in it for the medals, for benchmarking against other wines – or perhaps a combination of both.  Of course, desiring medals and wanting to promote award winners probably enhances the  ‘improving the breed’ argument.

The important question from a drinker’s perspective is the reliability of show results. Do they make a good shopping guide? My answer, with a few caveats, is that the best Aussie shows are pretty good but, as there are anomalies in any one show’s results, a little scepticism is healthy.

Thankfully, Australia’s shows have been free of major scandal and to my knowledge no one has ever been convicted of outright fraud. But there have been rumours in the past, some from good sources, of ‘award winning’ wines being different from the ones tasted by judges.

Aware of the potential damage that such scams might cause, the industry has this decade attempted to boost judging and auditing standards. The move has been driven by a wine show committee established in 2001 by the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology.

The committee (chaired by Canberra-based Nick Bulleid MW has made recommendations on audit protocols, the impartiality of judges, trophy judging, wine show standards and how awards should be used. The ASVO also maintains a register of judges giving details of their credentials. This is now a crucial tool for wine show organisers. See for more details.

So, who are the judges? They’re mainly winemakers. But in the past decade we’ve seen increasing numbers drawn from the media and the retailing, wholesaling and wine-waiting trades.

While there’s no formal qualification system for judges, there’s an apprenticeship of sorts. Those aspiring to come on board need considerable tasting experience before becoming ‘associate’ judges – assessing wines alongside judges and being mentored and assessed for their ability. Their scores are not counted. The apprenticeship might last for years or for one or two shows, depending on ability.

Aspiring judges these days increase their chance of success by completing the Australian Wine Research Institute’s four day advanced wine assessment course. And their chances rise again if they can win one of the 12 places on offer for the annual Len Evans Tutorial (see for details).

Len established the tutorial to give judges and aspiring judges an international perspective and an appreciation of the world’s great wines. Len died two years ago, but the tutorial lives on, guided by his closest disciples. And the ‘scholars’ from past tutorials are now key judges in the major shows.

While the tutorial is clearly a force for good in the show system, it’s not, on its own, going to perfect show judging standards. Perhaps its biggest contribution comes from preaching a global perspective, as Len did. More on wine shows, and the results of the National, next week.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2008