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Wine competitions, judging, and blind luck

Wine competitions, judging, and blind luckOr, as the co-author of a new study told me: “Consumers should disregard results from wine competitions, because it’s a matter of luck whether a wine gets a gold medal.”

That’s the conclusion of Robert Hodgson, a winemaker and statistician whose paper (written with SMU’s Jing Cao) is called “Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges” and appears in the current issue of The Journal of Wine Economics. It says that those of us who judge wine competitions, including some of the world’s best-known wine experts, are ordinary at best. And most of us aren’t ordinary.

Because:

… [M]any judges who fail the test have vast professional experience in the wine industry. This leads to us to question the basic premise that experts are able to provide consistent evaluations in wine competitions and, hence, that wine competitions do not provide reliable recommendations of wine quality.

The report is the culmination of research started at the California State Fair wine competition at the end of the last decade. The competition’s organizers wanted to see if judging was consistent; that is, did the same wine receive the same medal from the same judge if the judge tasted it more than once during the event? The initial results, which showed that there was little consistency, were confirmed in the current study.

More than confirmed, actually. Just two of the 37 judges who worked the competition in 2010, 2011, and 2012 met the study’s criteria to be an expert; that is, that they gave the same wine the same medal (within statistical variation) each time they tasted it. Even more amazing, 17 of the 37 were so inconsistent that their ratings were statistically meaningless. In other words, presented with Picasso’s Guernica, most of the judges would have given a masterpiece of 20th century art three different medals if they saw it three different times.

“This is not a reflection on the judges as people, and I don’t mean that kind of criticism,” says Hodgson. “But the task assigned them as wine judges was beyond their capabilities.”

Which, given the nature of wine competitions, makes more sense than many doubters want to believe. Could the problem be with the system, and not the judges? Is it possible to be consistent when judges taste 100 wines day? Or when they taste flight after flight of something like zinfandel, which is notoriously difficult to judge under the best circumstances?

When I asked him this, Hodgson agreed, but added: “But we don’t see an alternative. But it is an inherent problem. You just want to see the competitions give the judges sufficient time to do it.”

Perhaps. But my experience, after a decade of judging regularly, is that the results seem better (allowing for this um-mathematical approach) when I judge fewer wines. That means that the competition is smaller, or that the organizers have hired more judges. Maybe that’s where the next line of study should go, determining if judging fewer wines leads to more consistent results.

Wine of the week: Zenato San Benedetto 2012

Zenato San BenedettoOne of the things that makes Italian wine so fascinating is its variety. You never know, literally, what you’ll find next. How else to explain the Zenato San Benedetto, a white wine made by a largish company that I had never heard of in more than 20 years of doing this?

That’s not unusual with Italian wine, where even the biggest companies are often little known. It’s also not unusual that their wines, like the Zenato ($12, sample, 13.1%), are worth knowing. This was a wonderfully pleasant surprise in what has been a spring of mosty dull, tiresome, and overpriced samples.

The wine is made with the trebbiano grape, the Italian version of the Gascon ugni blanc. But the flavors are different; none of the Gascon white grape, but white fruit (peaches?), a little citrus to flesh out the whole, and a soft, blossom-like aroma. It needs chilling, and an ice cube or two wouldn’t be out of place. If and when warm weather arrives in your part of the country, this is the perfect kind of wine.

It’s also an ideal wine to sip while contemplating this metaphysical question: Why do so many big wine companies in Europe making interesting cheap wine, while their counterparts in the states rarely do?

Winebits 331: Powdered alcohol, last call, and best quote ever

Winebits 331: Powdered alcohol, last call, and best quote ever

“Wonder what Palcohol will do to this crappy wine?”

? When real booze isn’t enough: Not happy with liquid alcohol? Then how about the powdered version, Palcohol, which has been approved for consumer use. It comes in seven flavors, including ?cosmopolitan, ? ?lemondrop, ? and ?powderita. ? Yum yum. No word yet on whether the company will release a pink moscato flavor, with appropriate Millennial marketing: “Dude, your wine is super lame — try this.” The Wine Curmudgeon’s cynicism notwithstanding, I checked with the blog’s offical liquor lawyer, who sighed (he does that a lot when I talk to him). His analysis: “I’ll bet it lasts about 10 minutes. A few years ago all the regulators got panicky over vaporized alcohol. Supposedly made you drunk in .05 seconds and they couldn’t figure out how to make it illegal. Turns out it didn’t work and nobody gave a damn. Maybe this will be the same way, but stand by for screams of alarm.”

? When regular closing time isn’t enough: How does 5:30 in the morning sound? That’s the plan for bars in several Montreal neighborhoods this summer, part of a scheme to ease congestion in those area when the bars close. The Wine Curmudgeon, despite more than a passing knowledge of drinking in Montreal (and where I have had some great Canadian wine), is still confused. Can there be a city where so many people are drinking so late into the night that last call resembles a shopping mall parking lot on Black Friday? If so, I need to get out more often. Or at least drink somewhere besides Dallas.

? If not the best quote ever, close to it: Hardy Wallace gained fame — and quite a bit of notoriety — when he won a gig several years ago as the official blogger for the Murphy-Goode wine brand. Wallace makes wine now, and notoriety still follows him. Consider this, from an interview with a San Francisco-area business newspaper: “It ?s overwhelming generality that vintners are doing a horrible job communicating with consumers. … You do not stand in a room and scream, ‘Buy this!’ and, ‘We sell this!’ ” Sounds like the Wine Curmudgeon on a rant, no?

“The most curmudgeonly of all curmudgeons”

Jeff Siegel WindmillWhich is a compliment. I think.

It comes from an old pal, Louise Owens, who offered many words of wisdom when I started doing this all those years ago. Louise runs a bar now, the famed Windmill Lounge in Dallas, and has been kind enough to host a cheap wine book signing from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday. She’ll also have great cheap wine, to say nothing of the many legendary Windmill habitues who will be on hand.

How to find dependable cheap wine

dependable cheap wineHow do you find dependable cheap wine? That’s the question the Wine Curmudgeon recently discussed with Laurie Daniel, who writes for the San Jose Mercury News and is a top-flight wine judge. The result was her piece in the newspaper, which is a fine read. But it focused on California and wines that cost $20 or less, so I thought it was worth going into more detail. That comes after the jump:

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Mini-reviews 60: Wairau, Garzon, Chapoutier, Chablis

Mini-reviews 60: Wairau, Garzon, Chapoutier, ChablisReviews of wines that don ?t need their own post, but are worth noting for one reason or another. Look for it on the final Friday of each month.

? Wairau River Chardonnay 2012 ($22, sample, 13%): Professionally made California-style chardonnay from New Zealand, with green apple fruit and enough oak to be noticed but not to be offensive. Having said that, why spend $22 for it when there are similar wines costing one-third less?

? Bodega Garz n Tannat 2012 ($20, sample, 13.8%): Tannat is a red grape that has caught on with wine geeks, and this bottle from Uruguay is well made, if pricey. But, save for a funky aroma, it tastes a lot like $15 California central coast merlot without any of tannat’s grip.

? M. Chapoutier Ros Belleruche 2013 ($15, sample, 13%): Dependable French rose has increased in price by almost one-third (thanks to a new importer?), which makes it a lot less dependable. Wine itself is OK, though this vintage has more strawberry fruit and less crispness. But there are dozens of $10 roses with same quality or better.

? Drouhin-Vaudon Chablis 2012 ($20, purchased, 12.5%): This chardonnay from Chablis region of Burgundy in France was sadly disappointing — thin and almost watery, with very little of the crisp, fresh green apple fruit that makes Chablis so wonderful. May have been corked, which is yet another reason for screwcaps. If not, the producer has serious quality control problems.

Enough with the wine and food pairings already, because you’re not helping the cause

wine and food pairings

Since you don’t have any cheese, I assume you don’t have any wine pairings either?

The Wine Curmudgeon’s thoughts about pairing wine and food have evolved significantly over the past decade. I still think pairings are important, but if you don’t like big red wine, what’s the point of telling you to drink big red wine with certain food? All I ask is that you’re open-minded enough to consider pairings and don’t dismiss them as more wine foolishness.

Having said that, it’s not easy for wine drinkers — and even the most experienced among us — to keep an open mind. That’s because the wine business insists on overwhelming us with pairings that are at best impractical and at worst silly. How can we be expected to take pairings seriously when so many suggestions have so little relevance to what we really eat?

For example (all taken from fact sheets and back labels):

? A $10 Chilean pinot noir with paella. This is not to denigrate the Spanish classic (though I’ve never been able to master it), but to note that most of us will never taste paella. So why would anyone suggest it as a pairing, and especially for an every day wine?

? A high-end Napa Valley sauvignon blanc with “any fresh well-made cuisine.” Because, of course, the alternative is so appealing: Pairing a wine with any stale, poorly-made cuisine.

? A $10 Argentine cabernet sauvignon with “of course, our traditional Argentine asado.” I do this for a living, and I had to look up asado (which is lots of beef grilled outdoors over a wood fire). So how is anyone else supposed to know what it is?

The best way to do this? Keep it simple, like Gallo did with its 50th anniversary $7 Hearty Burgundy: chili. Which would work, by the way. Or even, as Rodney Strong does, leave them out, since no suggestions are better than silly ones.

More on wine and food pairings:
? The myth of of wine and food pairings
? Pairing wine with fast food
? Wine and food pairings: Do they matter?