A world without the Aussie wine show: Part One

by blog on June 5, 2014

Christina Pickard

Moving from the UK to Australia, after having grown up in the United States, is hardly a culture shock. The language is mostly the same, the food is mostly the same, and the people are mostly the same.

I had no way of know that the biggest culture shock I would encounter upon moving to the land Down Under would not be the locals’ blatant flippancy towards deadly creatures populating their back gardens and local beaches. Nor would it be the dizzying array of terminology required for specifying glass size when ordering a beer. It would instead be the wine culture.

The differences between the Old World and the New World had of course been drummed into me from the start of my wine education in Britain, but learning from a book and a glass were one thing, experiencing these differences first hand was another.

The traditional (and I emphasise this word, as I am well aware of the increasing rise of counter cultures) Aussie approach to wine can be summed up by observing and/or participating in the rituals of one nation-wide institution: the Australian wine show. A secret society of unspoken rules and rites of passage which seeps beyond the walls of the wine show and into the assessment of wine at casual local tastings, winery visits, even dinner parties.

Traditionally part of the Royal Agricultural Society’s ‘Best in Show’ competitions, wine in Oz was featured as a category alongside wood chipping, pigeons and poultry, alpaca fleeces, creative crafts, and many more. And while it is still a category in some royal shows, the wine competition has since taken on a life of its own and now operates in a three-tiered system from regional to state to national shows. Judges and associate judges are split into panels, each with their own panel chair who, according to James Halliday, ‘guides the discussion and has indicated before the judging commences how it will be managed’. Australians judge on a 20-point scale with initial tastings carried out in ‘strict silence’. Scores are then compared and wines that have caused disagreement are discussed and re-tasted by the panel. Gold medal wines are then generally re-tasted against each other by all judges to determine trophy winners.

“The judging process of today is…very deliberately slanted to discussion on the core concept of ‘improving the breed’,” says Halliday. This rather frightening phrase, which conjures up disturbing images of racial cleansing, is one that is used often when describing the show.

The Aussie show system takes itself extremely seriously and prides itself on training up armies of expert judges to correctly identify faults and to reward wines that will ‘improve the breed’. The Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) offers an assessment course to ‘prepare potential new wine show judges and develop the sensory analysis capabilities and the vocabulary of Australian wine industry personnel at an elite level.’ The Len Evans Tutorial is a highly revered nonprofit organisation designed to do something similar, aiming to weed out ‘complacency and mediocrity’ in Aussie winemaking.

While the wine show may have moved somewhat past its agricultural show roots, it cannot escape them completely. Much to my horror, many shows still require their judges to wear white lab coats, to be sure to strip every bit of feeling from the very clinical act of wine tasting I suppose (I’m pretty sure it’s not to protect one’s shirt from wine stains). At one regional tasting I judged for, the panel chair and I continually disagreed on what made a ‘good’ wine (this could be because, fundamentally, we are humans and our tastes differ–what this gentleman finds pleasurable in his wines is clearly very different from what I find pleasurable, hence one of the myriad reasons why the wine show system is so deeply flawed). Finally, in exasperation, I blurted out, ‘Are we judging these wines as we would judge chickens? Awarding golds to those who puff out their chests with the most bravado and display the most flamboyant colours?” “Yes,” the panel chair said gravely and in a moment of some of the bluntest honesty I’ve witnessed at a wine show. “Yes we are.”

It should be noted, however, that not all wine shows still judge wines like chickens. More recently, alternative shows have sprung up, acknowledging the limitations of the mainstream shows. Competitions like the Organic Wine Show and the Adelaide Hot 100 not only aim to celebrate alternatives styles of winemaking, they also experiment with less conventional methods of judging, from allowing judges to taste flights in their own preferred order, to scoring in whichever way they deem fit, and even to getting a musician to play a piece of music composed specifically for a flight of wines. All of these alterations to the norm are focused around finding deliciousness in wine over technicalities, and acknowledging that ‘good’ wines cannot be found solely through stripping away feeling and ticking technical boxes. While these shows are an exciting and positive step in the right direction, at their core, even the alternative shows still rely on the notion that wines can and should be pitted against each other, critically analysed, and assigned a final number and ranking. While they have, in many cases, improved the system significantly, they are not immune to the pitfalls of scoring wine.

There have been countless words written about the numerous problems associated with judging wine. The variations between the days of the week, temperature of the wines and room, time in bottle and out, how judges are feeling on a particular day, number and type of wines tasted previously, where a wine comes in a line up, what is known or not known about the wine beforehand, the sometimes exorbitant fees required to enter, etc. etc. But many of these same articles then go on to say, ‘Well, yes we admit it’s a flawed system but it’s the best one we’ve got.’ They argue that despite their myriad faults (oh, the irony of that word!), wine shows are a necessary part of a wine culture and are inherently beneficial for the industry. They improve the overall quality of wine, they are good practice for those in the wine trade, particularly winemakers who want to avoid the dreaded ‘cellar palate’, and they are good for consumers, because without shiny stickers on labels, how would Average Joe ever know what a good wine was?

I would argue, and I know I’m not alone in these sentiments, that wine shows are not only not necessary to a wine culture, but that they do just the opposite to the industry on all accounts.

Wine shows have played a leading role in creating, or at least perpetuating, trends, for better or for worse. Until fairly recently it felt like every Aussie wine region was in a race to copycat the rich ripe styles of the Barossa, because those were the styles being awarded medals both nationally and internationally. Cool climate Yarra Valley wines started to look the same as Mclaren Vale’s, and Chardonnay dripping in sweet fruit and vanillin oak became the flagship for many a winery.

Thankfully times are changing as winemakers realise the potential of their land and endeavour to make wines more suited to their environment. But I don’t think that wine shows can be given credit for this cultural shift. A focus on terroir and on less-is-more winemaking is a global trend that started, or was revived, in the vineyards and wine bars of the Old World. Australian winemakers travel more than ever, taking their newfound global knowledge back home with them.

Wine shows claim to reward these efforts, but in reality a good number of today’s medal-winners are as mediocre as they’ve always been. Polished and technically correct perhaps, but also underwhelming, overworked, and unoriginal. Copycatting and medal chasing occurs as fiercely as it did a decade ago, if not worse, it’s just that trends have changed. Back labels and marketing campaigns may mention the ‘terroir’ word or talk of a wine’s ‘expression of its land’ a lot more, and certainly there are an increasing number of Australian wines being made that do honestly express the place from which they came over winemaking tricks, but few of them are even entered into mainstream wine shows let alone take home medals.

And that’s because wines made ‘outside the box’ are rarely rewarded. If we as judges are taught that all wines must fall within a narrow set of boundaries, that lines must be drawn in the sand and that there is such thing as a correct wine and an incorrect one, how can a wine with soul, that sings of the land, changes constantly in glass and bottle, and expresses playfulness and sheer gluggability be scored by an arbitrary number? How can one measure soulfulness and joy? And ultimately, isn’t that what we’re all really craving when we open a bottle of wine at home? I don’t choose to drink a wine because it’s been made correctly. I choose to drink it because of the pleasure it will bring.

Of course wine shows throw up occasional surprises. Once in a while a truly exciting, adventurous wine grabs gold in a mainstream show and there is a beating of chests and patting of backs and everyone sleeps soundly knowing the world is a fair and equal place. But in general, the process of the Aussie wine show doesn’t reward excitement. It requires judges from all walks of life to agree and to do so within a limited time frame and under a certain amount of pressure. Often this means settling, so the wines that ride somewhere in the middle points-wise end up coming up trumps; those inoffensive wines that tick boxes. Balanced, flinty oaked Chardonnay? Tick. Crisp, zippy Sauvignon Blanc? Tick. Let’s face it, that complex oxidative Chardonnay that sings in the glass but needs a bit of air, love, and food is never going to get through. It’s going to divide the judges–some will love its style and others will view it as faulty, or at best quirky but not ‘improving the breed’, and there are another five flights of wine to judge, so let’s just move on.

To be continued in Part Two…

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