A world without the Aussie wine show: Part Two

Christina Pickard

Continued from Part One

Another aspect of the wine show that gets rarely gets mentioned but is all-too-often an elephant in the room, is bullying. I suspect so few articles bring this issue up because most of them are written by men (and let’s face it, the wine scene in Oz is still very much a boys’ club) who probably serve or have served as panel chairs at the wine shows they judge and not experienced much bullying personally (or perhaps they are the bullies, who knows). But I have both personally experienced it at wines shows and witnessed others being bullied on multiple occasions. The hierarchical system of the wine show is archaic, and while many shows boast about how progressive they’ve become in allowing increasingly younger and more diverse judges onto their panels, there is still a strong sense of ‘knowing your place’ within shows. An experienced and accomplished colleague of mine once told me that even as recently as a few years ago, associate judges were often not allowed to speak during the judging, their opinions considered so lowly as to not be heard at all. Even today, associate judges often have little say or sway, particularly when it comes to voting on the trophy wines. Panel judges and show chairs, however they may behave outside the wine show, can and frequently do use their power to bully judges–subtly or unsubtly–into giving the ‘correct’ (i.e. ‘their’) wines medals. Similarly, many newer judges are scared into submission, afraid to speak up about a wine they love or hate because it conflicts with the opinions of the panel chair and their fellow judges.

At one regional wine show I judged for, I experienced a ganging up of sorts which left me feeling as though I was back in school with the playground bully inventing the rules to the game as they suited him. The panel at this particular show was made up of three winemakers and two of us employed on the consumer side of things. The two of us with ‘consumer palates’ scored similarly, and the winemakers scored similarly. They were tasting mainly for technical accuracy and we were tasting primarily for whether we–and hopefully others–would find the wines delicious (when I asked what the point of the competition was, i.e. who we were judging for, no one seemed able to provide me with a direct answer, but then that’s a whole other issue). One of the wines in a particular flight was scored highly by the three winemakers, however, my colleague and myself scored it abysmally. The panel chair, a regular in the local show circuit, announced after some discussion that the two of us were outnumbered and that the majority would always win. In other words, if three out of five gave a wine gold, no matter how low the others’ scores were, the wine would receive a gold medal. This policy, at the time, worked very much in the panel chair’s favour. However, a few flights later, when another wine came forward which was awarded gold by myself, my colleague, and a third judge, we were told by the panel chair that there was no way the wine could be given a gold, he simply couldn’t allow it purely on its technical merits. In fact, the wine wasn’t given any medal at all, despite three out of the five of us agreeing it was a delicious drop.

James Halliday says of his experiences, ‘There were occasions when one judge would give a particularly low point, or a particularly high point, and be completely out of line with the other two judges. In that circumstance I would point out to the single judge that, unless he/she was prepared to accept the verdict of the majority, the outcome would effectively be that of a single judge.’

Prepared to accept the verdict of the majority. In other words, because the judge wasn’t in agreement with the other two, he/she would need to be bullied into conforming or face the consequences. If he/she took the latter route, the wine would lose out on account of one judge’s opinion, leaving that lone judge to suffer in shame for his/her impertinence at not agreeing with the masses. Surely there is something deeply wrong with both outcomes?

Then there is the argument that wine shows are good for the palates of industry members. Of course the opportunity to try so many wines all at once is excellent practice for everyone. It’s the primary reason why most people, including myself, agree to judge. That and the fact that wine shows can be excellent networking (read: schmoozing) opportunities by drawing in a broad range of national and international industry members, plus a good excuse for a few drinks at the pub with colleagues afterwards. All this would be well and good if wine shows were just for the industry. If it was just about winemakers pitting their wines against their peers for the sake of the tasting experience, camaraderie, and knowing where they stand, then I could accept the wine show system, pitfalls and all.

This brings me neatly to the third argument, which is that wine shows are needed in order to guide the consumer towards ‘good’ wines. As we know, there is a lot more at stake at a wine show than received criticism or praise from fellow industry members and a hearty schmoozefest. Wines that score well in shows will go on to be touted by the wineries’ marketing teams. Medals will be plastered on wineries’ websites, brochures, and cellar doors, and shiny stickers will adorn their bottles. Wines sales will almost certainly increase because consumers will assume the wines must be good if they’ve won medals. This misguided belief on the part of the consumer is entirely the fault of the wine industry’s reverence towards wine shows. By placing such importance on arbitrary scores arrived at within the confines of a flawed system, we have hoodwinked the very people who rely on us for professional advice and recommendations; All those official looking stickers, all those mentions in the media. The stakes are high when money is involved, and you can’t blame the wineries for entering their wines into dozens of shows if winning means significantly increased brand recognition and profit. However, improving the palates of wine professionals and enticing international wine personalities while patting each other on the backs is not reason enough in my book to validate the continued existence of the wine show. To argue that your average wine drinker needs to be told in the form of awards and stickers which wine they should be drinking is seriously underestimating them. And to assume that we as an industry can tell them which is a ‘correct’ wine and which isn’t through a series of clinical tastings and scorings, is downright arrogant on our part. (It should be noted that the same goes for a wine writers, whose job I think it is to tell the stories of the wines and winemakers that excite them. Readers can decide for themselves whether their tastes align with a particular writer or not. The listing off of tastings notes and assigning of scores shouldn’t be the job of wine writers either, but that’s for another post!

One of the things I love about wine is that it draws perhaps a more diverse group of individuals to it than any other industry. There are right-brained scientists and the left-winged artists, fact checkers and list makers, bohemians and historians, mathematicians and linguists. We all approach wine differently. Our cellars and fridges are filled with wildly varying wines. What some may view as faults, other may view as flavour. What constitutes overworked for one may equal perfection for another. Acting as though judging wine is not personal and that our own tastes do not enter into our scoring is unrealistic. We are human beings. We come with our own experiences and prejudices, and besides sucking every bit of joy out of wine, scoring it on a 20 point scale (in reality a 5-6 point scale, or even on a 100 point scale as many of the shows are now switching to) completely impartially is not possible. And a system which is so riddled with impartiality, no matter how hard it tries to be egalitarian, or how seriously it is taken, or how rigorously its judges are trained, should not, in my opinion, be held as the standard for which all wines are assessed, particularly to the extent that it affects an entire wine culture.

In many of the articles I’ve read about the fallibility of wine shows, the question that rarely seems to get asked is whether we need wine competitions at all? It seems they’re so deeply ingrained within the fabrics of Australian wine society that doing away with them doesn’t seem to be a concept anyone can fathom.

I’ve heard the argument that a decade or two ago, when the fixation on hygiene and technical correctness was just gaining ground, a platform like the wine show helped winemakers improve their overall winemaking standards. This may have been the case then then, but how relevant is it now when Australia is an established winemaking country? Aussie wine drinkers today are looking for more than just technical correctness. They are bored with wines cut from the same cloth year after year. The wine show only seems to place constraint on winemakers rather than the freedom and creativity needed to break that mould.

So can the wine industry survive without wine shows? Are we as humans so conditioned to categorise and card catalogue, to draw lines in the sand to create order in our lives that we can’t imagine allowing others to love wines simply on their own merits? Is the ubiquitous ‘consumer’ such a simple creature he needs to be told which wine to buy based on the puffing of its chest and the fanning its feathers? Or is it purely a matter of money? Is the revenue and publicity generated on both sides of the fence just too tempting to do away with?

What would happen to the Australian wine industry if the show system were to disappear? To be phased out, thought of as a thing of the past, an antiquated system without much relevance now. Imagine a wine world where winemakers, pressured to make medal-winning creations year after year, were instead free to make the kinds of wines they actually drink at home, those that excite them, that push boundaries, that are truly gluggable and that singularly express their place in the world…

Well, one can dream… 

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