Opinion Who Judges the Wine Judges?

Who Judges the Wine Judges?

How we choose our wine judges is more deeply embedded than you might think.
© iStock | How we choose our wine judges is more deeply embedded than you might think.
Are our wine decisions being made by right people and for the right reasons? History may tell us.
By Oliver Styles | Posted Sunday, 18-Oct-2020

Who gets to judge our wines? And why them?

What qualifies James Suckling or Michel Bettane or Jancis Robinson or Antonio Galloni or Monica Larner to rate our wines? Why do they get the gavel, the robes and the wig? Sure, they have great palates, but if technical tasting ability was the foremost requirement, then surely we'd call on winemakers themselves? Or would we? Would we not be better with professional parfumiers or food scientists?

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In my mind, my perfect taster is a sitcom duo combination of a jaded, late middle-aged parfumier (called Maurice) for the aroma/bouquet descriptors, and a perambulating, robotic spitoon on caterpillar tracks – a cross between R2-D2 and a dentist's spit-bowl – into whose receptacle our parfumier pours his wine sample once he's finished nosing it.

The robot (its name is YQ-U3M) then prints out an objective rating of tannin, acid, alcohol, dry extract and so on. They compare notes and synthesize their thoughts later that evening, at the bar of the hotel Ibis. They're an incredible team but Maurice and YQ argue into the night about the scores they'll give for particular wines.

Maurice's marriage is failing and he's worried his wife is having an affair with a martial arts instructor. YQ's suffering from an irreparably degrading internal alcohol probe and has started over-compensating on the print-outs. It dreads California Zinfandel, Puglia and the Douro tastings but it still calibrates every morning on Madeira – a factory protocol maintained since it rolled off the production line 30 years ago.

YQ wants to leave Maurice and his negativity – it's found love late in life and wants to run off with Inertys, a grape press control interface it met on a crazy weekend in Entre-deux-Mers. And it would, but for it’s arch-rival waiting in the wings. CH4BL/S is a newer model from an EU-funded startup and just waiting in the wings to take over from YQ – its algorithm for minerality detection is next-generation technology.

But I digress.

What makes a wine judge? Well, I think we need to talk about the Judgement of Paris a lot more. Not the one you're thinking of: not Alan Rickman, California Cabernet, and a poke in the eye to Monsieur Frenchie. No, the other one. The original: an apple, three goddesses, one bloke, a beauty pageant and a war. That one.

Just talking about the original myth is a bit problematic because one of the products of a state-provided education is that I immediately form judgements about people who quote Greek and Roman mythology as readily as Emily in Paris plotlines or with the same gravitas as a Game of Thrones character study. Talking about Odysseus' return to Ithaca as if the world had been hanging on for 21 episodes to see how Penelope would eventually deal with the louts hanging about downstairs is a social gauge in how much it is relatable to your listener. I can't remember the names of the nine muses but I know a Renault Clio when I see one.

But I'm going to park the white, elitist thing except to say that, while referencing Roman mythical figures is surely somewhat snooty, Greek mythology softens this brashness with an added scholarly aura – it's more esoteric and almost beyond posh. If Rome were wine it would be Bordeaux; Burgundy is undoubtedly Greek.

And so to the judgement of Paris: the world's first critic (which is where this is all going). It's hard to know how many people in wine at the moment recognize the nod to the original myth, in which Paris (a guy) had to decide which of three female deities was the prettiest, or simply a wine tasting in the mid-'70s in which a bunch of Californian wines outscored some of France's finest. A judgement – in Paris. Its mythological call-back is undoubtedly the reason it stuck originally, but it would be interesting to know how many people today realize that Paris himself had to make a decision some time ago.

Because that decision – in fact the whole Judgement of Paris myth – is so gloriously pertinent to the practice of wine assessment that it deserves a wider audience.

Paris prepares to make a decision he knows will come back to haunt him.
© Wikimedia | Paris prepares to make a decision he knows will come back to haunt him.

First of all: the background. The gods have a big wedding party but Discord (for obvious reasons) isn't invited. Not to be snubbed, she throws a golden apple onto the dancefloor on which is inscribed "for the fairest". Three female deities, Aphrodite (beauty), Hera (women) and Athena (wisdom), argue over which one should get the apple. Much like the Saint-Émilion classification attempts, it's clear that if this is going ahead, it needs to have third-party input.

Then who to choose? If you're Zeus, you're going to want a guy. Go look at the roster of judges on wine competitions. The big names strike a pretty good gender balance at the moment (although sadly I have yet to see an all-woman tasting panel) but some of the others, the more obscure European events, for instance, are still very male weighted.

Then, the judge. Enter our man Paris. Why Paris gets the call-up is a bit odd but if you've gone with me through the Maurice and YQ segment, this'll be a breeze. Paris has a kick-ass fighting bull. I don't know much about Hellenic bovine combat but apparently he's taken his bullock on tour and it is slaying. It's slaying hard. It is, though, eventually defeated by Ares (the god of war) in bull form. Paris concedes that his prized beast has been bested. Much like bestowing 100 points on a grand cru wine, Paris has recognized and acknowledged the superiority of his betters.

Lastly: The judgement. This is a rort from the get-go. This is the equivalent of a non-blind tasting. Each candidate tries to bribe Paris but the winner is Aphrodite, who's done the equivalent of a late pick with some expensive oak and dolled-up beforehand. Furthermore, she's also promised Paris the most beautiful being on earth – as judged  by others (insert any coveted, expensive wine here – e.g. a 1992 Screaming Eagle).

There is no definitive takeaway as to the outcome here, let alone the need for Paris' judgement in the first place (a need directly springing from Discord, or Strife). If Paris were a wine person, he'd probably be a sommelier: great knowledge of the top performers, good at identifying the best, little experience of a more hoi-polloi endeavor, but a solid record of besting plebs with his bullocks.

Were Paris a winemaker, he'd run through a process of fault elimination (scars, uneven teeth, VA, etc.) prior to having to judge three female deities based on adherence to a set of agreed proportions and standards for feminine beauty. He'd make a choice that no-one would be unhappy with yet also completely uninspiring.

Paris could also be a wine personality: identified by Zeus publications as a good communicator and a safe pair of hands when put up against some stellar offerings. Average technical tasting skill and will submit to being blindfolded but would rather remove this before passing final judgement, just to be sure. Nonetheless, even if most people would agree that Hera was more "objectively" beautiful, no-one's going to begrudge a little personal opinion coming into such a tough competition.

He could even be a social media personality. @aphrodite's got some good follower numbers, and she's going to bring in some more. @paris would tag @aphrodite in a post but he's also going to tag @helenoftroy with a few little hashtags that's going to really get some attention (something about #trojans, but only playfully provocative – not actually stating a position or anything outright controversial). And then @aphrodite's going to put up a story of his story and @helenoftroy is going retweet his tweet about her and basically everyone’s followers and likes are going to go up in an online feedback loop that's something like advertising but without the transparency. All while @menelaus is left wondering what was so bad about print journalism.

The Judgement of Paris. There's a lot to be going on with, and it’s not even 1976.

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