“Gold, Gold, Silver, Silver—let’s discuss!” This is a typical around-the-table call out on a panel of four professional judges at a wine competition. The tie must be broken. What happens next can change the fortunes of an unheralded winemaker, or end a hot streak for a top-end winery. Wines awarded Gold or Double Gold (unanimous Gold from all judges on that panel), not only gain kudos and shiny medals to display, but can provide vintners a direct route to increased exposure, publicity, and sales.
A good judge will have given each wine thoughtful consideration—each wine on its own merits, regardless of their personal variety or style preference. A good judge, who may taste 50-125 wines that day, will have been spitting—the first step to maintaining a clear head and palate—and being invited back to judge. And a good judge will be ready to explain and debate their case when ties occur. Communication is key. The most important element of the tie breaker is about to begin: it’s time to lobby. Each judge presents a case for his or her rating. The judges who called out Gold hope to talk up one, or both of the judges who ranked it Silver, to a Gold rating. A consensus must be reached before the panel moves on to the next flight of wines.
I appreciate wine competition directors who, when assigning flights of wines, take into consideration judges’ expertise with certain varieties. It allows judges with particular expertise to share knowledge about lesser known varieties during the discussion portion of the judging. This gives those who may not have much (if any) experience judging that variety a better idea of what to expect. Take for example, Gruner Veltliner, a wine I understand very well. In a recent competition, I provided in-depth information to judges who lacked experience with that variety and who under-rated the wine on its true varietal merits. After further discussion and retasting the wine, a Silver medal was elevated to Gold.
Breaking the tie is one of the most exciting parts of any competition. It presents a fun opportunity to share perspectives and knowledge, and become a better judge and co-panelist by understanding what other judges experience in the wines. As I often say, every palate is unique. The discussion that follows—during which passions can show—is part of what has energized my interest in wine, and judging over the past 16 years across vastly different competitions. There is always more to learn…and plenty of wine and conversation to fuel a passionate judge on the way to deciding which wines deserve “Gold!”