A Day in the Life of a Wine Judge


Carmen Micheli (Photo Coutesy of T. Montgomery)

Carmen Micheli (Photo Courtesy of T. Montgomery)

Guest Wine Chix Carmen Micheli is a freelance wine, food and music writer living in Temecula Valley Wine Country. An amazing home chef, mother of two and wine aficionado she writes about those in-the-know and on-the-go. With a pulse on the latest in dining, entertainment, events and more, Carmen delivers the latest news and happenings around the city, showcasing the best that Temecula Wine Country and the SoCal area has to offer.

74th Annual Los Angeles Wine Competition
A Day in the Life of a Wine Judge

 We have all seen award medals embellishing wine bottles deeming them Gold, Silver, Bronze, Best of Class, etc.  But who and what decides which wines are worthy?

There are several International Wine Competitions every year in which wines are rated by trained judges and awarded these coveted medals.  The judges who are picked for the Los Angeles International Wine Competition are the best in the world.  “For 74 years, the Los Angeles Wine Competition has showcased the finest domestic and international vintages…….and considered to be the most prestigious in the United States”.

Sauvignon Blanc grouping

Sauvignon Blanc grouping

On the morning of the competition, the judges are introduced and divided into panels.  Each panel is assigned a group of wines in a specific category.  The bottles are hidden from view and a blind tasting commences in which the judges score each wine in the flight with a particular medal or “no award”.  If an agreement cannot be made they re-evaluate the wine, deliberate, and re-score until all are settled.

As a guest writer with the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association (IFWTWA), I was honored to taste with, and observe 4 wine judges on Panel #12 during the judging process at the 74th Annual Los Angeles Wine Competition held at the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel.  The wine judges ranged from a renowned Wine Expert, a 20+ year veteran Winemaker, an accomplished Wine Sommelier, and a Wine Authenticator/Consultant.  Their assignment: 86 total wines in the categories of Sauvignon Blanc, Oaked Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and Non-Vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.

Pinot Noir lineup

Pinot Noir lineup

The palate, knowledge and efficiency of the Panel #12 judges were remarkable to witness.  I have tasted and learned a lot about wine in the past decade from working in the wine industry, living in Wine Country, and as a wine writer and member of 2 wine councils. Regardless of my somewhat decently developed wine palate and invaluable experiences, nothing could have prepared me for the whirlwind of wines that came our way. These seasoned judges could identify in the blink of an eye if a wine was flawed, why it was flawed, the origin of the bacteria that could have led to the flaw, how it was aged, what it was aged in, if it was a blend, and what region it came from.  At times, they were even able to identify specific Wineries, Winemakers and Wine brands.  How is this possible?

There are a few things the wine judges look for when judging and identifying wines:

Sight: clarity, color, secondary color, brightness, rim variation, and sediment.  For example, if there is a secondary color, this is a hint that the wine is probably around 10+ years old.

Nose:  Flaws, Fruit, Earth, Wood, Age, Secondary Aromas.  If there is a secondary aroma, it is probably an old world wine.

Palate:  Body, Dryness/Sweetness, Fruit, Earth, Wood, Tannins, Acidity, Alcohol, Balance, Complexity.  Tannins are a big one and really help to hone in on the winemaking processes.

These key characteristics will help to define most everything that needs to be known about a wine such as: Cool Climate vs. Warm Climate, Grape Variety vs. Blend, Old World vs. New World, and Vintage.

The expert judges of Panel #12 smelled, sipped, swirled and spit all 86 wines in under 5 hours.  My palate and usual tasting methods stand forever changed after this experience, but my day in the life of a Wine Judge wasn’t over yet.

Stuffed Chicken Jidori cooking on grill in the garden

Stuffed Chicken Jidori cooking on grill in the garden

After the judging ended, the wine judges and IFWTWA writers were driven to the Sheraton’s McKinley’s Farm for an outdoor Farm-to-Table dinner by Executive Chef David Teig.  The total size of the garden is about 1/3 of an acre and crops are chosen based on the needs of McKinley’s Grille.  It was designed by horticulturist Don DeLano and was created to grow things Chef Teig could not find elsewhere.  The unique variety of fruit, vegetables, and herbs like White Strawberries, Chocolate Mint, and Grapefruit Mint were all varieties I had never heard of let alone had the pleasure of tasting.  The White Strawberries especially were phenomenal.

While we all mingled, roamed the gardens, and sipped on wines from the 2012 L.A. Wine Competition winners, Chef Teig was hard at work creating an unbelievable range of cuisine on the Wood-Fire grill which was set up right in the middle of the garden.  This feast fit for a King included: Wood Grilled Pacific Octopus with Early Farm Peaches and Anaheim Chili, Wild Ivory King Salmon with Farm Squash Knueske Bacon Hash, Stuffed Jidori Chicken with Black Pepper Lovage Glaze, Spring Farm Tomatoes with Fourmet d’ambert Thai Basil Oil, and Roasted Baby Potatoes just to name a few.  It was amazing to watch these creations come together and be plated and presented on the table.  The cuisine, the gardens, and the company were truly extraordinary.

The end of the night came and it was back to the Sheraton Fairplex Hotel for a night cap and a good night’s sleep.  The judges prepare to rise and shine for day #2 of judging and I dreamily reminisce my out-of-this-world experience.  When I grow up…..I want to be a wine judge.

Winners of the 74th Annual Los Angeles Wine Competition are announced in early June and will be listed here: http://www.fairplex.com/wos/wine_competition/AwardsCelebration/winners.asp. For more information on the beautiful Sheraton Fairplex Hotel, home to the 74th Los Angeles Annual Wine Competition, please visit http://www.sheratonfairplex.com/.  Or to learn more about McKinley’s Grille and Chef Teig’s Farm to Table dining go to http://www.mckinleysgrille.com/index.asp.

One thought on “A Day in the Life of a Wine Judge

  1. You are well on your way to that judgeship!
    Loved your article and you!
    On to great adventures in 2014!

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