Tales from the tasting world

I've been having quite a bit of fun writing about the happenings in the Wine Cellar, so I thought I'd share with you some of the funny stuff I have encountered in the professional wine judging world.

Professional wine competition judges can run the gamut, from very relaxed to very stuffy to those who have to show the rest of us that they simply "know" wine better. I have judged wines in many venues since I started professionally many years ago, but every new judging has its different wines and cast of characters. Let me introduce you to one in particular.

I was making my way down the stairs from my room to the main judging area on the bottom floor of a very expensive hotel. The room was sequestered specifically for the judging and the wines were to be Northwest wines. I arrived early and the person running the judging was very nervous. I knew only three of the five judges.

One of the judges I did not personally know was, however, well-known in the industry as both a person with a good palate as well as a first-class prima donna. Supposedly, lending his name to any competition added some sort of prestige to the event. It was considered something of a coup to get him aboard.

Wanting to make a good impression, I arrived early, saw my name plate on the table and sat down. When the other judges arrived, I rose and shook hands, introduced myself and sat back down. The four judges waited and waited until the prima donna finally arrived. He stood at the door and glared at the judges' table. He then strode over to the judge's clerk and told him in a stage whisper that I was "sitting in his seat." Evidently, the seat I was in was the "head" judge's seat and he wanted me to sit "elsewhere" and was very adamant about it.

The truth of the matter was that seniority had not been established and many times there is no senior judge required. Some judgings do, however, defer to the eldest and most experienced judge to set the tone as well as the speed or chronology of the wines to be evaluated. It was clear that I was to be bumped from the "chair" pronto, without ceremony. The man introduced himself to all of us, then asked (ordered) that the first flight be brought to the table at once.

The judge's clerk, the man in charge of the scoring and general welfare of the event, was clearly intimidated and jumped from his seat to make sure that the flight of 12 chardonnays arrived quickly as well as score sheets for the judges. We were on our way.

The judges went dutifully to their task. Each glass was looked at for clarity and color, smelled for varietal character and/or any flaws which might be lingering about and finally tasted. It was then that I was startled by our prima donna's behavior.

He slurped and splashed the wine so violently and loudly in his mouth that it was virtually impossible for the rest of us to concentrate. As the flight continued, he began to moan toward certain glasses or purr at others. I had never experienced anything like this in my judging career.

Finally, the flight was over and we were expected to score the wines and/or give them medals. This is when he took the floor. We all sat back and wondered what he was going to say. He began a long diatribe on chardonnay in general, his experience in chardonnay as a wine judge, then finally, about this flight of wines. He blasted the wine industry about "so much oak" in the wines — specifically the wines before us — and went on and on about cooperage and chardonnay. What he didn't read and what everyone else had read on the top of the chardonnay scoring sheet were the words "first flight — unoaked chardonnay." There was no oak in any of these wines!

Gently, I broke the news to him in front of everyone, including the support staff. He looked around, slid out of his chair, got up and left. I never saw him again.

Lorn Razzano is owner of the Wine Cellar in Ashland. Reach him at razz49@aol.com.

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