Getting the best out of the best

02 May, 2008

By the time you read this, the judges at the 2008 International Wine Challenge will have made their final deliberations. The last bottle will have been recycled, the last wine tasted. For anyone who has taken part in the competition, it's been a two-week marathon that leaves participants tired but curiously elated.

The results are embargoed until May, but I think this has been the best IWC ever in terms of the quality of the bottles we have selected, and the rigour and fairness with which they have been judged. As a co-chairman of the event, I know

I'm not a disinterested observer, but almost everyone who took part this year seemed to agree that it was slicker and better organised.

How much does a gold, silver, bronze or commended mean to a producer or

retailer? The answer is that it depends on several factors, such as the price and availability of a given wine, as well as the way they use the results. But there is no denying that reputable wine competitions can shift bottles.

Small flights

The role of the co-chairmen (Sam Harrop MW, Charles Metcalfe, Derek Smedley MW, myself and the 2008 international judge, Bob Campbell MW) is to do our utmost to make sure that the best wines win. No competition comes up with all the right answers, but I think

our system gives every wine a chance to shine.

How do we do this? First, we keep the flights of wines small. Second, we try to alternate white and red flights to avoid palate fatigue. Third, we employed 20 permanent panel chairs for the first time, whom we consider to be among the UK's finest palates as well as good managers of other people's egos and tasting foibles. And fourth, we encourage tasters to take their time.

Thanks to the panel chairs, we saw much greater consistency from the tasting floor this year. This reduced the workload of the co-chairmen, but we still play a vital role as the competition's safety net. In the first week, when all the entries are tasted for the first time, we look at the wines that have been given nothing or a commendation to make sure that potential medal winners don't slip through the net. Any wine that is reinstated has to be tasted by at least two of us, to prevent anyone's personal preferences skewing the results.

Retasting

In week two, around half of the entries are tasted for a second time. Once the judges have decided what award to give (and they are perfectly free to kick wines out at this stage),

the wines are retasted (this time as an entire flight) by the co-chairmen. At the IWC, every wine, however bad, is tasted at least twice. And wines that are reinstated by us in the first week are tasted four times

- twice by panels and twice by the co-chairmen. If they win a gold medal and are eligible for a trophy, they are tasted twice more, making a total of six assessments of the same wine.

What do all these reassessments mean? Well, I think they increase the chances of the best wines, and reduce those of the bad and mediocre ones. The system isn't perfect, but I honestly believe that this one is as fair as we can make it.

But the ultimate value of any competition lies in the quality of the wines it selects, a value that applies to producers and retailers as well as consumers. Come May, I hope you will agree with most of our conclusions.




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