Australia has been blessed with a surfeit of great wine writers. There’s plenty of them, each with their own voice. Some may be more professorial, others like news reporters. But taken as a whole, reading about Australian wine from the perspective of the country’s writers is reflective of the wine industry’s strength.
One of my favorites is Philip White, a highly opinionated writer based out of Adelaide. Whitey, as he known in Australia (and to distinguish him from Tim White, another critic who also rarely hides his demeanor), does not suffer fools gladly. Bureaucrats, politicians and blowhards are all in his line of fire. Yet he has unrestrained passion for wine and the people who make up the industry, both present and more importantly, the past. His blog, Drinkster, is must reading for those who want to read wine writing at its fiery best.
A recent post, however, brought me to a crossroads. In it, Philip decried inviting members of the trade from other countries to participate as guest judges in Australian wine shows. As he says:
The Royal Adelaide Wine Show. Bloody Royal. Every major Australian capital city has one.
This writer lost interest in these royal plonk races many years ago. Not only cynical and exhausted by the notion of such giant wine competitions being run beneath a letterhead bearing the crown of the Germano-Greek family which rules Britain, like many others, I’m also tired of the guest preachers and teachers the Royal Show controllers ship out here to pat us on the head before giving us a lecture about how to make wine after three or four days tasting it with us.
They mount a huge self-congratulatory luncheon to hand out the bling and this star guest gets up and teaches us all a lesson.
And then, almost invariably, they tell us how little we should expect to be paid for it.
I mean, they go home, Poms, mainly, whisper in a few ears and have their buyer mates import their favourite discoveries, having screwed the Australian maker/supplier through the basement floor of the profit division. If you’re lucky, unlucky or whatever, they’ll write about their “discovery” and recommend it in a newspaper or shiny magazine or a blog or something.
In other words, guest judges are invited to Australia and end up only insulting the hosts with no change in Aussie wine sales upon their return.
It was one thing to have Whitey promote this but others picked up on his idea. Tom Carson, winemaker at Yabby Lake in the Mornington Peninsula, is also an influential judge in the Australian show system serving as Chair of Judges at the Melbourne Wine Show which awards the Jimmy Watson Trophy. His tweet below concerns two of Australia’s top wine shows (“Melb” is the Royal Melbourne Wine Show, “Nat” is the National Wine Show in Canberra):
Great read, some salient points to consider…’Royal’ Melb, QLD and Nat have dropped international judges, Melb since 2014
Finally, Tony Keys, who writes a weekly trade review on his website, threw his support behind Philip’s opinion.
White also despairs at international guest judges at wine shows. Why are they required? Again, Australia has more than enough quality talent to judge its and any other countries’ wines in a show.
Critics have leveled many complaints against wine shows generally and the Australian wine show system specifically. They are numerous and many have some validity but that’s not the topic here. But the contention that the Australian wine industry is best served without judges from other countries is just plain wrong.
The primary benefit for a visiting judge is to see how wine shows are conducted. In my experience, the judges are qualified, medals and trophies truly awarded to wines that deserve them and the entire show is conducted professionally. The tasting abilities and skills necessary to be a wine judge require considerable knowledge and the confidence to support the wines you believe are worthy.
In addition to bearing witness to the show itself, there is the incredible chance to gain an in-depth understanding of wine categories that would be impossible to do at home. To taste through dozens of Hunter Valley semillons at once or a few flights of fortified wines could never happen in one sitting in any country. Wine shows allow tasters to discern the different levels of quality within a category and learn about them from very educated people in the Aussie wine trade. That level of knowledge is just not available outside of Australia.
This deeper insight is also complemented by the ability to get a broader vision of the Australian wine industry itself. When awarding medals or trophies, discussions on winemaking styles and philosophies can be quite vigorous. The ability to participate in these debates with such a broad cross section of the Australian wine trade is of incalculable benefit to understanding the industry itself. For example, the appearance of sulfides in chardonnay is a popular trend in Australian chardonnay these days. Over the last few wine shows, I have been able to learn how and why this style came about and to develop and present my own personal critique to against this development fellow judges. It would be impossible to come to this understanding tasting chardonnays here and there in America.
The benefits of participating in wine shows is not just limited to the judging experience itself. The time set aside for dinners, drinks and recreation nurtures relationships that can allow for a deeper understanding of Australian wine. Meeting winemakers, distributors, even wine writers, can provide insights into better tasting skills, a view of new trends and the development of friendships, all of which would be difficult to accomplish alone.
Perhaps what is really needed is not the elimination of guest judges but simply inviting better judges. Wine judging in Australia is fairly technical and intense so this is not the place for someone who has never judged before. A familiarity with Australia’s wine regions and styles might also benefit the judging process. And the dreaded after-dinner speeches might be more informative if those invited are selected because they have something interesting to say.
But what is really troubling is that three notable members of the trade are in agreement that international judges are not needed. True, the awards can be easily handed out without inviting outsiders and I do not doubt that the tasting skills of visiting judges may not match those of Australian professionals.
Nevertheless, shutting out international visitors from judging wine shows will only deny Australian wine enthusiasts the unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the country’s wine industry. And somehow, that just seems a bit, well, un-Australian.