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Critiquing the Critics: The Wine Judging Revolution

America (Country Appellation)

Critiquing the Critics:
The Wine Judging Revolution

Changing the way wine is evaluated, APPELLATION AMERICA is on the job.

by Clark Smith
February 9, 2009

DropCap a48merican wine judging has problems. The practice of “blind” tasting, in which judges are deprived of all information about a wine except its varietal (and sometimes its vintage), creates an information vacuum in which any diversity or distinctiveness of character appears as a flaw. Coupled with the infamous 100-point scoring or some other criteria-free, linear rating scheme, blind tasting by varietal has hit the wall. Current tasting methodology ends up telling us nothing about whether the wine is doing its job.

What job is that, you ask? Any European would answer that a wine’s job is to represent its place of origin. Medals only tell us that a wine is a typical example of a varietal, whatever that may mean. Such awards do little to guide the consumer. Worse, they fall short of connecting us to the rich adventure of regional character. No one would dream of tasting Chinon, Graves and St. Emilion blindly under a Cabernet Franc category.

There is really nothing wrong with rating, but it requires a context. Rating systems succeed in Europe because the appellations narrowly define products of origin, be they Roquefort, Parma ham, or Port, through legal restrictions on what can be grown, made and sold. It is not difficult to judge, say, Reserva Chianti or Nouveau Beaujolais because
final Score.jpg
Most U.S. and Canadian wines today, failing to fit into some narrow and vaguely defined mainstream expectation, are relegated to sub-90-point “loser” status, damned for nonconformity rather than celebrated for their uniqueness. It’s worse than what we all went through in high school.
a widely understood consumer expectation is in place. This arrangement makes room for everybody. Instead of just a handful of 90+ superstars with everything else on the D list, appellation consciousness opens the potential for every wine to be a winner, viable within its niche.

We used to fool ourselves that we could do the same thing in California (we never even thought in terms of America) through simple varietal categories, a labeling approach first pushed by Frank Schoonmaker, then adopted by Gallo, and later pushed by U.C. Davis. In 1975, there were less than a hundred wineries and barely a thousand products on the market. Also, quality was generally poor, so you could break the market into a few popular varietal categories, throw out the spoiled wines, rate a handful of, say, top Cabernets, and be done.

This isn’t working anymore. With thousands of Cabernets and Chardonnays on the market, we simply need more distinctions. A recent study by Prof. Robert Hodgson of Humbolt State, commissioned by the California State Fair Wine Competition, shows that judges in varietal-based competitions are inherently much more consistent about what they dislike than concerning what they do like. There’s just too damn much good wine out there, so competitions are a total crap shoot.

A well organized, knowledgeable third party validation is needed to initiate the process of mapping out appellation wine identities in order to organize consumer expectation in America as it already exists in Europe. APPELLATION AMERICA has undertaken the challenge of leading this process.

Time for Change

As a winemaking innovator, I devoted fifteen years at Vinovation to transforming how wine is made and to offering solutions to quality challenges such as excessive alcohol, tannin structure, sulfite-free winemaking methods, cold stabilization alternatives, and so forth. But in early 2008, I came to realize that I was needed elsewhere. Winemaking challenges were no longer the industry’s most pressing problems. An increasingly dysfunctional evaluation system had begun to stymie growth and creativity, and making wine, especially offbeat wines of distinctive expression, was in danger of becoming no fun.

I realized that there was now too much good wine out there for the existing market to sort through. The three-tier system was designed to handle perhaps a  sniffing-wine-300.jpgthousand domestic wines in a time when defects were common and regional styles hadn’t gelled. But now APPELLATIONAMERICA.COM lists over 25,000 wines throughout North America, a diversity which is impossible to appreciate or fairly judge when thrown into massive gangs - hundreds of Chardonnays and Cabernets, blindly tasted without regional information. Yet this is the standard practice.

So last summer, I licensed out my wine production service business and turned my full attention to the huge challenge of revamping American wine tasting from the ground up, hiring on at APPELLATION AMERICA. The solution we set up is the Best-of-Appellation Evaluation Program.

The BOA Program [see sidebar] works in an opposite manner to conventional tasting. Its main thrust is to identify threads of commonality within an AVA and to pinpoint terroir-based signatures as they currently exist and as they develop over time. Wines which exemplify the region they come from are awarded Best-of-Appellation status and tasting notes are permanently featured on our site.

Parsing The Sublime – American Style

The well-organized European appellation system confers a tremendous competitive advantage, because the consumer knows exactly what a Mosel Kabinett or a Muscadet is supposed to be. Rigid central planning gives the consumer knowledgeable access to half a million wines. It’s the law. The resulting regional identity not only offers consumers a lifetime of enjoyable exploration, but also provides a style guide to purchase, based on personal preference, age-worthiness, and pairing with food.

In the free market economy for which Americans are known, things will never be so simple. Not only is any winery permitted to grow whatever varieties they choose, but they are also permitted to vinify in a wide variety of styles, resulting in dizzying complexity for the consumer. Yet, with the help of technology, it is now manageable.

About The Best-Of-Appellation Evaluation Program

The Best-of-Appellation™ Process is centered on structured tastings designed to distill the specific wine characteristics associated with the natural and cultural traditions of each region. Wines that are determined by the BOA Panel to best express the characteristics of their appellation earn APPELLATION AMERICA’s Best Of Appellation™ awards.


The BOA Program seeks to crystallize and promote memorable images of North America's numerous appellations in order to expand the market for North American wines and enrich the global wine culture.


The place defines the wines; the wines define the place. To a very large extent, wine character reflects its place of origin. Local soil and climate, quirks of history and market influences all leave their stamp. Pa

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Reader Feedback

Reader Comments... [7]

Arthur , Founder, Publisher
redwinebuzz.com, So. Cal.
Clark This is a good piece. The first problem is that these judges are rating based on what they *like*. There is no predetermined criteria, rather power of impression and impact are what carry the day. How Hollywood indeed. There is also very little faith in the idea of consistency of judges following varietal and regional typicity. People just don’t think it can be done – in the context of one critic and their publication and in the context of a large wine competition. I suspect some of the current judges will have trouble adhering to those predetermined criteria and instead stomp their feet, saying: “But I just don’t’ like this wine!” I think there are two serious issues underlying this whole problem: One: A large portion of today’s wine assessors are just not good organoleptic assessors of wine. That is to say, they either 1) don’t have the “chops” to consistently identify wines and the components of their character, and/or they do not practice a systematic approach of wine assessment and evaluation necessary to a consistent evaluation of wines. Two: Rooted in the last point is their belief that it is impossible to achieve this way of consistently and accurately identifying wines. Unfortunately, because this is based on their experience it really means that 1) it is impossible for THEM to achieve this way of wine evaluation and 2) there are none so blind as those that refuse to see.

Pamela Heiligenthal , Co-Founder
Enobytes.com, Portland, OR
Clark, great post. You know my opinion on this and I support your initiative 100%. Bravo for taking the initiative to get this off the ground. Arthur – I hope that judging goes beyond personal likes. I do some judging from time to time and I am very sensitive to reviewing a wine for what it is and not on personal likes but maybe I’m one of the few; if that’s the case, I’m disappointed and surprised. As for complaining judges? We all need to grow up. Seriously. Pamela Heiligenthal Enobytes Co-Founder U.C. Davis student

Arthur , Founder, Publisher
redwinebuzz.com, So. Cal.
Pamela, I am afraid that the findings of Hodgson's paper suggest that most judges rate on preference.

David Falchek , Wine Writer
Times Shamrock Companies, Scranton, Pa.
No wine judge worth his or her salt relies on personal preference when evaluating wine. Panels on which I have served would smack down anyone admitting to doing so. Good judges conscientiously apply objective criteria of typicity, balance, complexity, length, and other notions in varietally-based competitions. The shortcomings noted in competitions exist. On a practical measure, recognition of terroir can be difficult if the number of entries aren’t sufficient to develop a baseline. U.S. AVAs can be notoriously arbitrary and so diverse that it often makes little sense to compare wines created within them alongside each other. A greater problem, I think, is judges’ lack of knowledge of lesser-known regional styles and grape varieties and the intra-flight arrangement of wines. (The Grand Harvest Awards, sponsored by Vineyard & Winery Management magazine, is the largest terroir-based competition.) The cure may be worse than the disease. I have gone through wine judge training and Quantitative Descriptive Analysis training and they were helpful. However, if everyone on a tasting panel shared and applied the same training, I fear it would lead to a greater myopia than we have now. An experienced, diverse panel (i.e. academic, winemaker, media and retailer/wholesaler) in a competition that requires deliberative/consensus judging can come about as close as is possible to a fair evaluation of wines. We don’t always have that, but it remains preferable to the proposal to have a handful of well-trained enological “philosopher kings” or mini-Parkers bestowing medals on wines from on high.

Jonathan Lawrence
Royal Oak, Michigan
I've been working on alternatives to traditional methods of wine judging and found this article fascinating. The current practice borders on the ridiculous, that much is clear; wine lovers deserve more: I'm interested in finding ways to provide wine lovers with information that actually helps them understand wine better, rather than arbitrary standards of wine "quality" that fail to take into account the essential elements of wine consumption.

Clark Smith
Appellation America,
Our notion is that wine is best judged according to what is expected from that particular place. Thus you have different criteria for different places, just as in Europe. As we flesh out our Blue Book, we hope to provide just that. Soon we will begin making available in our subscriber section the ability to generate printable tasting sheets which include expected profiles for a growing number of appellation / varietal combinations.

Richard Frary , Inerenational Investor
Life is Good., Sarasota, Fl.
Great and informative article Clark. Yes I do remember when Life is fun and practice it as often as I can. Looking forward to being with you and Suzie and sharing the best life has to offer. Lots of dialog and good friends. Ricardo

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