Discerning palates, frame of reference and focus make for a good wine judge

Idaho wine judge Mary Cressler

Though Mary Cressler, a wine writer and consultant from Portland, had heard a bit and sipped some Idaho wine, the Idaho Wine Competition Sept. 20 at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse was her first time judging the Gem State juice. She was particularly taken
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Though Mary Cressler, a wine writer and consultant from Portland, had heard a bit and sipped some Idaho wine, the Idaho Wine Competition Sept. 20 at Ruth's Chris Steakhouse was her first time judging the Gem State juice. She was particularly taken

There is only one thing to do after you have tasted 169 wine entries over a six-hour period: Attempt to undo the grape assault on your senses.

Brush your purple teeth. Maybe crack open a diet cola. For some wine judges, there’s nothing like a nice light lager or pale ale to help break up the tannins on your tongue that all those big red wines tend to deposit.

You learn this and other things after observing a wine-judging event such as the Idaho Wine Competition run by Great Northwest Wine, a Washington-based media company, in cooperation with the Idaho Wine Commission.

The annual in-state judging of Idaho wines took place Sept. 20 in a well-appointed back room at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse in Boise. Each of the eight judges dutifully sniffed, sipped, spit and then took copious notes as the wine flights landed on their tables. Along the way they formed opinions before awarding the hardware: double gold, gold, silver and bronze medals. They also ranked the overall best wine and the best wines from various classes of wines: reds, whites, rosés and some sub-categories. At times, judges take water breaks and nibble on palate-cleansing snacks such as apples, crackers and even mushrooms.

First thing to remember when you are a wine judge? It is a wine-tasting event, not a wine-drinking affair. Judges learned long ago to pace themselves, take breaks and pay just as much attention to a wine’s color, “nose” and viscosity as its taste.

Though some competitions give out so many awards it diminishes the value of getting one, there is no question that vintners covet the medals — a boon to the marketing of their wines. The group judging the Idaho wines were no pushovers.

“You know, if I couldn’t recommend a wine, I couldn’t give it even a bronze,” said one to colleagues. They all nodded in agreement.

The Idaho judging had a combination of veteran judges from around the country, a few of whom had never tasted Gem State juice. Their backgrounds included wine writing, criticism and consulting. Others are wine retailers or restaurateurs who are always sampling wines to sell. More and more, wine judges come with a pedigree, such as the status of certified sommelier.

One doesn’t have to heap on certifications or have any particular background to be a wine judge — but there is no substitute for the wine knowledge and a palate that knows its way around wine varietals.

“You have to keep an open mind,” said Mike Dunne, a Sacramento wine writer who typically judges a dozen or two dozen times a year, including international competitions. The recent Idaho competition is his second time judging the state’s wines — which he has grown fond of over the last couple of years.

“When judging, you have to recognize that not all Cabernet Sauvignon is made in Napa-style, not all Pinot Noir is made like those in Monterrey (California). You have to keep in mind where the grapes are grown and the styles used to make it. Pinot Noir is very transparent. There can be wide differences in interpretation.

“A judge has to build on experience over time — build frames of reference.”

And be ready to put that tasting experience to work where both traditional and non-traditional styles will be offered.

“You really have to focus,” said Mary Cressler, a Portland wine writer and certified sommelier. She was quite taken by the Idaho reds she tasted here and has a new appreciation for depth and balance of the varietals and blends. Some of the whites? There were wines that did not meet her expectations.

Are wine judges “super-tasters” and do they have to use all those adjectives?

Dunne thinks they are experienced tasters who probably have more sensitive palates than the average person. There can be a downside. One of those super-tasters might be too sensitive to some tasting note — and may not be able to get past that note to enjoy the full spectrum of what a wine has to offer.

As for all of those adjectives? Fruity, essence of melon and on and on? That’s mostly personal expression. Though it is important to get across what to expect with a given wine, people like Dunne concentrate more on discussing the balance, color and viscosity of a wine.

“I put as much emphasis on structure and weight, viscosity, alcohol, oak, acidity and tannins — as anything. I am big on the finish ... the longer it lingers and changes on the palate rather than defining what fruit or veggie best describes it.”

He and the other judges are finding all of those qualities in Idaho wines — and that bodes well for the future.

See a list of the 2016 Idaho Wine Competition winners here.

Judges for Idaho Wine Competition

The judges were Mike Dunne, a longtime wine writer and consultant from Sacramento, Calif.; Naomi Boutz, of the Cellar at 317 Sherman in Coeur d’Alene; Mary Cressler, wine writer from Portland; Ilene Dudunake, owner of A New Vintage Wine Shop in Meridian; Stephanie Earthman Baird, a longtime wine judge, distributor and educator in Houston; Lane Hoss, wine buyer for Anthony’s Restaurants in the Seattle area; Kat House, a wine educator and winemaking consultant in Boise; and Paul Sinclair, a retired educator from Kennewick, Wash., who is a longtime member of Great Northwest Wine’s tasting panel. Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue of Great Northwest Wine tabulated results.