This year Ange & I have been asked to Host The 2008 Ontario Wine Awards Gala, which is coming up April 26th. And a couple weeks after being asked to host the awards, the organizers followed up wondering if I would be interested in doing some wine judging. I was flattered, and accepted of course.

Over the years I’ve tasted many wines, especially local wines, and I while I think I have a sharp palate I would never really call myself a critic - let alone a wine judge!

The only thing close to wine judging that I'd done is to use Wine Beagles, a Facebook application that lets you keep track of wines you tasted, including your wine notes and a scoring system out of 5 stars.

Not only that, but the most wine I had tried consecutively in one night was probably about 15 different wines - now I had to taste and score 65+ win
es! So the idea of tasting all those wines and then having to score them made me queasy.

Having a few knots in my stomach, I figured it would be appropriate to get some wine judging insights from the Awards' founder, and Canada's foremost wine expert, Tony Aspler. I set up a meeting with Tony to go over a few things before Judgment Day.

Training with Tony

Last week I headed up to Tony Aspler's house with my wine journal, and an eagerness for some tips to put me at ease.
Tony's door opens and his dog Pinot (yes his name is Pinot) couldn’t stop barking - It was as if he could smell a wine judge impostor.

Soon after my arrival Tony brought out a couple wines for us to try, as well as the judging sheet that I would be using for "Judgment Day." He went over some of the basics of how the judging process works and then we went into trying some wines.
We had one white and one red - both blind.

We started with a Chardonnay, which Tony liked, but he said it lacked acidity and thus gave it an 86 score. Then we had a Red Meritage wine and he liked it a lot giving it a 90. I was reminded about the importance of acidity in making a great wine, and while I agreed with him about the wines, I didn't like the Red Meritage as much as he did. Now I had at least two score references to take with me into Judgment Day.

So tasting 2 wines was simple enough, but how about having to taste 65 wines in one day, and score each one? What was I to do?

Tony had a few TIPS on how deal with a big flight:

1. Nose the flight first
2. Cluster in groups (say 3) the best nose, okay nose and not good nose.
3. Then begin by ta
sting the good ones first and work your way through the groups from there, narrowing down your favourites.
4. For
taste and smell fatigue Tony recommended smelling water and eating bread sticks.

So everything Tony told me seemed to make sense, and I left Tony's place with some relief and even a little excitement.

Global Wine Tour

A couple nights after my Training with Tony I attended a
Global Wine Tour. The GWT is hosted by wine critic and educator Steven Thurlow, and we went through 8 wines in one night at The Fine Wine Reserve. 4 Greek wines & 4 Portugal wines. He was very informative and confirmed Tony’s position on acidity being a key component in wine. He said acidity makes the wine "exciting," "focuses flavours," and give the wine "sparkle." Attending this tasting gave me added insight into wine criticism and helped me prepare even more for Judgment Day.

1954 Sauterne

Later in the week I also had the opportunity to taste a variety of Sauternes from Chateau Gillette at a Fine Wine Reserve tasting. Included in the lineup was a 1954 Sauterne, which was the oldest wine I had ever tried!

So my week was jam packed full of wine tastings, which wa
s great because it gave me as much confidence as I could muster before the real test.

Judgment Day

There’s no question that I was nervous about judgment day. I showed up bright and early at Brassaii restaurant on King West where the judging was taking place. I was grateful to be healthy, because at least I knew my palate and nose were not handicapped going in. Ange had showed up just before me, so it was great to have her there to support me and take a few snapshots of the judging event.

The way judging works is that there are different panels that go through various categories (i.e. Riesling, Chardonnay, Rose etc.), and after tasting one category, the judges go over the collective results to see if there are any big discrepancies and see if everyone is on the same page. You rate the wine on a 100 point scale, and 85+ point wines get slotted into bronze, silver and gold medals.

I had a great panel that included: Christopher Waters, Editor of Vines magazine, Dr. Linda Bramble, who was very sweet and helpful and Gord Stimmel, Toronto Star’s wine critic; and another seasoned wine judge was in our panel as well.

I was a Judge, but more of a Judge in training as the other panels had only 4 judges and ours had 5 because of me. Most Judges were So
mmeliers, wine writers, and well known critics such as David Lawrason from Toronto Life magazine. Linda Bramble joked with me about being a "Virgin" wine judge, and I laughed because it was funny, and also true. But that was soon to change!

It was nice because I didn’t feel like an intruder as the other judges were very friendly, helpful and curious about my first time experience.

So judging began as we sat down to 25 wines. Talk about intimidating! The tasting marathon was about to begin. First Round started with Oaked Chardonnay over $20; Second round was Pinot Noir; 3rd round Syrah/Shiraz and 4th Round Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first round I was a little slower that the other judges getting through the wines, and when we went through our scores, I had some relief because I was pretty much on par with everyone, except a few wonky scores.
But after the first round I learned a few things, and seemed to have many scores in line with the judges, and quite a few scores the same as Gord Stimmel - so I figured I was on track.

We finally finished off the day's worth of judging and while it took a lot of concentration, life sure could be worse! I tried many wines, and it was so neat to taste all the differences in all the different wines.

The Chardonnay category was very solid, whereas the Pinot Noir category was not as exciting as I thought it would be. The Shiraz/Syrah category was pretty good and shows promise as a good variety for Niagara, and the worst category of the day was the Cabernet Sauvignion, which only had a couple good ones.

Keep in mind that not all of Niagara's best wines are submitted into the competition. Some are, but definitely not all, so I'm sure there are some stellar wines in all categories that unfortunately never got judged.

So, I guess we’ll see if I'll ever judge again? One problem with judging is that it badly stained my tongue and teeth! See the picture above. I'd personally like to continue to evaluate more wines, but maybe not 80 in one sitting. However if asked again I’d probably say yes.

Overall, I'm glad to have persevered Judgment Day and to no longer be a wine judge virgin. And I'm certainly looking forward to finding out who all the winners are!

It's time for a glass of wine!