What is the life of a wine judge? It is not all picnics, butterflies and fabulous wines, honestly, it is a lot of work. Can you imagine judging 50-150 wines per day? Your tongue becomes a Brillo pad and your teeth take on a very unflattering shade of grey. So why become a professional wine judge? It gives you the experience to meet many people from around the world, taste a wide variety of wines, discover new places, cultures and have amazing and sometimes unusual experiences. In 2011 and 2012, I was honored to be invited to be the Chief Judge at the International Beverage Exposition and Competition in Shenzhen, China. I had the opportunity to handpick my team of wine judges. Sommeliers, winemakers, importers, the cream of the crop.
The 2012 competition remains seared in my memory. My team consisted of Don Wood, Winemaker of Icicle Ridge Winery, Giacomo de Toma, Winemaker of DeToma Wines and President of the Wines of Moscato di Scanzo, Christopher Chan, Sommelier, and my student intern Lauren Hayes. A driver picked us up at the Hong Kong airport, completely ignoring the giant “cyclone imminent” warning sign, and drove us to mainland China. After installing ourselves in the hotel, we decided to walk across the street to the exposition, literally a five minute walk. As we exited the hotel a white van pulled up and guards ushered us inside. Is this a movie set or crime scene? A lovely woman explained to us in broken English that as honored guests we should not be allowed to walk in the heat. One cannot argue with that logic so instead of a five minute walk we spent 30 minutes in traffic in an air-conditioned van to arrive at the expo.
Upon arrival in the parking lot, my team started to laugh uncontrollably, no doubt due to the sudden heat. I looked up and saw an enormous billboard of myself as the Chief Judge of the Exposition. Have you ever seen a video of a fainting goat? Yes, it was somewhat like that. And what did they do to my hair? It was a shocking shade of red, apparently the color of good luck. My friends mocked me, they continue to mock me. I certainly hope they took that billboard down.
We surveyed the scene to make sure everything was in place. As I look back, we had no control at all. My top notch team judged the wines as best as possible, discussing our results and coming to a group consensus. Surprisingly, many of the entries were from Bordeaux and Portugal. Here, I could certainly go on and on about the tasting notes and virtues of the wines we tasted, but would rather tell you more amusing incidents of the life of a wine judge.
At one point in the competition, I was presented with a young Chinese Riesling which was a suspicious dark brown color. Upon smelling it, I put it in the DNPIM (Do Not Put in Mouth) category. This was a live competition, streamed throughout various public venues, including restaurants and subway systems, to name a few. As we had yet not given a medal to a Chinese wine, panic set in and beads of sweat began to form on my forehead. I frantically started to think of a plan, running away was out of the question as the exits were controlled by armed guards. Then it struck me, this was the only Riesling entered in the competition! So I awarded it “Best of Class”. Hooray! Confetti falling from the ceiling! My life was saved. But wait, there were two more wines to come. One was the famous Snake Wine made from venomous serpents fermented for five years in alcohol and the other was made from some kind of searing alcohol with dead seahorses attached to a giant root. Ticket home please.
That evening to diminish the stress, my student intern Lauren and myself decided to take advantage of the spa associated with the hotel. We were in for quite the surprise. First, they escorted us to a changing room where we donned pink satin pajamas. Very stylish. We then had our hair washed and dried before being paraded across a casino full of men who were drinking and eating out of a golden dragon boat. Is this some kind of nightmare brought on by those strange wines? We were then taken to a large room and installed in arm chairs along with many other people, somewhat like going to the cinema. We were brought a mango ice cream cone and life started to look up. Then came the pedicure which consisted of a painful calf and foot massage followed by a choice of toenail polish color. At this point, I was in pain, so just pointed to the only color I could see, some kind of red/orange/pink. Another person arrived to give me a manicure, which was problematic since I had an ice cream cone in my hands. They promptly brought a crystal bowl to hold the ice cream and proceeded to paint my nails quite a lovely color. Thus, Lauren and I were ready to hit the town. Not yet, according to the spa, we had signed up for a massage. Ok, I told Lauren, let’s be strong, it can’t be that bad. Those famous words still linger in the air of the mysterious spa. We were taken to a double room and the two massage therapists were delightful, asking us about Seattle, showing videos and laughing. Apparently it was to ease the forthcoming torture. I had watched the videos of massages where they walk on your back and now experienced the same thing, it was excruciating. Lauren started to cry which in turn made me cry and turned into hysterical laughter, prompting an even deeper massage. We finally left with the promise of sending photos of Seattle and made our way back through the casino of drunk men, now lying on the floor next to the dragon laden boat of food and drink. But no, we were not finished, we were then covered in oil and led to a room to be blessed by the spirits of the ancestors. It didn’t help, we were both still in pain.
After an hour in the shower to rinse off the oils, we all convened in the lobby of the hotel. Our other judge Don had undergone similar torture. We asked the waiter for double vodkas, no ice. The waiter could not determine which was the vodka, so he motioned for Don to go up to the fancy glass bar to point out the bottle. Enough with that, Don brought the entire bottle of vodka which we proceeded to finish off, recounting our hilarious escapades of the day.
The next day, we arrived at the competition ready to go, only to find out all the wines and spirits for the judging of the day were stolen the night before. While the staff were going around visiting the exhibitors and begging for entries, Don gave a wonderful live saxophone concert while Lauren sat at the Australian Wine Expo booth drinking beer and making lifelong friends.
After the official expo, Lauren and I set out to Macau, an island off Hong Kong which is considered the Las Vegas of Asia. We had a meeting with a sommelier in the enormous casino the Venetian. After being lost for nearly two hours and crossing numerous canals, Lauren became quite “hangry”, so we stopped for a beer and cheese sticks. Comfort food…easy Lauren. ”
We finally found the restaurant for the meeting, the sommelier never showed up and sent somebody in her place that did not speak English and we did not speak Mandarin. After a very awkward meal, we were escorted back to Hong Kong. Not to be beaten, we took a boat across the water and watched the amazing light show in Hong Kong. A dazzling finish to the end of an extremely strange wine judging!