The Wine Judge Chronicles: China 2012

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!


Cheers to Chile!

A little while ago, I took a group of students to explore the vineyards of Chile and Argentina. We had quite the adventure! The entry fee into Chile was $131.00 Why not a straight $130? For some odd reason, they didn’t have change for a ten at customs, so here we go! On the way to the hotel, we got stuck in “Taco Time”. Not the restaurant, it is their saying for a traffic jam because everybody is tight together, just like a taco. Makes sense. I tried to use it in context in the US, but somebody asked me if I was hungry, it’s a cultural thing.

Our voyage consisted of seven days in Chile and eight days in Argentina. A lot of driving and a lot of wine. Carménère is the great grape of Chile. For over 150 years the vine was thought to be Merlot, but a clever scientist discovered that it was an ancient Bordeaux grape varietal. It produces a deep red wine with aromas of cherries, spice and strangely enough a soy sauce quality, which works well in the wine. It’s best consumed young to preserve the fruit. The wine laws of Chile are slightly flexible, but you may see the terms Special, Reserva and Gran Vino which specify aging requirements.

In 2005, Chile decided to do a marketing promotion called the Carménère Adventure 2005. The idea was a 21 thousand mile wine-laden cycle road trip up the West Coast of the Americas and eventually arriving in New York. A grand undertaking, a great launch, but they ran out of gas somewhere along the way, so alas, the Carménère grape has had to resort to more traditional advertising.

We visited many different wine growing regions. In the Central Valley there are deep reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the Calchagua Valley truly excels at Carménère. But no wine tour is complete without a visit to the immense Concha y Toro winery. In existence since the 1800’s it makes a wide variety of wine, but from a fun point of view, the Casillero del Diablo or Devil’s Collection was our favorite. During the tour we were led into an old wine cellar. Within seconds, the room grew dark, cold and a deep voice began the tale. The cellar was always locked, but mysteriously and frequently, large quantities of wine went missing. Don Melchor de Concha y Toro spread a rumour that the devil was living there and if a person ventured into the cellar the devil would take their soul. The people of Chile, being predominately Catholic, were not willing to take the chance. One never knows, eternal damnation is well.. eternal.

Chile makes some excellent whites from Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. We discovered many of those in the Casablanca Valley where the sea breezes cool the vines. We were taken on a walk through the woods surrounding the vines and ran across a few interesting and often illegal plants, and one giant tarantula. The vineyard caretaker explained it was all part of the “terroir” of the region. I never knew terroir could be so dangerous.

Chile is full of surprises, from beautiful street graffiti to excellent wines. During your visit make sure to try out the Pisco (Chilean brandy) and to make time for a siesta.


What would Elvis do in a Restaurant?

Ordering wine in a restaurant can be enjoyable or slightly frightening. Here are a few tips to help you out for your next dining experience. Why Elvis in the title? Read on to find out why.


What to do when confronted with an enormous wine list of unpronounceable words and locations? Is it a variety, a region, sparkling, white, red, by the glass, by the bottle, by the bucket? Should you just point to something that looks medium expensive and hope for the best? Don’t panic and make an excuse to take a call when you are really trying to find a wine list app on your telephone. No, restaurants have sommeliers to help you, that’s their job. They are well trained to know the menu and the wine list and can offer you suggestions. But you need to ask. And, you should discreetly tell the sommelier your price point. Don’t worry it’s normal and you definitely don’t want “sticker shock” when you receive your bill!

You’ve ordered the wine, but have you ordered enough? Count on 4-5 full glasses in a bottle and 4 glasses for a sparkling wine, so calculate how many bottles you need to order depending on the number of people at the table. With a sweet wine, only a small amount is poured, so you can get away with fewer bottles. Again, the sommelier is your friend, at least for the night, and he or she has a lot of experience.

Presenting and Accepting the Wine

After your big decision, the sommelier will come to your table to present the wine. How does this work? Often the person who ordered the wine will be considered the “host”. The bottle should be presented to you, the host, and make sure you look at it to verify it is the bottle and vintage you ordered. The sommelier will open it in front of you, make sure they don’t go elsewhere to open it, which is rare. The sommelier will present you the cork and pour you a very small amount of wine in your glass. Don’t think you are being cheated out at this point! Your role is to smell and taste it, then approve or disapprove. Please do not take this time to talk about the notes you find in the wine, ah this smells like the fresh flowers hanging in the gardens of Italy where we visited last summer. Nobody cares, they are thirsty. If the wine is acceptable, then say “very nice” or just nod your head.

When is it ok to refuse a wine at a restaurant?

If it is not what you ordered – that is why you need to look carefully at the bottle before it is opened.

Should you smell the cork? Only if you want to look like a snob. However, looking at the cork can give you clues. Make sure the bottom of the cork is moist which means it has been in contact with the wine and there is less risk of oxidation which can ruin a wine. If the cork is completely saturated with wine, this may also be a concern. Of course if there is smelly green mold, don’t accept the wine.

If the wine smells or tastes bad: vinegar, cardboard, rotten eggs, dirty drain or even skunky. Yes, those are all faults that unfortunately can be found in a wine.

What if you don’t like the taste of the wine? Too dry, too fruity, too tannic, etc. Well, too bad for you. You generally cannot refuse a wine based on your preconceptions of taste , that is why you need to ask the Sommelier about the style of wine before ordering. For example an Amarone della Valpolicella from Italy should be slightly higher in alcohol with dried fruit and earthy characteristics.

Ok, you are happy, we are all happy, yet parched by this point. Get on with it! Traditions vary around the world, but an international tradition is that the sommelier will go around the table and pour the women first, then the men, and the host LAST! No matter if the host is a man or woman. The wine bottle will then be put down with the label facing the host. There are many pitfalls here, especially in business situations, who outranks who, etc, but more on that in a later post.

You look up and notice that Aunt Beatrice’s glass is empty (she drinks way too much anyway, but it’s not the moment to bring it up). However, other glasses are empty as well. Do you pick up the bottle and serve them? Do you pass the bottle around the table for them to serve themselves? Certainly don’t give it to Aunt Bea. This depends. In an upscale restaurant, the sommelier should be attentive and you should wait for him or her to refill the glasses. If necessary, you may need to order another bottle or suggest it is time to move on to another course. Your sommelier should be removing empty bottles as you make your way through dinner. If it is a casual restaurant, you may perhaps pour yourself, just read the situation.

BYOB: Bring Your Own Bottle – Taboo or Tolerated??

You bought an incredible bottle of wine on your fabulous trip to Italy and want to share it with friends at a restaurant. Is it possible? Maybe yes, maybe no. You need to call ahead to the restaurant to ask if it is ok. For some restaurants it is against their policy and in some regions it is even against the law!

You’ve found a nice Italian restaurant who is willing to let you bring your own wine, thanks to your third removed Italian cousin, Antonio. What is the protocol? You bring the wine, but it is Sommelier Antonio, who will open and pour it for you and your guests. Do not pull out your fancy corkscrew and open it yourself! Proper etiquette is that you offer Antonio a taste of the wine. He may take a tiny, oh so minuscule sip because it is really a nice wine, however he may refuse because it is against restaurant policy. But always offer. Antonio will then serve the table. Be careful. If you only have one bottle of this precious nectar and have invited twenty people to join you, there may be bloodshed.

If you do bring your own bottle, be prepared to pay a “corkage fee”. This fee, ranging from 10-25 euros is a cost to bring your own bottle. Why? Because you are engaging the services of Antonio, wine glassware is provided, and a potential sale is lost by the restaurant. Don’t complain, it is a privilege. Oh, and don’t bring wine in a box to the restaurant. Is there even a need to explain?

Other Tidbits

Should you tip on the cost of the bottle? Is Elvis still alive and living in Argentina? It’s a difficult question and depends on the country and situation. For now, I will leave you hanging.

Often the Wine List will be separate than the menu and depending on your location, it maybe offered only to men, although that is becoming less common. Go with the flow.

Your sommelier has dropped the pen taking your order, although now it is mostly on an I-Pad. Don’t pick it up! It’s an evil game that unscrupulous Sommeliers may play. If you pick up the pen, they know they are in charge and may up sell you. It happens.

Lastly, remember, you are the customer. It is your dining experience and make it a great one. Santé!

Wine vs. French Grammar

As they say “no good story started with a salad”. Nor did mine, it started with 18th century French Grammar. During my junior year at the University of Puget Sound, I studied abroad at the University of Burgundy in Dijon, France. We were able to choose our own electives and by the time I finally found the university, there were only two left to choose from: 18th century French Grammar or Wine and Gastronomy. Unknowingly, I chose the course that would change the direction of my life. Take a wild guess, it wasn’t grammar!

Where will your life take you?

It sounded wonderful, fabulous French wine, perhaps a chef with a white hat and heavy accent to teach us how to cook coq au vin or make little flower petals of chocolate. Alas, I found myself in a classroom with one of the scariest professors alive. I was the only woman and the only American, a fact he pointed out in the beginning and told me that I was doomed to fail. Hey, bring it on! Terrifying. Each class period we would taste wine and even though I made myself smaller than a baby hedgehog in the back of the class, he would call on me to describe what I smelled in the wine. If I said smokiness (which is true!) or vanilla (again true!), he would theatrically roll his eyes and ask me if I had smoked sausage dipped in thick vanilla sauce for breakfast. I had orange juice, thank you very much. Our first blind tasting exam consisted of a white and a red wine and we were to identify the origin and vintage. He returned my test and said with an incredibly sarcastic voice “at least you got the color right.” Ouch. I waited until I got back to my homestay to cry. But, I studied, drank wine, studied, more wine and emerged alive from the course!

Tasting, Tasting and more Tasting!

Thus, here I am, twenty vintages later, loving working in the many facets of the wine industry. Let’s take a journey together to explore this vast world. Santé!