Wine Judging Gets Judged - And the Verdict's Not Good

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By Courtney Cochran

This news just in:  judges at the annual California State Fair wine competition are apparently more than a little inconsistent in their evaluations of medal-winning (and non-winning) wines. According to an in-depth report published by the Journal of Wine Economics, fewer than half of 65 judging panels at the fair evaluated over a three year period achieved "anything close to similar results" in their appraisal of wines submitted, and one group even awarded a gold medal to a wine it had previously thrown out of the competition - twice.
Study Stats
The brain behind the controversial study is past wine judge Dr. Robert Hodgson, a retired oceanography professor from Humboldt State University and owner of Fieldbrook Winery . Apparently, Hodgson undertook to evaluate the veracity of judges' decisions after he himself felt ill-equipped to pass judgment on the 100+ wines judges often evaluate in a single day. As he put it to Wines & Vines, "I think the format of having a judge taste 30 wines four times a day exceeds the limits of their abilities." While some critics of the report are arguing that the real problem lies in the fact that wine tasting is a subjective process - and therefore subject to judging variation, I would assert that this is hardly the root of the matter.

Rather, what Hodgson is highlighting is that more than a few judges at competitions may not be qualified to pass judgment on wines - something he's proven with his results showing marked inconsistencies - and I think he's absolutely right. At a time when so much is at stake - wine sales often escalate after awards have been given - we should be taking a closer look at the standards we set for judges, and their abilities to evaluate wines submitted.

And finally, a bone I've got to pick with Hodgson: some judges absolutely are qualified to evaluate many wines in a single day; some of the better-trained sommeliers I know come quickly to mind. Perhaps it's time competitions step up their judging recruitment process - then evaluate the results once again. I hear Hodgson's on the advisory board for the Cali State Fair competition - maybe he can start on his home turf.

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Thank you for your comments. I would like to say one thing regarding the California State Fair. We are dedicated to conducting this competition to the best of our ability. We have made our "dirty linen" public in hopes to improve wine competitions everywhere. We are the only entity to do this and would encourage others to follow suit.

My service is free. We encourage others to use, (and publish) a viability report on their competitions as a public service.

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