Monday, June 23, 2008

Long in the tooth

Being born with a small physical frame has its advantages and its disadvantages.

As a youth, the advantages of my small frame produced a decent track runner and base stealer, not to mention an ability to squirm through small spaces like side windows to perpetrate my share of adolescent indiscretions.

Some of the disadvantages of my small skeletal frame include a put down at a party for being too short for a great looking Air Force nurse, a small bladder that has caused me to rack up many miles over my life on my small feet as I made my way—frequently—to restrooms across the world, and a mouth of gums that are too small to house all my teeth, making flossing a challenge as the string continually gets caught and snaps between the tight spacing.

Speaking of gums, the phrase “long in the tooth” refers to a particular condition of aging, when gums begin to recede. In some cases, the recession can expose nerves located where the teeth’s roots begin under the gums. A person long in the tooth, as I am, sometimes knows exactly why wine is considered an acidic medium.

Last weekend I was a judge at the New York State Fair Wine Competition. The State Fair competition draws more Finger Lakes wineries than wineries from the other New York appellations. The common thread among Finger Lakes wine is acidity. A guy who is long in the tooth has to be careful.

The judging was broken into panels of four judges each. After each wine flight, each panel of judges compared scores then decided whether or not to award medals by forming a consensus.

Only a few times did the judges on my panel have to discuss to make a case to gain consensus. The majority of times we had to do nothing more than to compile our aggregate and form an average to arrive at a consensus that fit the wine.

In a field of more than 100 wines that day, our panel awarded only one Gold Medal, a few Silvers, mostly Bronzes, and a number of no medals at all.

With so few outstanding wines having reached our panel, I began to wonder whether or not wineries have the ability to determine the quality of the wines they submit for evaluation. Or maybe they have little regard for the abilities of the evaluators. Or maybe, since winning medals is one way to promote and sell wine, they just send in their wines and hope for the best.

This is volunteer work. Judges are paid only for expenses incurred, like travel to the site and overnight hotel and dinner. It would be nice to know that wineries try to send us their best. In my case, I don’t even mind suffering a little pain afterwards for the good of great wine, and by the end of this all-day judging I was rewarded with short bursts of pain every time I drank or ate something cold, hot, sweet, or salty. The acid worked on my gums.

Yet, considering the results of the judging, I have to wonder whether I should try to suffer a little less in my waning years. Maybe I need to lobby the organizers of the wine competition so that I wind up on the panel with the most Gold Medal entries instead of the least!

I probably should retire from wine judging, but I won’t.

Copyright Thomas Pellechia
June 2008. All rights reserved.


  1. There is much to deplore in wine judging competitions. I have participated only in a few and always felt a little sullied at the conclusion. First, too many awards are passed out, so many that the roster of Gold, Double Gold, Silver, Bronze and so on becomes meaningless. There should be ONE gold, silver and bronze metal in each category, not just determind by whatever accumulation of points is agreed upon. Second, there should not be discussions -- let's call them what they are, negociations -- among the judges. I have been at competitions where sat at the table after tasting a flight and traded points back and forth on wines, as in, "OK, I'll go to silver on this wine if you go to silver on that wine." The wines should be scored on the points given, and that's that. The whole scheme is ludicrous anyway, because many fine producers don't even enter their wines because they don't trust the judging system. And fresh, bright, fruity wines tend to score higher than profound wines in the same category. Let's just sack the whole concept.

  2. Fredric,

    I almost agree completely with you. My only difference is that I've noticed that sweet wines seem to receive an inordinate amount of top awards over dry.

    Incidentally, the reason for the back and forth consensus is probably that too many judges aren't trained for what they are called to do.

  3. Thomas,

    Your 'take' on a variety of topics is a welcome breath of fresh air. Kinda like Andrew Barr's book: WINE SNOBBERY An insider's guide to the booze business. I quote (pp 52-57): "An uncritical attitude on the part of wine writers is often defended on the grounds that critics should mention what they like, and simply ignor what they do not. But how, by definition, can a critic be uncritical? ... The idea that one should write about only those wines which are worth drinking is a dereliction of the first duties of a journalist. It is also highly misleading. Is one to assume that a product which is not written up is condemned by omission? ... If it is not the job of the wine writer to give impartial and sometimes critical consumer advice, then what is his job? ... There would not be such scope for press venality if its influence were not so great."

  4. Surely, Jay, you know that critics have all the answers. We mortals are merely receptacles for their infinite wisdom and "always rightness."

    If they say that we should know only about the winners, then who are we to complain?

    I would like to answer this question posed by Andrew Barr: "If it is not the job of the wine writer to give impartial and sometimes critical consumer advice, then what is his job?"

    As I view it, my job as a writer is to impart information. I don't try to tell anyone what to like or dislike, and I certainly don't try to tell anyone what to drink. But I do tell people when I think there's a problem going around, both technically in the wine and in the world and attitude of criticism.

    I make note that one of the dynamics I've witnessed on judging panels is that there frequently seems to be a wide divergence in scoring between those who have been technically trained at wine production and those who have not. Makes sense to me.