Since ‘retiring’ from running his Michelin Star restaurant, The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, Roger and Sue Jones have been running a gastronomic ‘takeaway’ from their premises where customers can buy some of Jones’s signature dishes along with paired premium wines. Jones has also been a judge on three global wine competitions – judging wines from Alsace and three New World regions for the International Wine and Spirit Competition (IWSC), Australian wines for the Decanter World Wine Awards (DWWA) and next month working with the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC). So what approach does a wine expert/ chef take to the judging process and how has the dreaded C-word affected things?
“I have visited all the countries whose wines I judge, on numerous occasions, even making wines in some of them, but more importantly I visit and talk to winemakers and try to understand what they are trying to achieve,” says Jones
As a retired Michelin Star chef I am fully aware of the importance of being judged, and was constantly judged on a daily basis over a 21 year period at The Harrow; with wine the winemaker actually only gets one chance a year to get their ‘Star’ hence it really is important to fully appreciate the wines placed in front of us at these blind judging competitions.
So what makes me responsible enough to take a seat at these prestigious competitions and be able to wave the wand and decide whether to sprinkle gold dust on these wines I hear you ask?… a man with no wine qualifications except for the one presented to him back at public school in the 1970s – a certificate called “expulsion” for alcoholic misdemeanours.
For me personally I judge a wine on the ability to sell it, not necessarily on the technicality of the wine and, together with my wife, we earned a reputation on building one of the finest restaurant wine lists in the British Isles. More importantly we have the ability to constantly sell top wines, not just sit on them to make the list look good.
I have visited all the countries whose wines I judge, on numerous occasions, even making wines in some of them, but more importantly I visit and talk to winemakers and try to understand what they are trying to achieve. Over the years I have also directly imported wines as well as discovering new stars with the help of my global contact network.
It is also important to be able to evaluate a wine that I may personally not drink, but still deserves an award.
With Covid placing huge logistical and safety measures on judging, it is interesting to see how each competition has dealt with Covid safe practices adding, of course, huge extra costs but safeguarding the continuation of this year’s awards which will be so important to the wine industry to help support sales.
Every competition has differing safeguards in place, with Decanter the most comprehensive with everything from an airport-like X-Ray heat machine at the main entrance to individual bleepers that quacked if another human came too close. But all competitions had similar ideas on the basics such as the discouragement of the art of spitting wine, but more encouragement of dribbling it into individual cups, which had to be sealed; mixing with judges from other countries was forbidden in a ‘Brexit style’, all scribblings were on sterilised iPads and the use of the elbow instead of ‘wine hugs’.
The only downside with both the DWWA and IWSC, is the inability to cross reference with fellow judges who are judging other countries and not being able to taste their top-awarded wines to keep one’s own confidence in what awards we have given and ensure we are not being biased. However, I am in the prestigious position that I judge numerous countries across all three competitions so am not biased or over loyal to any region but, of course, enjoy the wine regions that I judge very much. IWSC still has an overall chair who checks Golds on the day, whilst Decanter check all Golds later in the process, which continues to safeguard both competitions that only the best wines are awarded the top mark.
I was grateful that I managed to visit Alsace before lockdown to spend a comprehensive three days there not only tasting hundreds of wines but meeting numerous winemakers to learn their ideology and therefore could understand exactly what was required when judging their wines earlier in August for IWSC, likewise as an avid Australian wine follower for over thirty years I have grown along with the Australian wine industry and feel comfortable in judging these, and have been judging these for Decanter for over 11 years.
Judging for all three competitions is done in groups of three people, giving a natural winner or award and also the set up of the three panel is made up of people with different experience, expertise and knowledge. The most important attribute is the ability to learn and be educated from your fellow judges and, in return, also to share your expertise with them.
All judging is of course carried out blind, and judges are not advised of the wines until the results are released to the public, ensuring that there is no insider deals done on wine purchasing. It may be a nervy time for the winemakers but it is equally nervy for us judges as we may well have given a bad score to a winemaker friend or long term favourite wine and, unlike the government, we can’t change the rules and re-score just because of the “Covid Blame Game”.
I look forward now to judge South Africa, New Zealand and Australia for IWSC in September before heading down to a secluded hideaway in Kent in late October to work with Tom Stevenson and the Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships (CSWWC) team. All three competitions have been superbly supported by Sensible Wine Services and, of course, all wines are tasted in Riedel glassware.
On a gastronomic side the excellent food provided at IWSC was supplied by Xavier Rousset MS and his team at Comptoir with the bonus of after-drinks and dim sum in Soho. At Decanter the food included stunning vegetarian food boxes from Fooditude and, of course, the traditional kilos of Neal’s Yard cheeses. I hear that Tom Stevenson has upped the game even higher and hired a Michelin Star Chef to feed his team in October 😉
Best of luck to everyone who entered their wines.