by Tim Atkin

William Golding and wine competitions

When William Golding sent the manuscript of “Lord of the Flies” to the publisher, Faber & Faber, it landed on the desk of a reader called Polly Perkins. Her verdict on “Strangers from Within”, as the book was then titled, was that it was an “absurd and uninteresting fantasy” and should be returned to its author with a rejection slip.

That could have been the end of one of the great novels of the 20th and the end of William Golding as a (still unpublished) novelist. The book was saved by a second opinion. Charles Monteith, who was to become Golding’s life-long editor, thought it had promise. After a change of name and a rewrite or two, Faber published it to great acclaim. Golding gave up his job as a teacher and went on to win the Nobel Prize.

I thought about Charles Monteith as I listened to the Today Programme on Radio Four last week. Willie Lebus of Bibendum was attacking wine competitions as a lottery and urging listeners to find a single wine critic whose palate they trust (or at least agree with most of the time) and follow his or her recommendations instead.

The ludicrously one-sided Today Programme item was a follow up to an article that appeared in the Journal of Wine Economics recently. After studying a series of 13 US wine competitions, retired Cal State Humboldt professor Robert Hodgson came to the conclusion that there was very little consistency between gold medal awards.

Hodgson found that of the 2500 wines that entered more than three competitions, 47% won a gold medal somewhere. More worryingly, 75% of the wines that participated in five competitions or more and received at least one gold were also rejected outright by at least one other competition. “Either the wineries are sending non-uniform samples to competitions or the judges are simply unreliable instruments for assessing quality,” the professor declared.

What are we to make of this article? As a co-chairman of the International Wine Challenge, I should declare my hand here before I’m accused of a conflict of interest. All I will say is that, as a consumer and trade columnist, I have criticised wine competitions in the past, not only in the UK but also overseas, and continue to do so. That includes, where necessary, the IWC.

I am perfectly aware that the IWC isn’t perfect — no competition is — but since Sam Harrop MW and I joined the team four years ago significant alterations have been made to the judging process. No competition comes up with the right results 100% of the time, but by eliminating bias and using first-rate judges with broad experience of the world’s wine styles, I think you can come pretty close.

It’s worth recalling, briefly, how the IWC is judged. In week one, all of the wines are tasted by 20 teams run by our panel chairs. Anything that is not put through to the second week’s medal round is re-tasted by one of the four co-chairmen (Charles Metcalfe, Sam Harrop MW, Derek Smedley MW and I) or the overseas chairman (Joshua Greene in 2009). If one of us wants to change the decision from the floor, it has to be tasted and counter-signed by another co-chairman.

A similar process takes place in week two, except that the co-chairmen re-taste everything, rather than just the potentially rejected or commended wines, to make sure that the panels are marking to the same standard. Once again, it takes at least two of us to alter a wine’s medal (or absence of one), but it’s not unusual for all five of us to be involved. I’m proud to say that it’s a second committee decision.

The same thing happens again on the day we award our trophies. This means that by the time a wine wins a top gong, it could have been tasted a total of six times, compared with three at The Decanter World Wine Awards. I honestly believe that this gives a good wine, especially a subtle one, the best possible chance of success. That said, it’s significant that the two competitions often agree with one another.

Any competition is only as good as its judges. I suspect that the glaring inconsistencies between US competitions can partly be explained by the inexperience or talentlessness – of some of the tasters. There are things that you can do to make things easier — alternate white and red flights to give tired palates a rest, for example — but the most important, apart from tasting expertise, is time to discuss the wines.

The IWC judges roughly the same number of wines in 10 days as Decanter does in five, albeit with 20 as opposed to 35 panels. I think this makes a difference, but you need to look at our results and make up your own minds. The wines that won were chosen by panels rather than a single taster, but they are better, not worse, for that.

Originally published in Off Licence News

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