I have been asked to be a judge at various wine competitions over the years and I have always been afraid to answer yes. The prospect of tasting 400 oaky Chardonnays followed by as many thin, weedy Merlots didn't seem like a good use of timeor, for that matter, wine. But when I got a call from the New Zealand Winegrowers group asking if I'd serve as the sole American judge for its most important competition, the Air New Zealand Wine Awards, I accepted immediately. I'd wanted to visit New Zealand for years but couldn't get past the idea of spending 24 hours in a coach-class seat. But the New Zealand Winegrowers association was not only asking me to stand up for my country, it was offering a business-class plane ticket, too.
Stirred by equal parts patriotism and the prospect of an airline seat that fully reclined, I said yes straightaway, then spent the next six months wondering if I should have said no. After all, I'd always considered such competitions more endurance trials for tasters than true tests of wine quality. How could anyone fairly assess 500 or 600 wines in just a few days?
Seeking reassurance, I phoned a few friends who had put in their own wine-judging time. My friend Alex's first question ("Have you said yes already?") did little to reassure me. Nor did another friend's description of an Australian competition at which he'd had to judge both wine and food100 dishes tasted in conjunction with 100 winesin a single day. I began to feel nauseous; I'd never thought to ask for the menu.