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Judgment Day

At a New Zealand competition, wine editor Lettie Teague makes some terrific discoveries—and learns that it's possible to taste 86 bottlings before lunch.

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 time—or, 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 food—100 dishes tasted in conjunction with 100 wines—in a single day. I began to feel nauseous; I'd never thought to ask for the menu.

The most useful piece of predeparture advice came from my friend The Collector. "Make sure you tell everyone you meet in New Zealand that you're a big fan of the All Blacks," he said. (For non-rugby fans, the All Blacks are New Zealand's national team, whose members are more closely followed and deeply revered than any rock band or movie star.) The Collector knew this because he had once been a serious rugby player; he might even care more about rugby than he does about wine. Once, when my husband asked The Collector if he'd trade his incredible cellar to play one more game, The Collector (a former scrum half) quite seriously replied, "I'd have to think about it."

The day I arrived in Auckland, the headlines of the New Zealand Herald trumpeted the news that the captain of the All Blacks was about to get married. Accompanying stories addressed ancillary concerns: Would marriage affect the captain's play? Would he cut short his honeymoon to return to the game?

If an obsession with rugby is one of New Zealand's biggest trademarks, another must be its Sauvignon Blanc. In less than 10 years, the Sauvignon Blancs of New Zealand have pretty much become the de facto gold standard of the grape. (Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc was famously the first New Zealand wine to achieve commercial success since modern winemaking began in the country a few decades ago.) Today, producers from South Africa to California have been known to tout their lean and racy (high acid) "New Zealand—style" Sauvignons—I've even overheard sommeliers in French restaurants describe certain Sancerres and Pouilly-Fumés, which are made from Sauvignon, as "New Zealand—style."

But New Zealand makes much more than Sauvignon Blanc. Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir, to name just a few wines, are also produced on both its north and south islands. Yet only Sauvignon Blanc is exported in any meaningful quantity—the others can be much harder to find. This was another reason I accepted the offer to be a judge; I wanted the whole New Zealand picture.

A good education rarely comes free, and my work began soon after I arrived. Never mind that I'd slept only two of the past 24 hours. I was due at the briefing for the judges that afternoon. The woman from the Winegrowers was apologetic but adamant: There was a great deal, she said, I needed to know.

Starting with the proper attire. I was the only judge who showed up in a blazer; everyone else wore sandals and shorts. I felt like a process server crashing a picnic. All the people at the briefing—there were 22 judges and half a dozen or so stewards—seemed to know each other; in fact, they all were New Zealanders, except the other international judge, Stephen Brook, from the U.K. Brook, however, blended in better; he'd been in New Zealand a week and knew how to dress like a native.

The chairman of the wine judges, John Belsham, called the meeting to order. Though he looked like George Clooney, he reminded me more of George Patton. The no-nonsense Belsham apparently had little use for small talk or pleasantries, not with so much resting upon his command. Belsham's leadership, however, was purely voluntary; in real life he is a highly regarded winemaker. (The press materials for his wine company, Foxes Island Wines, characterize Belsham's winemaking style, not surprisingly, as "perfectionist.") Almost all the judges were, in fact, winemakers—some of New Zealand's very best. Brook and I were the only members of the press.

There were nearly 1,200 wines to be judged; they represented, said Belsham, a record-breaking number of entries, including a particularly large number of Sauvignon Blancs. A groan went up from a few of the judges; young Sauvignon can be quite acidic and painful to taste.

Ignoring the outburst, Belsham went on to review the judging process. "For the benefit of our international judges," he said, looking meaningfully at Brook and me. The wines were to be scored on a 20-point scale; half points were permitted. Three types of medals were possible: gold, silver and bronze. (Traditionally, about 50 percent of the wines win some sort of prize.) A gold medal, for a score of 18.5 or higher, meant the wine possessed real character, distinction and class. Silver, for a score between 17 and 18, was awarded to wines that were better than average but lacked real distinction. A bronze, for a score between 15.5 and 16.5, simply meant the wine was commercially viable. "But don't just assign numbers," Belsham warned. "Say something meaningful." Again, he looked over at Brook and me.

"There's always some concern about the international judges," the judge next to me explained. "They take too long and give low scores." Who were the judges last year? I asked. He thought for a minute, then said, "I don't remember."

I imagined the next year's competition and some judge remarking, "That American had a nice blazer, but boy was she slow." Belsham, meanwhile, had moved on to conduct a practice Chardonnay tasting. One New Zealand judge raised his hand. "How do you deal with the oak?" he asked. (Chardonnay is almost always aged in oak for some length of time, and the flavors the wood imparts can be strong, sometimes overpowering.) "That question comes up all the time," Belsham replied, sounding almost approving. "Some might award a wine gold because of how it might taste in six months' time or silver for how it tastes right now," he said. "The answer is to judge every wine as it is right now, on the table—not what it might be."

Each day the judges would be divided into teams of four, with a leader, said Belsham. Each team would taste between 120 and 150 wines a day—including the top golds and trophy wines. Top golds were the wines that each team named the very best gold-medal winner; these would, in turn, be tasted against one another for the trophy title. It sounded like a lot of medals to me, but mostly it sounded like a lot of wine.

Sitting across from Belsham at the judges' dinner that night, I decided to mention what I'd been told about the international judges. If they were so much trouble, why have them at all? Belsham gave me a severe look and replied, "The international judges are brought in for their perspective—they know what's happening in the world." That sounded almost flattering; I began to relax. "They also help us get publicity," he added.

Early the next morning, the other judges and I were picked up and driven to the competition location. As we rode farther and farther away from Auckland, I wondered if the driver had forgotten where we were going. We passed a sign that said Albany—was I somehow back in New York? Finally, he pulled into a parking lot at the North Harbor Stadium, a rugby arena. "Time for a quick look at the game?" I joked to Belsham, who gave me a look like a general might a too-pert PFC. "It's a great tasting location; it has great natural light," he replied.

We didn't run out onto the field, as I'd hoped to tell The Collector we had, but were directed to a very large, very light room overlooking the stadium. Twenty-two long tables were covered in pristine white cloths and lined up precisely, one after the other. Each was equipped with a spit bucket, a water pitcher, wineglasses and a plateful of crackers.

All 1,165 wines (multiple bottles, presumably, per entry, in case there were problems) were hidden behind a black plastic curtain that stretched the length of the room. Only the stewards—the men pouring the wines, who hoped to be judges one day—got to look at the labels.

I was given an apron and a clipboard and led to the table that would be mine for the day. I'd been assigned to the team headed by Mike De Garis, a low-key, friendly man who'd been a winemaker in Australia and now ran an Auckland-based wine-buying club. Two of the other three judges were winemakers and one was in wine sales. "We have 117 wines to get through today," announced De Garis to the team, sounding pleased. "I'd like to knock off at least 86 of them before lunch."

My team began with the unwooded Sauvignon Blanc, or Savvies as New Zealanders call them. There were two style categories: wooded and unwooded (oak-aged and not). "You tend to score your first 10 wines either very high or low," De Garis offered helpfully, as I stood looking at my personal table of 53 Sauvignons with a mixture of terror and awe. "It's best to go back and retaste the first 10 after you've tasted another 10 or 20."

By wine 20 I felt an acid headache approaching. By wine 34, I couldn't feel my lips. "Have a cracker," De Garis said kindly. After we'd all tasted the wines and assigned them marks, the team sat down together to go over our scores. As we each recited our numbers—none of them particularly high—some judges remarked on how the wines compared unfavorably to those of last year. Overcropping, they suspected, was the source of so many thin and watery wines. Our team awarded mostly bronzes, a few silvers and a couple of golds.

Just then Belsham, who'd been standing in the center of the room, surveying the judges as a general would his troops, came over to offer me a word of advice: "Don't ever feel embarrassed to vote for a gold medal," he said. "We'll always retaste it." Was this comment directed at me personally or was it the result of my too-negative predecessors? "I don't like fence-sitting," Belsham added, as he prepared to depart. "It's always better to give the higher score."

I wanted to be positive; truly I did. On the other hand, my scores were pretty much in line with those of the other judges, although their expressions of commendation were different than mine. (For example, New Zealanders call a wine "smart" if it's a fine example of its type. Americans might just say "well made.")

I was tasting a tableful of medium-sweet Rieslings when Belsham stopped by to see me again. "How are you finding the wines?" he asked—a test, I figured, for sure. I'd made note only of the Rieslings I admired—their crisp acidity, floral notes and mineral finishes. "Riesling is a difficult class to judge," Belsham replied before walking away. Now, I thought, he probably believed I lacked any kind of perspective. "What's with the American?" I imagined him asking De Garis. "Is she giving all the Rieslings the golds?"

De Garis was like our team's quarterback; every time we tasted a new set of wines, he gave out the plays. "Look for fresh florals and sweetness in balance," he directed before we tasted the Rieslings. "Canned asparagus flavors in Sauvignon Blancs were once considered desirable in New Zealand," he noted as those wines were poured. "That's no longer true."

On the second day, the front page of the New Zealand Herald was filled with the news that All Blacks halfback Jason Spice was hoping to join the team's European tour. In the meantime, my teeth hurt so much from all the acidity, it felt like the bristles of my toothbrush were made of steel wool. When I mentioned this to a New Zealand judge, he laughed knowingly and replied, "That's because you've stripped off all your enamel." (Excess acidity, it seems, really can do this.) This was why, he confided (unnecessarily, I might add), he hadn't brushed his teeth since the competition had begun.

I joined a new team that day—this one headed by winemaker Brent Marris. Or Million Dollar Marris, as he'd been dubbed by his peers, thanks to the recent sale of his Marlborough-based winery, Wither Hills, to Australian-based liquor giant Lion Nathan. Maybe it was the money (an unprecedented $24 million in American dollars) or maybe it was the custom-made Mercedes he'd ordered from Germany, but Marris seemed like a very happy man. Actually, all of my New Zealand teammates appeared to be just as contented, though hardly as rich; it was clear they truly enjoyed their work.

It was hard, however, to stay in good spirits while tasting through the first group of Chardonnays, which were some of the most aggressively wooded wines I've ever encountered. By the 65th glass, I began to have trouble hearing. Could a person go deaf, I wondered, from ingesting too much oak?

There were, of course, the exceptions, like the Chardonnay that had such purity, elegance and restraint that everyone agreed it deserved a top gold. "Just think how happy you'll make some winemaker," Marris was fond of saying whenever we found a noteworthy wine. Yet I still found myself wishing that New Zealand's winemakers were spending less time on Chardonnay and more on, say, Riesling.

By the third day I'd tasted more than 400 wines and had half as many still to go. There were yet more Chardonnays, oaky and otherwise, but they were followed by a class of surprisingly good Pinot Noirs. Even Marris, a Pinot Noir specialist (his Wither Hills bottling was named Champion Wine of the Show in 1999), was amazed to find so many well-made wines. This seemed especially remarkable considering how new the Pinot Noir grape still is in New Zealand (most vines aren't more than a decade or so old). And yet, quite a few of the wines we were tasting showed true Pinot character—delicate aromatics and nuanced notes of earth, cherries and spice in the mouth.

It was, however, a different story with the Cabernets and the Cab-Merlot blends. "Focus on ripe fruit, steer away from stalky green flavors, thin or weedy wines," Marris counseled in his pretasting pep talk. Unfortunately, this seemed to eliminate most of the entries. "Why do New Zealanders bother with Merlot?" I asked Marris rhetorically. "Don't say that to my ex-wife," he replied, indicating one of the two female judges nearby. "She makes Merlot in Hawke's Bay."

Finally, on the third day, it was time to taste the trophy wines in order to choose the best wine of the competition. Each had been judged the best of its type (Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, etc.) and was to be tasted against the others until the field was whittled down to five. The finalists were Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

We tasted them all, then started over again. Belsham appeared to be on the verge of collapse. (Had the acid also eaten away his tooth enamel?) After what seemed like eternity, but was probably 10 minutes, the Pinot Noir was given the nod. The judges appeared pleased, and even Belsham allowed himself the tiniest of smiles. There were 652 medals awarded overall: 63 gold, 135 silver and 454 bronze.

Although it took nearly 48 hours to get back to New York (canceled planes, bad weather, missed connections) and more than a week before I brushed my teeth without screaming (I'll never take enamel for granted again), my time in New Zealand was nothing short of remarkable. I'd tasted some interesting, even world-class wines, but more importantly, I'd met quite a few generous and talented women and men. I knew what The Collector meant when he explained why he loved rugby so much: "It's about being part of a really great team."

Published July 2003
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