I am fortunate to have recently been a judge at Grand Prix Vinex, an international wine competition held in Valtice. There are days where I wake up thinking, is this my life? I’ve only been in the wine industry a relatively short period of time and at wine events I’m often the “new kid on the block.” Sure, I’ve tasted well over two thousand wines during that time (I have definitely lost track, it’s probably more), but there are those in the industry who have tasted thousands more. I am forever in awe when I speak with the longtime professionals, the winemakers and the master sommeliers. They have a seemingly infinite knowledge of the ever-evolving grape varietals, vintages, winemaking techniques, producers and geography. Yet I am determined to continue my wine education as my thirst for knowledge (and wine) is endless.
I never could have predicted my life here in Brno. To put it simply, it has been a whirlwind. In five months, I’ve managed to attend over a dozen tastings, shake hands with Moravian winemakers and Masters of Wine, create this wine blog and begin my own set of English wine classes.
I’ve tasted well over two hundred Czech wines, including varietals I can barely pronounce and have spent hours researching their origins and their characteristics. Yet the mere thought of sitting on a jury panel in a wine competition was not even a blip on the radar. Trust me, I’ve always dreamed of sitting alongside prestigious winemakers, master sommeliers and wine professionals. But if you’ve been following my blog posts, you’ll know that what was once a dream has now become a reality. And as fate should have it, as I was preparing for my first English wine class in Brno, lady luck came calling on my cell phone.
Once upon a time (A few months ago), I attended a wine tasting at Víno-Klub Brno as their flyer had listed Mike Mazey as one of the evening’s co-hosts. Mike is an Australian winemaker who now considers Brno his home. I had read about him in the New York Times prior to our move as he is both an English speaker and winemaker in the region. He teaches English and consults at various wineries in south Moravia.
Additionally, he has published an excellent reference book, Wine Words, which follows him to some of the most prestigious wineries and global wine regions. His book and subsequent Udemy course introduce and catalogue wine terms to the intermediate English student and wine professional. I admire Mike for his tremendous work and his wealth of knowledge, and consider myself quite lucky to have crossed his path so early in my stay. Mike often judges at wine events both in Moravia and abroad, as he is highly regarded by those in the wine industry.
There was a scheduled wine competition taking place at the Národní Vinařské Centrum on April 29 and 30. Mike was unable to attend and called me, explaining his situation. After mentioning that he had already spoken with the project director about me, I almost dropped my phone. I laughed out loud at the surprising prospect of being a judge at such a prestigious competition. After immediately replying yes, I realized my parents would be visiting from the US during that time. Knowing full well that they would not let me pass up this opportunity, I agreed. I came to Brno seeking a wine community and now I would be substituting Mike Mazey’s spot in Valtice.
In the few days that followed, I exchanged emails with the project director for Vinex, who explained that they used the OIV rating system, created by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine. Although I had no previous judging experience, the OIV rating system is similar to the WSET tasting approach. The OIV identifies the key characteristics of the wine but using a numeric scale. This detailed analysis is a globally recognized 100 point scale for rating wines, based on their appearance, nose, taste and harmonious quality. The whole thing seemed daunting to me, but my husband reassured me simply by saying “you know how to taste wine.”
Was I nervous? Absolutely. But there was no time to be nervous as the competition was only days away. This was really happening, I was going to be a judge at a wine competition in Valtice, a UNESCO city located in southern Moravia. The Talking Heads song ‘Once in a Lifetime’ immediately came to mind… “And you may find yourself in another part of the world. And you may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?”
First Day of Competition
I arrived in Valtice on a dreary Monday morning and dropped my belongings next door at the Hotel garni Klaret, a quaint hotel which provided the guest accommodations for the judges. After signing in at the Centrum Excelence, I met the Vinex project director, Šárka Nádvorníková, with whom I had been in contact. Clutching my badge tightly for a few seconds, almost in disbelief, I stared at my name feeling both pride and excitement.
I repeated to myself, this is reality, this is happening. After a quick introduction to the other judges already seated at my table, I waited for the competition to begin, nervously tapping my foot and examining the tasting documents sitting before me.
There were approximately 40 judges in total, divided up into 8 tables of 5. At each head of the table was a lead sommelier, who tallied the scores and provided feedback to the judges. The scores were kept on individual laptops, which logged and tracked all of the entries. I was seated at a table with four Czech wine pros who had years of experience, judging in previous international competitions. Their palates and strategies had developed over time, trained to detect the smallest nuances.
My experience has been shaped through WSET training and later developed at Seaboard Wine, tasting sometimes a dozen wines in a span of twenty minutes. We used to call it ‘speed tasting.’ I was mindful of this vast difference that separated me from the other judges, and knew that I had to follow my instincts. I finally said to myself : Just taste the wine and give it the appropriate rating.
Monday’s part of the competition finished up around 13:00. After swirling, smelling, tasting and spitting 50 wines, I felt like I had successfully pulled my weight, providing appropriate scores to the wines that deserved them and offering input as to the wines that did not. I did my best and hoped that my efforts were deemed consistent with the other judges.
The most important factor when judging in a competition is the elimination of bias. One needs to judge solely on the wine’s structure, balance, concentration, quality and projected longevity. By blind tasting the wines, there is no sub context of producer or region, only the chemical components that create the end product. It is, in my opinion, the best way to judge, as potential favoritism from producers or regions can often play a role in determining the wine’s overall quality.
Wines that received a high rating showed excellent fruit concentration, balanced sugar and acidity, a long finish and harmonious qualities. Wines that received poor scores showed high amounts of sulphur, bitterness or a flabby texture with unbalanced sugars and alcohol. To the outsider, it may seem simple to determine these quality levels, but I can assure you, after trying 30 or so wines, things can start to get a bit muddled. After finishing up the first day of tasting, I felt relieved for it to be over and was anxious to chat with the other judges for their experiences and feedback.
The day continued with a lovely lunch at a local restaurant, where beer was the obvious drink of choice. After chatting with a Hungarian winemaker over a dish of chicken thighs in a creamy paprika sauce with grilled potatoes, we gathered our things and joined the rest of the group for an afternoon excursion.
Our first stop was Sonnentor, a high quality Austrian tea manufacturer with a production facility in Moravia.
Originally created in 1988 with the intention of producing high quality, organic teas on a small scale, the operation quickly grew in popularity and is now a globally recognized brand. They provided a tour of the facility, which included the specifics of their organic teas, their massive worldwide growth and their vast production. At this point, my physical senses were overwhelmed, as the aromas of chamomile, cardamom and spices were intoxicating. Unfortunately, the aromas were also in direct competition with the slight head buzz I had from the earlier part of the morning.
The next stop was at Škrobák Vinařstvi, a family run Moravian winery, who graciously welcomed all the judges for a remarkable four course dinner with wine pairings.
It always seems like magic to me, when a restaurant can pull off incredible service of 40 people with outstanding food and impeccable timing. They had mentioned that they were nervous to serve such a highly esteemed wine group, yet they certainly made it look effortless.
Each indulgent course, including foie gras, a garlic and leek cream soup, paté, duck confit and a dessert of chocolate fondant were seamlessly matched with their elegant, refined wines, including Tramin, Sauvignon Blanc and two Pinot Noirs. Škrobák’s wines were lovely and balanced, showing plenty of fruit, acidity and concentrated flavors.
I felt extremely lucky to be sitting in that seat, in a comfortable environment, surrounded by friendly and welcoming wine professionals. I took in every bite, every moment, knowing full well how lucky I was to be in that seat.
After enjoying such an indulgent, elegant meal, we were invited to take a tour of their cellar. There, the winemaker carefully explained that they produced about 400,000 bottles per year, quite an enviable feat considering the smaller size of their production facility.
After completing the cellar tour, we hopped back on the bus and returned to the Hotel, where our group was invited to continue with a tour of the Salon. At this point in the evening, I knew I had reached my limit and my hotel bed was calling my name. I bid good night to the other judges, shut my door and fell quickly to sleep, knowing the next day that awaited me was going to be even more difficult. Tomorrow would be harder. Tomorrow we would need to judge 50 sweet wines.
Day Two : Sugar High
I awoke the next morning ready to tackle the day. After all, judging sweet wine is no easy task. Not only are sweet wines less common in the United States than in the Czech Republic, but my palate is not accustomed to their pronounced levels of sugar and alcohol. Before getting into the wine business, no one tells you the lasting impact that wine has on your teeth and gums. I definitely started to feel these effects as the second day of tasting continued, yet I kept my head down and continued to taste, gaining more confidence in my scores as the day went on. Crossed varietals like Pálava and Solaris that were once new to me were now sitting before me, waiting for my assessment. It was not an easy task, allocating points to these sweet wines, yet I felt like I could finally assert my power and opinion, and make a solid case for my judgements.
And just as quickly as it started, it was over. The wines had been tallied and the results were in. I was relieved to empty my glasses and sip some water, knowing that wine was no longer in my afternoon forecast. I shook hands with the judges, and thanked them for their assistance and comradeship. I was originally intimidated by their vast experience judging in competitions, and their ability to identify characteristics of Czech wine. But I felt successful, both as a woman and as a foreign wine professional. I was able to contribute my opinions from my own personal experience. There was an overwhelming sense of relief that the competition was over, yet I also felt anticipation for the future.
Knowing that I could hold my own as a judge in a wine competition restored my confidence and made me feel worthy of having a place at the table. I am grateful for the wine center for allowing me the opportunity to be a judge, and thankful for Mike Mazey for giving such high praises in my favor as a substitute. I hope to be a judge again in a future wine competition as the experience, comradeship and wines were truly unforgettable.