A fortnight ago, my favourite week of the year was getting underway.
During five days every April, a parliament of palates descends on London to scrutinise the submissions for the Decanter World Wine Awards (over 12,000 of them this year: another record). The details, of course, will be in the October edition of the magazine. There will be shocks and surprises; there always are.
What’s the panel leader’s task? Resolving disputes and setting benchmarks: sure. After eight years of panel chairmanship, though, I’m convinced that the most important job of all is to be the man or the woman with the butterfly net, making sure that nothing beautiful flutters away without receiving its accolade.
Your role, in other words, is to keep diverting and amusing your panel members by making tenacious claims for what they felt sure was a decent but unexceptional wine.
Sometimes, after scrutiny, the panellists prove right – and the unexceptional wine slides into the long grass of a commendation, or crawls home unrewarded. Sometimes, though, the panellists see the wine anew. Beauty receives its due.
It’s easy, when faced with flight after flight of opaque reds and glittering whites, to slip into a kind of police role, hunting down faults and failures, tut-tutting at infelicities, and settling for efficient crowd management. Yet every member of the crowd is an individual; every wine is someone’s year’s work.
The judge is not there as a policeman, but as a surrogate drinker. The search for pleasure is all. There is no greater challenge, under these circumstances, than freeing your palate from the bounds and constraints of every other wine you have scrutinised, and tasting as if you were a history teacher or intensive care nurse getting home after a long day. They want pleasure; so should you.
I’m not advocating a light touch, because the judge’s role is also to distinguish between specious forms of beauty (often linked to adjustment or handling) and the most profound levels of attraction in wine (which tend to come from cosseting well-adapted varieties in distinguished sites).
Many wines, of course, are not beautiful at all. They are the equivalent of greenhouse tomatoes: serviceable products which meet a need and no more.
All of this makes a wine judge identical to a wine critic: someone whose palate is wide enough to accommodate every one of the wine world’s felicities, yet who has an unerring instinct for separating the noble from the tawdry.
Cost, by the way, has little to do with this. Noble forms of beauty in wine are those of which one rarely tires, while tawdriness is fatiguing. Ours can’t be the only panel where the under £10 picks are sometimes preferred to those above £10.
Critics, of course, have an extra task or two beyond simple judgement: they need to make comparisons both geographically (between regions or sub-regions) and historically (between vintages).
Above all, too, they need to find the words to do justice to the often inspiring forms of beauty they are logging.
Bordeaux 2010 is about to bring us a new orgy of tasting notes and scores. What will separate the great critics from the rest is not, in the end, the scores (a task of judgement which many do well enough), but the words which they use to justify them.