Put a Cork In It: In Which We Pretend to Be Wine Judges for a Day

Categories: Wine Time
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Photos by Katharine Shilcutt

​As it turns out, Eating Our Words is not a very good wine judge. Blame our unappreciative palates or -- as we did on Saturday afternoon -- our preternatural ability to judge beers instead of wines, but one thing is certain: We're pretty sure the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo will not be asking us back to be a full-fledged judge on any future International Wine Competitions.

Granted, we did better than some previous judges. According to Stephanie Earthman Baird, the chairman and head honcho of the HLSR Wine Competition Committee, there are some judges who have not been asked back in the past for "bad behavior," which she indicated was a result of not using the spit cups designated for the judges and instead sucking back each glass of wine brought to them. And with nearly 1,800 bottles of wine to judge between 75 judges this year, that's a lot of wine.

We were only on a media panel this past weekend, so we sampled a mere swallow of the many wines that are presented to each judging panel over the course of the weekend. Each panel is comprised of five judges, and each judge usually samples anywhere from 115 to 120 glasses of wine each day. Over many hours of swirling, sniffing and spitting -- and note-taking, of course -- winners are finally determined in 79 different classes of wine.

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A peek inside the "neutral zone," where wines - yes, even boxed ones - are catalogued and poured for the judges.

​Some of the 79 classes have so many entries -- such as Merlot or Cabernet -- that they have to be split into price points. But although the judges know which class they're judging, they aren't aware of the price point. As Baird pointed out, it tends to breed discrimination when a fancy wine writer is sampling Merlots under $15, i.e., "Oh, this is a $15 wine? It's barely worth my palate. I'm not even going to taste it." Whereas we, as a poor food blogger, would happily declare it the best Merlot ever sheerly by virtue of the fact that we could actually afford it.


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The best wines receive a belt buckle of their very own.

​But we didn't judge Merlots on Saturday. Nope. Instead we tasted a flight of ten different Pinot Noirs, possibly our least favorite red wine outside of, well, Merlot. As previously indicated, our palate isn't quite sophisticated enough to appreciate a musty barnyard aroma, or the lingering scent of a dirty diaper. And we can certainly identify the thin, rocky taste of that much sought-after terroir in Old World wines, but that doesn't mean we like it. No, give us a juicy, ripe, bursting-with-fruit, California Cab any day of the week. Or -- if we're being really honest -- a brightly-hopped India Pale Ale. Mmm...beer.

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Stephanie Earthman Baird

​As a result, our scores for the flight of Pinot Noir didn't quite mesh with those of the other judges, who included Baird herself, Greg Morago from the Houston Chronicle and Debra Duncan from Great Day Houston. We consistently ranked each Pinot with a "no medal" or a "bronze," the lowest of the four ratings, while we noted that many others had given what we thought were appallingly stinky wines "gold" or "silver" ratings. The highest-rated Pinot in the session was the one we disliked the most. Alas, wine judging is not in the stars for us.

Baird explained that after each session, the judges' votes were tallied and any wines with at least four gold ratings (or any wine that got "double gold" -- meaning that everyone on the panel loved it) went on to a super panel that judged all the best wines from the weekend. The super panel is composed -- like the other panels -- of wine experts and wine writers from across the country (and occasionally the world). It's only fitting for a wine competition that features wines from all over the world, after all.

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D'Artagnan Bebel, general manager of Fox 26 KRIV, contemplates his wine.

​The best wines in each class are awarded medals and served at the Roundup and Best Bites Competition that takes place around Rodeo time each year. Of the best wines, the top five are presented with commemorative saddles, while the Grand Champion and the Reserve Grand Champion are auctioned off at the Rodeo -- yep, just like those steers and pens of broilers.

Want to taste this year's winners yourself? Head out to the Best Bites Competition on February 21, 2010 or simply go to the Rodeo. Carruth Plaza (at the intersection of the Astrodome and Reliant Stadium, outside Reliant Center) will have its very own wine garden this year. And maybe you'll appreciate those stinky Pinots better than we did. We'll be over in the beer garden if you need us.



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