Fear and how to be a wine judge

Laurel Simmons standing in front of the Berliner Wine Trophy banner in Berlin, Germany

Could you be a judge at an international wine competition?

That sounds like a leading question – the answer for me is yes, I can and I just was at the Berliner Wine Trophy in Berlin, Germany this past August of 2022.

However, if you had asked me that question 10 years ago, or even 5 years ago, I would have gulped and said, “No way”.

Here’s the thing about being a judge – in my case, for wine, but this applies to anything as far as I can see. The education, the skills and the expertise are the basics; it’s the confidence that really matters after all is said and done.

Was I nervous about being a judge at an international event? You bet! Especially after being locked down like everyone else for two years and not really getting out there to do formal wine tastings.

Before the competition, I found myself frantically reading textbooks and going through my class notes and opening lots of bottles of wine at home – and frankly, driving my husband crazy as I sniffed, tasted, sniffed, tasted, sniffed and tasted. His eye rolls got so big I’m surprised his eyes didn’t get stuck in the back of his head. LOL.

So what happened? On the first day of judging, we were given an orientation lecture and then off we went to our designated jury panels.

And yes, I almost blew it on the first wine. Every flight of wines started with an initiation wine to give the judges a chance to calibrate their palate to the wines that were coming – up to 20 wines per flight (three flights per day).

I gave the wine a low score – way lower than everyone else. But truly, I was just getting used to the system and thank goodness for our jury leader because she told everyone to back off when I was challenged about my score.

After that? It got easier. I relaxed and found that my scores were well in line with what the other judges scored. What did that mean? Since each person scored individually (but we all got to see everyone else’s final score for each wine), it meant that I could trust my judgement.

And THAT’s the big deal! Trusting myself. Understanding that after getting education, working in wineries, taking exams, and tasting, tasting, tasting, I DID know what I was doing.

Tablet used to score each wine entry
Scoring the wine

So just like everything else in life, with practice, things got easier. The 2nd flight on the first day was easier than the 1st flight, and the 1st flight on the 2nd day was easier yet. By the fourth day, I was feeling truly confident in my abilities… except!!! The fourth day was sparkling wine – not my forte. But I held up my end, focused on what I had to do and sailed through.

Oh… and the other pressure? The judges were judged as they judged!!! Yes – every so often, as we entered our scores, a member of the organizing committee would “casually” drop by, stand in the doorway, and through his tablet which gave him access to see what we were doing on our tablets, would assess our performance. (Since no one came to “speak to me” – and yes, that did happen to at least one judge I’m aware of, I was relieved and happy!)

As my husband said to me, “You don’t start at the local level, you go right to the national league!” Yes, I’ll admit that’s true. But what an experience! And I am so happy that I did it.

So my question to you is this: if I could do this for my area of expertise which happens to be wine, what’s stopping you? If you have the skills, the education, and the experience, go for it! Judge away – and be proud of your accomplishment.

And here are my last thoughts on being a judge in Berlin… I got to see Berlin! I enjoyed the food, the wine (and the beer), met the most amazing fellow judges from all over the world, and did a bit of sight-seeing. Life doesn’t get much better.

When it’s not wine time, it’s beer time! Especially in Berlin after a long day of judging wine.

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