I was surprised by the quiet. Walking into the judging room for the International Women’s Wine Competition on its first morning of judging, I shifted gears to match the hushed tones around me. If not for the array of wine glasses surrounding each judge, the atmosphere took me back to a reference library. Instead of books being shuttled back and forth between the stacks on four-wheeled carts, it was wine. Glasses were snugly situated in racks of divided compartments, ensuring none tip over nor rearrange their order from their exacting positions for the next round of judging.

Red Wine Being Poured into GlassesWhile the carts periodically rolled in and out of the judging room delivering the next batch of wines for tasting, I noted that the dozen or so round tables were populated almost entirely by women wine judges, not a group often seen at competitions. Except for this competition, judges comprise both sexes. But the International Women’s Wine Competition is unique, specifically setting out to judge wines for appeal to women’s palates, by only women judges.

Who were the men I saw sitting in the minority at most tables? I asked competition staff. “They’re taking the judges’ notes. They are the scribes of the table, keeping track of judges’ scoring and serve as our panel coordinators.”

It’s not every day you see the gender tables turned, with the men essentially serving as the women’s assistants. “Do they enjoy doing this?” I inquired, wondering if the men bore any resentment at not being part of the judging teams.

“Oh, yes! Most of them have been working for me for years at our competitions. Many are retired from working in the industry and love stepping back into the business for a few days at each competition,” replied Debra Del Fiorentino, founder and president of Wine Competitions Management and Productions.

“Do the women judges ever feel a bit intimidated by the presence of the men panel coordinators at their tables?” I continued to probe, recalling stories I’d heard from women judges the year before about judging on mixed gender panels for other competitions. Some had mentioned that when they would state, “I’m getting a lot of vanilla on this (or fill in some other perception),” a male judge would be dismissive and tell her she was wrong.

“No! We’ve got strict rules about communication during the competition to prevent anyone from influencing a judge’s evaluation by mentioning a flavor or aroma before they’re ready to talk as a group about their reactions to the wine,” answered Ms. Del Fiorentino. “The panel coordinators, mostly men at this competition, don’t talk to the judges unless they’re asked a question.”

“What comes up during evaluation that a judge would ask a panel coordinator about?” I continued probing. (It was all new to me!)

“Occasionally a judge might privately ask the panel coordinator about a flaw or problem with a wine. The judges don’t want to influence one another’s perceptions so their coordinator can help when a problem arises,” explained Ms. Del Fiorentino. She continued, “In fact, just now we ran across a corked wine. The judge picked up TCA and asked the panel coordinator to address her evaluation. Then the panel coordinator conveys the judge’s TCA concern to the chief judge.

“This is a very serious problem since entrants pay to enter their wines, so we want to give them every opportunity to show their wines in the best circumstances. It ended up that all the judges in that panel picked up the TCA. Then we also asked another judge at another panel for an independent evaluation, not telling her anything about the wine. She also immediately identified it as corked. Then our competition staff opened the next bottle of this wine to replace the corked one. Unfortunately, in a highly unusual situation, three bottles of the same wine submitted were all corked. This almost never happens, and we’ll do just about anything to ensure every wine entered gets a fair review, but it’s sometimes impossible under this circumstance.”

Working the room

Feeling less intimidated by the smiles and chuckles around the studious room among the judges as they commented to one another about the work before them, I nudged closer to tables to listen in to judges’ commentary: “Definitely vanilla,” I overhear from one. “Stone fruit,” from another. The work continued.

I leaned over to ask a competition staffer what she found so fascinating, as she was listening intently to the panel discussion before her. “They ask a lot of great questions,” she explained. “I find it really interesting to follow their train of thought as they discuss the wine.” I asked her if she worked other competitions, to which she indicated she had worked several. I asked if this one was different than the others. “Yes! Here the women judges just talk about the wine they’re tasting.”

I inquired if that wasn’t true in all the competitions she attended. “Yes, but what I mean is that the women stay focused on the wine judging. At other competitions I hear the men judges talking about sports,” she explained. I raised an eyebrow.

Viewing the competition command center

In the adjacent room, I find tables and tables of well-organized wines bottles, sorted by panel and categories. Staff hustle in and out of the room with those “library” carts, shuttling batches of freshly poured wine to judging panels and whisking away completed tasting rounds.

We’re instructed not to approach or speak with one section of the room, hunched over laptops who we can clearly see (from a distance) are tabulating panels’ scores for each of the wines. “No one gets to talk to them, including me, throughout the competition,” explains Debra Del Fiorentino, “to ensure we maintain scoring integrity. It’s critical for us to maintain checks and balances in the scoring process.”

“They’re ready!” I heard another staffer wave over someone who was adding filled glasses to a cart to take in to one of the panels. She looked up with a big smile, “I love the process of seeing how the judges react to each wine. We keep getting more prestigious wines come in for the competition, and it’s fun to see how impressed they are by the high quality of wines they get to taste.”

I looked around at the wines covering so many tables. All are labeled with their competition entry information above the wines’ bottle labels. Staff check clipboards to find specific entries. “I’m looking for 7436; do you see it?” one asks. I help look for it not understanding how they are sorted on the table. I can see they are all Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley, but they’re not in numeric entry order on the table. So there must be another system they use to track them on the tables in the command center. Having spotted 7436, I hand it over to her and watch it disappear to be poured for one of the panels.

Keeping palette fatigue at bay

I noticed small plates on the judging tables with bits of bread, roast beef and olives, presuming they’re palate cleansers. The olives confused me. (I like spicy, flavorful Greek olives.) “No, no, these are neutral!” I was handed a couple to taste. “These are bland and perfect to bring the palate back to a neutral taste sense,” explained Debra Del Fiorentino. Sure enough, they were quite bland but not unflavorful. But they had no salt, spice or other distinct flavor to leave my palate pre-disposed for wanting a specific flavor to follow the olive.

How many wines do judges taste in a day? Each had tasted more than fifty before lunch and expected to do at least that many or more before the end of the work day. At lunch, the judges broke to enjoy beer (or water) with their midday feast. They could enjoy a variety of pasta dishes, salad and dessert.

“What’s different about the International Women’s Wine Competition from others’ you’ve participated in?” I inquired.

“It’s great because we can be relaxed and just focus on the wine,” replied one judge. “Women just get down to business and get it done!”

Now where have I heard that before?!

~ ~

Congratulations to all the winners of the International Women’s Wine Competition! A big “thank you” for letting us attend part of the judging activities. And “thank you” for sharing your judges’ dinner at DeLoach Vineyards with WINE WOMEN members in celebration of our first anniversary.

Debra Del Fiorentino will be our guest speaker for “The Inside Story of a Wine Competition” as part of our Listen, Learn & Lunch series on September 26th at St. Francis Winery in Santa Rosa.