I have always wanted to be a global citizen. Even while growing up on a bayou in southern Louisiana I had pen pals from Italy, Belgium and Egypt. We compared our foods and surroundings, sharing stories of family and friends as well as the occasional mix tape. As a freelance wine and spirits judge my nose often brings me places that I never dared to dream. For over a decade wine has been my most common ground in connecting with others, and while my passport is currently languishing, I am finding myself reflecting on the times that I have judged wine in Paris, Beijing, Bulgaria, Spain and Switzerland. I like to smell things.
My first wine judging took place domestically, yet perhaps because of my name I was seated at the “Frenchie” table. Frenchie was my grandfather’s nickname in World War II because he spoke French, but it was me, not him, on this panel and I was at a loss. My fellow judges were well-established in their fields – a French expat sommelier with several decades of service in California and a French wine journalist residing in Paris. Despite my discomfort, I am grateful that this was my initiation. We didn’t converse similarly, but we shared the common language of wine evaluation.
When judging wine competitions, I have begun my days with hikes through gorges and then feasted on fruit, bacon and oatmeal. I have taken long slow rides down rickety elevators to breakfasts of cucumbers, tomatoes, olives and cured meats. Some of my mornings started with tai chi classes before diving into bowls of soft bean curd soup sprinkled with seaweed, sesame seeds and dried micro shrimp. Usually I do not partake in breakfasts, but I make sure to never judge wines on an empty stomach. This is just as important as spitting out the wines during a competition. The number of entries per day have ranged from 50 to approximately 180. In order to be successful, I must be disciplined.
I have had the good fortune of studying with professors and ampelographers, being interviewed by foreign press, and in between the sips and spits befriending a butterfly in Beijing. I wished that I had had noise cancelling headphones while drones flew over one competition, taking aerial footage as we tasted. In Spain I battled pollen from cottonwood trees and had to blow my nose before each and every glass. And I once had to circumnavigate barricades to reach a competition across the street from THE Trump Tower.
When judging rosé, I had a panel leader make the claim “when you taste strawberries you are approaching the danger zone,” and that she could not award a medal to a wine because it “didn’t give her joy.” Personally, strawberries bring me joy. But casting aside my preferences, we were tasked with judging approximately 150 rosés for three days straight. If strawberries didn’t register at some point, I’d be concerned.
Over the years I’ve tried to pinpoint my fellow judges’ flavor biases as well as my own. Having grown up drinking coffee with chicory and eating loads of stewed greens (mustard, collards, etc.), my threshold for bitter is perhaps higher than the general American palate. My scores often aligned with the Italian judge at the table. I learned that celery makes the best palate cleanser for me, although olives and bread and rare roast beef slices are more common options provided. I always promptly scoot the red beef away from me to the other side of the table since I find it distracting.
The person responsible for leading me down this wine judging path instilled a strong sense of respect for hybrid grapes and taught me to never pre-judge. Also, a whiff of Brett is not an automatic deal breaker for me, and I have nearly had to arm wrestle judges of the opposite opinion. There was a day when I was overjoyed to experience the wine fault “ladybug taint” for the first time (even though I personally felt bad for the people that made it.) I had only read about this rancid-peanut-buttery phenomenon in textbooks. Unfortunately it rendered the wine undrinkable, and I hope to never encounter it again.
There was a competition where the entries froze, literally. Oddly enough the night before I had visited the front desk of the hotel to voice my concerns about a noisy truck parked under my window. When I was told that it was regulating the temperature of wines for a competition I quickly withdrew my complaint and fled. The next morning was surprising since none of us were there to judge popsicles. But the staff was able to pivot quickly and overcome the challenges from the overzealous refrigerated container by fetching a back-up second cache of offsite samples. Phew.
On another judging occasion water service was disrupted. I suspect a main pipe broke, as businesses from outside of where the competition was taking place were affected as well. Water is very necessary during an event such as this because each entry is evaluated in a separate glass. Competitions employ many hardworking people. The crew cleverly transported the glasses back and forth to the next town that had a working dishwasher. It was challenging for them, but hardly noticeable from our end except for a slightly lengthier wait between wine flights.
I have tasted wine under all of these conditions, but never during a global pandemic. My invitations to competitions this year were either postponed several times until eventually cancelled, or in one instance, impossible for me to physically travel to due to a discontinued remaining leg of a train, suspended shuttle service and non-operating bus route.
This leads me to our Lieb Cellars Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc.
While the 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed until next year, the Concours Mondial de Bruxelles, albeit delayed, presses on. This Belgium-based organization, often referred to as the CMB, has produced yearly wine competitions since 1994. In 2004, the competition mobilized and has been hosted in a different country each year since. This year it landed in Brno, Czech Republic.
The logistics of a competition of this magnitude are outstanding. It is easy to understand their self-appointed slogan as The United Nations of Fine Wines. Approximately 230 judges from around the globe descend like friendly locusts. US judges make up a tiny percentage of those participating, and that percentage is likely to be even smaller this year due to travel restrictions.
During last year’s competition in Aigle, Switzerland, additional railway cars were secured in order not to disrupt the residents’ regular commutes while transporting the judges from mountain chalets to the velodrome where the judging was held. The year before that half of a Boeing jet was rented to fly over 9000 samples to Beijing a month before the competition in order to avoid the possibility of bottle shock. As a wine judge or panel leader it is your responsibility to flag a rare dirty glass or request a sample from a second bottle if a wine appears “off” or faulty. Extra measures of care such as having samples arrive that far in advance make the jobs of judges and service staff much easier and also treat the entries with the utmost deserved respect. This international competition was also the first to implement post-checks on winning bottles and has a system in place to frequently monitor that the bottles on the shelves bearing stickers are legitimate winners.
There are evaluations taking place at the CMB besides wine. The judges are examined, too. Since 2004 each judge’s performance has been analyzed and charted by graph and compared with fellow panel members. Once a day a repeat sample is slipped in to test consistency in the judge’s scoring also. A few months following the competition an individual tasting report is provided to each judge both in English and French. The most accurate tasters are singled out and congratulated on the final day.
Originally slated to occur in May, the competition has been rescheduled for September 4-6, 2020. Somewhere sandwiched between Poland, Austria, Germany and Slovakia, in a temperature controlled room in the Czech Republic, are a few bottles of Lieb Cellars Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc patiently lying in wait.
While I won’t be in attendance as a judge this year, I expect positive results. I know that the judge pool is highly scrutinized, that the entries are in good hands, and that each wine is not compared to others but individually assessed as anonymous pours within tasting flights.
One year I was mesmerized by a sparkling wine that I later discovered was from a coastal vineyard in Portugal. It screamed of the sea and I was transported. I eagerly look forward to Lieb Cellars Estate Sparkling Pinot Blanc becoming an impactful ambassador at the CMB, not only for the North Fork but for the NY wine scene as a whole. It is exciting to see it venture off and have an opportunity to invigorate foreign interest in what our state has to offer.
After completing their morning tasting session, I know that the judges will be surprised to receive a tasting sheet that reveals a traditional method sparkling Pinot Blanc from New York. With curiosity ignited, they will next stumble upon the facts that it is created from vines planted in the 1980s and interestingly enough from the largest contiguous plantings of Pinot Blanc in the US. Investigation is second-nature with this lot after all, and the odds are favorable that they are journalists by trade.
September cannot get here soon enough. Patience has never been my virtue, but I am excited for our prize sparkler to make its debut on the international competition stage and eagerly await the results.
Keep on sparkling!
Aimée Lasseigne New
NYC Brand Ambassador