Judging at Decanter World Wine Awards in London or Decanter Asia Wine Awards in Hong Kong, whenever I wanted a second opinion on a wine, my go-to choice was Gerard Basset OBE, MS, MW, MBA, OIV MSc.
Gerard possessed the qualities that make for the ideal wine judge.
He was a Chairman of both those competitions, and myself Regional Chair for Asia in London and a Vice-Chair in Hong Kong.
Whether judging wine or people, the qualities that make for a good arbiter are not much different.
In the first place, a good jude needs to be sensitive.
To be able to detect the intricacies of a wine (or the virtues or weaknesses of a person).
After detecting the characteristics of a wine (or human) we have to go on to interpret what we have detected.
Easier said than done.
Say, for example, you have picked up a lot of fruit or tannins in a wine.
Are you able to determine if the fruit is primary, secondary or tertiary?
Knowing that will give you a clue as to whether the wine will continue to improve; have reached its optimum; or, start to go downhill.
If the tannins are powerful, are they holistic tannins from plant (stem) and fruit (skin and pip) or extraneous tannins from wood chips and oak?
The trajectory of those different tannins will be different.
Beyond knowing the differences of the tannins, are you able to project how the trajectories will end up?
Apart from possessing all those immense skills and talent, even more importantly (to me anyway), Gerard was incredibly humble.
In fact, he wasn’t so much humble as he was totally unaffected by it all.
People who are truly imbued with humility, don’t actually even think they are humble (or otherwise).
They actually don’t know any different.
My late friend was like that.
To be a good wine judge, it is not enough to be talented, knowledgeable and humble.
You need also to be fair.
I would go as far to say fairness is not an “extra” but a prerequisite.
Fairness to a wine usually works this way.
When not entirely sure about a wine, say, whether it should get Gold or Silver, or Bronze or kicked out of contention, the benefit of our doubt should always go to the wine.
Otherwise, the wine would be unfairly treated as a result of our doubt.
The wine must have the better, fairer judgement.
This is the case in legal proceedings.
When, for example, we are not sure whether someone has stolen something or hurt another person, the doubt should not disadvantage or punish the accused but should, instead, set her or him free.
It’s only fair.
A world of caution though.
Being fair does not mean sitting on the fence and being wishy washy.
When a wine is no good or is going downhill, be firm and decisive.
Chuck it out.
Being fair also means not judging a wine with “baggage”.
Such judges are very painful. Practically useless.
At a private club which wine competition I have consulted since its inception more than 10 years ago, there was a judge (a member of the club) who never gave any red Bordeaux or Bordeaux blend Gold because they never came up to – his perceived and prejudiced – standard of the expensive Classified Growths he was used to drinking (and bragging about).
I asked the club not to have him as a judge again.
A wine judge also needs courage.
Most wine judges forget that while they are judging wines, the wines are also judging us.
We need not only to be fair, sensitive, talented, and knowledgeable, but also to be brave.
The vast majority of wine judges I have come across, are utterly afraid to give a Gold to a rosé.
These are judges who don’t usually sit in the rosé category or who hardly, if ever, drink rosé.
They judge rosé with the mindset of judging other wines (which, I may add, they are usually not very good at judging in the first place).
These insecure judges are afraid that if they award Gold to a rosé, other judges will think they are not “serious” judges.
They overcompensate for their inadequacy and insecurity.
Get With It
If the rosé you are judging is as good as a rosé can be, what more does it need to be awarded Gold?
Put in another way, what way do you need to come to your senses?
If you were judging water, sugar cane or orange juice, judge them for what they are. Not something else.
You judge rosé as rosé, pizza as pizza, French fries as French fries and not try and compare them with something they are not.
Do our job because the wine has done its.
Ch’ng Poh Tiong is acknowledged internationally as an authority on the wines of Bordeaux, China and Japan, particularly Koshu. He also love other wines, including the Southern Rhone, particularly Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Bordeaux remains his speciality and since 1999, he visits the region five to six times every year. Ch’ng Poh Tiong is South-East Asia’s most experienced wine judge having served on the same judging and tasting panels as Hugh Johnson, Steven Spurrier, Johnnie Hugel, Julian Brind MW, Gerard Basset MS & MW, Serena Sutcliffe MW, Jancis Robinson MW, John Avery MW, Neil Beckett, and Michael Brajkovich MW. He has also visited Cognac and Scotland a dozen times since more than 30 years ago. He was made a Keeper of the Quaich in 2012.