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On Tasting
Further Thoughts on the Australian Wine Show System
Thursday, 3rd September, 2009  - David Farmer

Brian Walsh

"The wine show system in Australia is the finest in the world: best organized, best judged and best internally tested. There are, of course, ways it may be improved, some that sound attractive but founder when the details are considered and reality bites. The most common refrain from those who seek to denigrate the system is that shows are losing their relevance. The Macquarie Group Sydney Royal Wine Show last month put paid to that. There were 101 first-time exhibitors and 20 per cent more entries than in 2008. In the final analysis, the most important test is the integrity of the results." James Halliday, the Weekend Australian, March 7-8, 2009.

Anyone who has been in the wine business for a fair time asks questions about the 'how, what, why' of the local show system. Some thoughts were offered at The Future of Capital City Wine Shows.

On the 27th January, 2009, I travelled out to Yalumba to get the views of Brian Walsh, the sage one, about our show system. I think I have captured the main points below.

Brian started by reminding me that senior judges and other specialists have conducted many workshops on the show system in a constant endeavour to improve it. For example issues such as; are the shows unfairly dominated by big company judges have been openly debated. Price pointed classes that are perhaps more relevant to consumers have been tried - as in Adelaide. Groups such as the Australian Society of Viticulture and Oenology are concerned with rigorous judging standards and are active in having guidelines as to how show medals are used commercially so as not to devalue the medal worth. And aspects such as specialist judges are being reviewed.

The bottom line is that the shows must be doing something right as entries keep growing so presumably entrants are getting something out of it - a market need is being fulfilled.

Brian saw the following as the substantive issues.

Shows have a great educational role. Not only to help younger winemakers learn but a bigger role in 'improving the breed' which is the wines we drink. There are always wine making faults so we must stay alert-we can go off the rails-so shows act as an audit system. Shows will continue to serve the same age old process (partly referring to the first Adelaide show which was in 1845)-to stop crappy wine being made.

Shows keep us constantly vigilante and is the best audit system for wines devised.

They stop us developing cellar palates. All wine makers need auditing.

Seeing wine away from your own winery, on neutral ground is very valuable. At exhibitor tastings going back and forth along a class of wines is invaluable. While he did not think Yalumba had ever changed its approach to winemaking because of shows they have gained inspiration from them.

Yalumba would enter shows even if they had no commercial value because they bring out the competitive nature of wine makers. Yes we would like to win a Jimmy Watson - many of us like competing. It makes us push harder.

History will repeat itself and we must never assume a high standard is now a given. The issue of the yeast contamination by Brettanomyces as we lowered sulphur content was detected at shows. Perhaps the use of indigenous or wild yeasts (for fermentation) will lead to similar problems. We also moved on from the green fruit wines of Coonawarra in the 1980's. Over time we also changed the style of chardonnay.

The bold wines outperform the subtle wines and this is very hard to correct.

As for judging standards Australia does very well at International Shows so our assessments are most valid and the Trophies and medals do equate. We cannot create in isolation an idea of the best wine. Cellar palate Australia cannot happen.

When judging you can spend too much time on faults and not enough on positives. We are rewarding and encouraging changing styles. There is no 'one right answer' so differences are encouraged. Alternative varieties-I brought up judging pinot gris-are assessed in the same way as judging fundamentals such as balance and fruit remain. When New Zealand sauvignon blancs are entered this lifts the expectations.

Shows though are naturally conservative.

Regional shows (as distinct from the capital city shows) are judged to the same standards. They are not lesser though the judges may be lesser names.

Shows have a strong commercial aspect and the wine making team like to win. It reinforces our skills to consumers but is only part of the matrix of marketing and selling. Some wines Yalumba chose not to enter as we feel the shows are not ready for them and an example is Heggies Chardonnay.

I will return to this theme at another time.

For the Record - I had a bit to do with the Canberra National Show in the late 1970's, or more specifically, thinking up ways to make it more appealing and relevant to consumers and wine makers. This was done mostly over long drinking sessions with Dr Edgar Riek who had founded the show.

So we started a class for aged chardonnays and seeded the line-up with the best of France to see how the judges would respond. Whether this class had much influence I some-how doubt but the Trophy winners received a vintage decanter, which I used to source in London. This was appreciated though as the years went by I found too many of these sitting in locked cabinets rather than on the table.

A more lasting idea, and this may have included Chris Shanahan, wine-writer and retailer, was to invite overseas judges to spice up the local panel. This idea was then promoted by Dr. Riek to Len Evans who at the time was Chairman. Len had invaluable skills, such as convincing Qantas to pay for the plane ticket, plus he knew who to invite. A few years ago James Halliday wrote an article saying that this was an initiative of Len's. It wasn't though he made it happen. And we were well aware at the time that these judges, even if dud's, and a few were, would take back to Europe and America favourable opinions about Australian wine, and the rigour of the show system.

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