with Debra Meiburg
The wine industry will soon be caught up in WinPac, Hong Kong's premier wine show. WinPac, of course, should not be mistaken for the CIA's Centre for Winpac (Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control), although there are some striking similarities. During the course of
a few days, a handful of wine judges will evaluate about 1,000 wines, which will require wine intelligence, non-prolific swallowing and steady arm control - not to mention head control. WinPac is an acronym for Wines of the Asia-Pacific and it is a series of events featuring wines from Australia, New Zealand, South America, the US, Canada and Mexico. A key feature of WinPac is the wine competition, which allocates gold, silver and bronze medals to top performers in various classes.
Like weapons-intelligence programmes, wine shows are not without controversy. Conflicts of interest, consistency issues and political camps are regular features, but at least weapons-intelligence teams don't spend their working days under the influence of alcohol - we hope. Wine-show proponents suggest wine medals are a useful tool for consumers inundated with a bewildering array of labels on shop shelves. They also say shows encourage producers to raise the bar on their winemaking by providing objective peer reviews as the wines are tasted strictly 'blind'. Conversely, others argue that wine judging can be subjective and favours 'show boat' wines that leave subtle wine styles weaponless.
Australia leads the world in hosting wine shows, but they are popular wherever vines are planted and, as with Hong Kong, in cities where wine is enthusiastically embraced. Judges come from a variety of backgrounds, but usually include winemakers, sommeliers, writers and merchants. Judging qualifications are strictest in Australia, where completion of the Advanced Wine Assessment programme is becoming de rigueur for breaking into the circuit. In the US, you can become an officially certified wine judge through the American Wine Society, although this qualification is rarely a requirement. Australia runs the most hierarchical judging system, with a bureaucratic layering of associate judges, full judges, panel leaders and chief judges that is unseen in most other show systems.
Wine judges are rarely paid for their efforts but perks abound, with show organisers providing meals, transportation and accommodation.
Typically, judges score a battery of wines independently and convene afterwards with their panel of four to five people to discuss a group score. One potential problem is that diffident judges are apt to have little influence on the final scores, but this system does allow a judge to champion wines that might have been undervalued or overlooked. Tasting flights can range from one to hundreds of glasses a round and judges will typically taste between 100 and 300 glasses a day.
Of course, the real battle will take place between February 1 and 3, when WinPac opens its doors to the public. WinPac events (which can be perused at www.winpac-hk.com) are so popular that VIP judges Gina Gallo, Sam Neill and Peter Lehmann will attend two lunches each day, not to mention nightly dinners so lavish they ought to be registered as weapons of mass destruction. As a finale, on February 3 at the Mandarin Oriental hotel, about 1,000 bottles of award-winning WinPac wines will be available for public tasting and purchase. Now that sounds like a matter of national security.