March 12, 2008
Wine Competitions, The Next Stage

The guinea pigs had their tongues painted blue, the better to differentiate between their bumpy tastebuds and all the ridges, crevices and other stuff that makes up the organ that helps determine how we perceive this or that flavor.

Then the tongues were photographed, after which one of the coordinators did a quick and approximate count to see if the holder of the tongue likely is a "hypersensitive, sensitive or tolerant" taster.

This was all part of a grand experiment to determine whether a wine competition could be improved so the medals it awards would make more sense to consumers. The guinea pigs were wine judges at the first Lodi International Wine Awards, conducted yesterday at Hutchins Street Square performing arts center in Lodi.

The judging involved several other innovations. In contrast to the practice at most wine competitions in this country, judges didn't confer on the wines to reach any kind of consensus; their rankings were compiled individually and fed into computers for the final determination of awards. In most instances, they judged whole classes at a time, up to 40 wines, rather than flights of 10, as is the standard approach. They were given and urged to use a specially concocted solution to rinse their palates rather than nibble on the usual bread and beef. They were told not to take notes in hopes that this break from tradition would reduce mental fatigue.

"This is unlike any judging you've ever judged," G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, the competition's director, told the 30 judges at the outset. They agreed, with several indicating that they liked the novel approach, in large part because it speeded up the process and seemed to succeed at keeping them focused and alert.

How they - as well as consumers - react to the results remains to be seen; they're still being compiled today. In next Wednesday's Taste section in The Bee, I plan to report more on the competition, the physiology of tasting, and other aspects of wine appreciation.

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