Seedy competitions, continued…

Neil Pendock August 24, 2008 0

WINE magazine’s seeded player ‘refinement’ of the traditional blind tasting algorithm continues to generate tremendous quantities of heat and light in the local wine spittoon. With over 80% of wines in the second round of last month’s Lexus Shiraz Challenge seeded players, pressure is building on producers to get seeded. But with the magazine itself involved in competitions like the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, presumably used as a seeding criterion, a cynic might view seeding as part of a plan to boost OMTWS entries. Insiders know this is not the case, but a perception of seediness is to seeded tastings as Brett is to Shiraz. WINE is by no means the first competition organizer to attempt to give sight to the blind, as I discussed in the magazine last year:

Judges of SIN

Airline wine selections are potent examples of irresistible forces meeting immovable objects. Take the wine selection for Singapore Airlines that went down in Singapore (airport identification mnemonic: SIN) in February 2007, for example. Irresistible force was personified by a wine selection panel consisting of Bordeaux boffin and Old Mutual magnifico Steven Spurrier, Aussie aficionado Michael Hill-Smith MW and Napa nabob Karen MacNeil, a trio who jointly and severally put the various submissions to the airline’s tender process through their organoleptic paces.

In the immovable object corner is the preference of first class passengers for brands in the shape of bling-bling beverages with big sticker prices. A feature pointy end passengers like to remind airlines of in surveys, frequent flyer workshops and via feedback comments. And with Singapore Airlines [SIA] in keen competition with Cathay Pacific and Emirates for Asian and other well-heeled itinerant elites, what the customer wants is what she invariably gets.

The problem comes, as Spurrier demonstrated convincingly in his famous America vs. France bicentennial tasting of 1976: iconic brands have the unfortunate habit of coming second in blind tastings. Back then it was Bordeaux first growths, the judges were all French, yet still the American parvenus triumphed.

To slice through this gourmet Gordian knot, the SIA selectors have come up with two strategies. As Spurrier remarked with a straight face “we had a Bordeaux tasting a few years ago and identified some second growths that did well: Gruard Larose, Pichon-Longueville Comtesse de Lalande, Cos D’Estournel and Leoville Poyferré and we choose from them.” In this case, necessity is the mother of invention, as SIA Vice President Commercial Supplies, Mr. Ng Sui Guan, admits: “the big names of Bordeaux don’t submit to tenders.”

A practice which extends to Champagne as well, hence the Krug and Dom Pérignon filling the bubbly berth up front. The late British wine writer Auberon Waugh, no stranger to first class travel himself, was on top of all this when he argued “it is part of the pleasure to know that a wine is famous and very expensive.” Which ensures that Kiwi icon Cloudy Bay 2004 flies high with SIA, even if it tastes like a tin of stale asparagus.

The Singapore selectors have taken Waugh’s observation one step further and quantified it. With some brands of such mega-gravitas they are automatically selected if offered (Krug, Dom P, the Super Seconds, Cloudy Bay) other submissions are scored blind out of 20 and then their labels are rated sighted out of 5 giving each entry a maximum tally of 75 from the three judges. As Spurrier commented “if a wine gets over 55, we’re over the moon.”

Criteria for rating labels are necessarily personal and subjective and with all three judges paid consultants to various producers, hopefully any conflicts of interest are disclosed up front and the label scores are suitably adjusted.

In SA, the strategy preferred to produce a desired result in blind tastings, is the concept of “seeding players” where a wine knocked out in an early tasting round can be added back to a later one. The Singapore system is arguably better in that label ratings can be quantified, published and discussed.

While cynics might argue that both systems are obvious attempts to ensure a particular result, statisticians are one group of wine lovers who will find nothing wrong with rating the label: it is simply the prior probability of your assessment of wine quality before you taste it.

Indeed with in-store tastings rarer than rocking horse droppings, rating labels is often the only information used to inform a purchasing decision. In the case of Grande Marque Champagne, Bordeaux second growths and Cloudy Bay, the weight assigned to the label is plus infinity (which is nearly as much as the purchase price) obviating the need to actually taste the stuff and score it – a procedure that may lead to an embarrassingly low score and red faces all round – of both judges and first class punters.

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