Sake Judging - The International Wine Challenge 2013 London
No kidding! When I flew to London I landed with the flu. And that was no usual strain of influenza! That baby was damn near bird flu quality and it knocked me for a loop! Luckily when I fly overseas for tastings and events I arrive several days early to "adjust" to time zone etc. In this case I landed on a Thursday and our first commitment was on Sunday evening (A panel chairman's meeting to discuss the tasting in detail before the judging commenced on Monday). I was grateful to take the flight that arrived in the morning on Thursday because it allowed me an extra day to sleep. And I slept. And slept.
To be honest and on a personal note, I have never been so sick in all of my life. This was a sickness that I have never felt before, and I was extremely scared and saddened that I would have to miss the tasting. But after sleeping for roughly forty hours on and off I felt able to attend the meeting on Sunday night. It was good to see some of my fellow sake judges who now have seniority at the event. There were no major concerns about the tasting except for placement of the flights and categorizing the flights. I do not know if I am at liberty to discuss details but basically we discussed the merits of tasting certain sakes before others and how to lump several categories together.
Monday arrived - the first day of the scheduled two days of tasting - and I felt terrible. But the gods of sake urged me to assume my duties for the day! So I did not shake any hands and stood clear of my panel. And I tasted and tasted and tasted. Remarkably my pallet was sound. I did not suffer from a stuffy nose, and could really get my nose into the action. Luckily the sakes really spoke for themselves. More on this later!
If you recall I have mentioned in year's past that the IWC uses a two-day program that has the sakes graded in two different methods on each day. On Day One the sakes are judged under the following standards: 100-85 points = a medal, 84-80 points = Commended, and 79-75 = Out. After completing a flight of sakes, which is usually between 7 and 9 entrants, we go around the tasting panel and say either, "Medal" "Commend" or "Out." To safeguard against a poor tasting panel we usually insert several "Commend" sakes into day two when they should not be there as only "Medal" sakes pass through. On Day Two we determined which medal the sakes should receive. If the sake scores 100-95 = Gold, 94-90 = Silver, 89-85 = Bronze, and people offer their own tasting notes which get aggregated and sent to the entry breweries for their own marketing efforts.
As the Panel Chair I never give my grade out until necessary, as we do not want to influence the junior tasters. So after a flight I go around the table and write down the judges' scores. Hopefully the sakes speak for themselves and there is a consistent grade for each entrant. But often the scores are across the board. I love it when one taster has a sake as an "Out" and another has the sake as a "Medal." Ha! That's when we need to speak to the sake and try it again and discuss. This year luckily the sakes did speak for themselves so we didn't have too many issues. That said there is no right or wrong so that's usually when we go to my score/grade to see if that helps the decision.
As a Panel Chairman I had a scorecard that had some "comments" for sakes that do not show well. There were boxes that I could tick that would explain a poor grade for the entrant sake. For example, too evolved or flabby, lacks purity or unclean, dull or lacks intensity, too green or under-ripe, too alcoholic or lacks balance, too sweet or lacks balance, or too acidic or lacks balance. These faults sound wine-like, but have a place in the scoring of sakes that don't make the cut!
This year I thought the strongest flight by far was the Ginjo and Daiginjo offerings. They rocked and were extremely tasty and well built. The Junmais seemed very distracted and off course, no real Junmai impact. The Honjozos were okay, but also were all over the board. The Junmai Ginjo and Junmai Daiginjo flights were very good and solid, but didn't have the impact of the Ginjo and Daiginjo flight.
After the general tasting on Day Two the junior tasters get to finally drink sake, but the Panel Chairmen have more work to do. This is the crazy and pressured filled part of the IWC when you are sitting around a large square table with some of the finest sake tasters in the world both Japanese and non-Japanese. I love those guys, because they truly love and appreciate sake. They also appreciate how much effort and attention goes into each and every sake that we taste. They get it! But that said it's also a way to judge us judges! We get to see how our peers stack up in the final assessment of the sakes and I take great pride in usually being in the top-tier of the tasting pack.
So before we got to "swallow" sake we had to determine the trophy winners for each category and then we had to stack the trophy winners of each category up against each other to see which sake was the Grand Champion of the event. This by far is my favorite part of the IWC. I call it "drinking gold" as we get to taste all of the Gold Medal winners and rank them from first to last within their category. Sometimes there are up to 15 or 16 medal winners and we have about 5 minutes (or less) to rank them personally from first to last in our own opinions. Then we say out loud what our "answers" are and this gets recorded. Let me just say that it is a goofy feeling when you graded your top three and not even one gets put in the over-all top three. I sort of expected that this year on account of the fact that I was running on vapors and sick as a dog, but I did very well in regards to comparing against the other Panel heads. (On a side note and by the luck of the sake gods, my panel was hand's down the best and most efficient panel at the IWC this year - go figure!)
Was the IWC over after we selected the Grand Champion? Nope. Four of us had to conduct a Master Class for a large segment of the best wine tasters in Europe. No easy task after two days of tasting sake with influenza from hell! (Let it be known that by the last day of tasting - I would later find out that I had pneumonia. But more on that below in a section about Tamago-zake or egg sake that you drink when ill!) This year's Master Class focused pairing sakes with Western cuisines and I was in charge of beef! Ha! Where's the beef? Basically I was charged with speaking about pairing sakes with center of the plate larger flavored foods. Specifically we paired my April "Beau-Zone" sake (How timely was that?) called Tengumai Yamahai Junmai with roast beef! It was fun and we answered some amazing questions from the audience. At that point I was my own personal roast beef as I was void of any strength whatsoever!
All in all the IWC 2013 in London produced some very quality winners of medals, and I am proud of the results! (I actually still have no idea what sakes we tasted and awarded medals to - it's all hush hush until next month I think, and then I will link to the website for the results to see which winners and losers we sell at True Sake.) Lastly, take note when you order sake from True Sake as many of the breweries that participate with the IWC use their medal winnings as promotional materials for marketing of their sakes. It is definitely a seal of quality!