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Sake Judging - The 2012 IWC In Tokyo "Sitting on Gold"

So there I was sitting at a long party table in a cool sake-centric restaurant near Shimbashi station in Tokyo. And there it was sitting in my hand: a list of the Gold Medal winners for the 2012 International Wine Challenge (IWC). The only problem was that the results were not to be known for another 24 hrs. And of course you guessed it I was eating and drinking with the heads of the IWC and many of the judges. It was the after-tasting dinner party to thank us "palates" for tasting the 689 sake entrants this year. That was a record by the way--over 200 more sakes than 2011.

On account of the earthquake and subsequent tsunami the IWC thought it would be a good gesture to hold the sake side of the IWC in Tokyo this year. For us sake enthusiasts this represented another golden opportunity to mix work - the tasting - and pleasure - visiting several sake breweries while we were there. (I chose to visit Ishikawa Prefecture.) Point being, as lovely as London can be in the spring it's pretty damn hard to pop into the British countryside to check out some small sake breweries. Thus, I greatly enjoyed the Japan version of the IWC on two counts. First, we did the tasting in the main center for the Japanese Sake Brewers Union in Tokyo and got to see the sake lords of years gone by peering down at us from photos up high. It felt like home being in a facility that is all things sake, almost mystical to an extent. Secondly, as mentioned we could go out and drink great sake each night and then make some brewery trips if we so desired. There is some talk of doing it in Tokyo every three years.

With Sake Samurai to the left of me and sake brewers to the right I was stuck in the middle (with me), exactly where I wanted to be. It was a very nice evening that was the conclusion of an extremely long day of tasting the medal winners. As a Senior Panelist I had to judge the Gold Medal winners for potential Trophy awards and this added more the time to the long day.

Since the International Wine Challenge included sake six years ago, this was by far the most difficult tasting. There were a lot of moving parts and lack of time became an issue on the second day. This in no ways affected the judging in any way shape or fashion and we derived the same professional standards per usual, but it was a schlep!

As many of you recall the IWC is a "pay to play" program where wineries from all over the world submit wines and pay per bottle charges on each entrant. The wine side is obscene with something like 20,000 entrants. The wine tasting takes two weeks, where as the 689 sake entrants took two days. I asked one of my brewery friends, who submitted two sakes this year, how much the entrance fees per category were. He replied $300. Thus he was in for $600. And despite winning a category Trophy award in 2009 (That is HUGE!) he only won a Silver medal for his Junmai entrant. I asked if he would put a necker or tag around the bottles that said "Silver Medal Winner IWC", but he shook his head no! I said why not? He said it was not a Gold Medal winner! He then said that yes he would advertise that fact if he had gotten "Gold". I then told him that this year in particular the Junmai and Honjozo classes were over judged. They were graded very harshly. I said that your Silver could very well have been a Gold in year's past. (This sake is my Beau-Zone Layer selection for June.)

The IWC takes pride in splitting their tasting team into half Japanese and half non-Japanese tasters. Thus there is a good balance and blend between the traditional Japanese palate and the Western palate. I'll never forget 6 years ago standing between these two groups as a panel head and with mouth wide agape in disbelief saying "Really? Really?" you guys are 30 points apart on certain sakes? Back then it was eye-opening to witness the very tangible difference in palates. In summary, the western palate is far larger and looks for far more expressive sakes, and the Japanese palate is far more subtle and excels in the lighter dryer categories.

This year, as the tasting was in Japan, there was an increase on the Japanese side in terms of "the traditional sake palate", and as a result we saw a decrease in medals across the board, especially in the Honjozo and Junmai categories. Judges judge, panel leaders lead or "manage" the judges, and the three co-chairmen taste the results to see if certain groups were judging too severely. I'll admit I have been very tough in the past. I sort of felt it was my duty. But I have come to realize that we are not picking the perfect sake - it does not exist. Rather we are looking to award sakes that would speak for themselves and can be held up as good representatives of the categories, which included Honjozo, Junmai, Ginjo/Daiginjo, Junmai Gingo/Junmai Daiginjo, and Koshu.

This tasting is truly international in focus. Where else would you get a Dutch guy asking a Swede and an American to taste a sake that came off another panel headed by a Japanese guy living abroad? The accents were flying around, but we were all connected by the fact that we knew sake. The internationality of it all brought a smile to my face, and I joked that we were all like the people in Close Encounters of the Third Kind--building our strange mountains out of dirt or mashed-potatoes feeling a force and doing whatever it was we could do to heed it. We all walked our paths and we were all professional enough to understand sake and we were in a great position to taste with authority. So much so that the IWC team was asked to meet with a Minister in the Japanese Government to discuss exporting sake. (Please see the section below which describes this meeting in detail.)

The results of the tasting have now been posted. Some of our brewing friends won Gold medals (hats off to Yuki no Bosha for winning two Gold Medals) some won Silver, some Bronze, some of our brewers had sakes that were "Commended." At the end of the day, like I used to say, "You cannot drink a Gold Medal." One man's gold is another man's "Commended", for everybody is the champion of their own palate. But our job is to taste with personal conviction and we did.

The logistics of the IWC are very controlled. On the first day we tasted using a three- letter system. If we thought the sake deserved a medal--any medal from Bronze to Gold--we placed an "M" by that brew, and it made it to the second day of tasting. If we felt the sake was good but not medal worthy (because it was lacking a little something or didn't have distinct character) we judged it a "C" for Commended. Commended sakes did not get tasted on the second day, but the IWC does mix several of the sakes that were "Commended" back into the mix on the second day to test the judges. Lastly, if we felt the sake was not well made and had very little balance or flavor qualities the sake was given an "O" for "Out." Basically an "Out" sake was not worthy of any other consideration and was eliminated from further tasting. It's hard to say that because we know how much effort goes into making that "Out" sake, but that is the way it is.

On the second day we judged the medal winners via a Gold, Silver, Bronze, or Commended, which meant the sake was demoted on the second day of tasting. After this medal judging session the judges left and only the Senior Panelists judged the Gold Medal winners of each category to determine the best of that category for the Category Trophy. (We also awarded up to three Regional Trophy Awards for certain Gold Medal winners that we felt were trophy worthy.) But wait! We weren't done and that is why this second day of tasting was so long and difficult. The IWC likes to determine a "Grand Champion," so when all was said and done we judged the trophy winners of each category to determine which sake won the Grand Champion Award of the entire tasting.

Back in Shimbashi I was sitting on the list of Gold Medal winners. And again I so badly wanted to make some calls or texts because I was sitting on gold. What I did not know were the Trophy winners. Nobody will until they are released in September in London. I will list all the medal winning sakes that we carry at True Sake in next Month's Newsletter.
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