Each taster ranks the wines by five criteria: appearance, aroma & bouquet, taste, aftertaste and overall impression. The wines are scored from one to twenty points in each category and then given an overall, average score. Anything over 15 is very good.
The judges fill out a scoring sheet on every wine they taste and the results are later sent to the wine maker. "It gives people a pump if they score high," Ring says. "Something to work on if they don't."
And, he adds, there are a few soreheads who write back; communicating exactly how they feel about the judges who got it so badly wrong about their handsome wine.
I spent several hours, over those three days, at the Equinox and I can report one thing with absolute confidence: A wine tasting—even the largest wine tasting in North America—is not exactly a spectator event. There is nothing especially suspenseful or thrilling about watching someone sip a little wine, let it sit on the tongue for a while, swish it around, then spit it out, ponder for a moment and finally write a number on a printed form.
There was much sipping and spitting and cracker eating and cleansing of the pallet with bottled water, and after you've seen a little of that, you've seen entirely enough.
Still, there are things to be learned if you talked to Ring and to the judges when they were on break. Among them:
• There are some 1 million people making their own wine in North America. (The hobby is very strong in Canada.)
• A wine made at home is not necessarily fit only for amateur consumption. "Some of what we get here, at this tasting, is every bit as good as some of the famous commercial table wines," one of the judges told me. "In fact, we put a few bottles of decent commercial wine in the mix just as a control. It scores where it should and a lot of the wines that are entered here score the same. Or even a little better."
• The popularity of kits for wine making at home has led to a lot of "sameness" in the wines the judges work their way through. "The kits guarantee that you won't go very far wrong if you do everything the instructions tell you to do. But you won't come out with anything unique or inspired, either."
• You don't have to spend a lot of money to make your own wine. A couple of hundred bucks will get you started. But if you get the fever, you can spend your retirement money on French oak barrels, high-end bottling equipment, a cellar, etc., etc.