Special to The Union
I have had the opportunity to direct the home winemaker competition at the Nevada County Fair for three decades now. I still remember the eye-opening experience I had the very first year.
“Why not have a commercial competition, as well,” I thought to myself.
At the time, Nevada City Winery was the only winery in our county, but what about a Sierra Foothill-based competition?
I called some wineries — there were a lot less of them back then — and got the message loud and clear. Not interested!
First of all, they felt there was no need for one more competition to further dilute the competition pool, and second, they didn’t trust that I could find qualified judges.
A competition stands on the integrity of its judges and their ability to sort through a variety of wines to find the best.
I retreated from the commercial concept and kept it a home winemaking competition. No matter the level, the point about the judges remains equally valid. If you don’t trust the judges, you don’t trust the results.
I’m on the lookout for the highest quality judges I can find. Mostly they are people from the community who are involved with wine — buying, selling or making it.
So I was intrigued when I got a call last year about judging from John Dickinson, who lives in the Bay Area.
Dickinson was working toward becoming a wine judge. As part of the process, he needed hands-on experience, which is why he reached out to me.
Dickinson had retired in 2008 after 20 years of working in IT for Levi Strauss. Whatever retirement activities he had in mind were thrown out the window when his daughter suggested they open a small family winery in the Sierra foothills.
Dickinson drank wine but in a fairly limited way, explaining “just a couple that I liked. Not much variation. Napa, El Dorado, and Temecula mostly.”
The idea of opening a winery was appealing, and Dickinson enrolled in Napa Valley College, taking every course he could. He went there for two years, earning concurrent associate of science degrees in viticulture, winery technology and marketing and sales.
Sadly, as fate would have it, his daughter divorced, ending all thoughts of opening a winery. But Dickinson was bitten and looked at other wine options.
One possibility was in wine education, but that required certificates he didn’t have, either from the Society of Wine Educators or the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET).
A stint on the panel judging at the Lodi Consumer Wine Awards introduced him to the world of wine judging, and he “loved the experience.” He then volunteered to clerk at the California State Fair Amateur Winemaking Competition and loved doing that. It was at that point that he started looking around to figure how to “become” a wine judge.
He discovered that the American Wine Society had a Wine Judge Certificate program.
It was a three-year self-study program, with monthly online, or telephone wine tastings, with written and tasting exams held at the national conference each year. There was also a requirement that students participate at a real event at least twice a year.
“I started writing letters to find out where I could apply as either a guest or associate judge,” Dickinson said.
Taking on the American Wine Society Judges program is no small task. It builds over three years and starts with vocabulary and basic wine elements like aroma, flavor and texture, or flaws, as well as objective evaluation and scoring. The second year focuses on varietal identification and factors that affect wine quality. The third year covers judging of various wine classes and wine styles.
Dickinson expects to pass the final exam at this year’s annual convention in November. He will then be an officially certified wine judge.
But Dickinson was in too deep to be satisfied with just the AWS judging program.
He joined the SWE and earned both its certified specialist of wine and certified specialist of spirits certificates.
Next month, he intends to sit for the certified wine educator exam, SWE’s highest diploma.
He took, and passed, the Sommelier Level 1 exam from the Court of Master Sommeliers and is scheduled to sit for their certified Sommelier exam this September.
He just finished sitting for the exam to become a California certified wine judge.
In the midst of all this total wine immersion, Dickinson enrolled in the WSET program.
He first completed its advanced certificate program and then proceeded to its three-year diploma program, which he will complete this fall.
The WSET diploma program requires a mad level of tasting skills and wine knowledge that is unbelievably detailed and strict.
I wondered how crazy it was, juggling all these programs at the same time.
“There are differences,” Dickinson explained. “WSET, Sommelier and CWE all have variations in their tasting descriptions like pale versus water-white, or straw versus lemon-yellow. So before each exam, I transition over to that vocabulary.
“The Sommelier Exam is more concerned with oak, earth, region and vintage so I’m working on that for this month.”
In addition to expert tasting skills and serious wine knowledge, now the CWE exam requires a 15-minute video presentation that demonstrates teaching a group on a specified topic.
Where all this goes, I don’t think even John Dickinson knows.
He’s thinking about teaching wine classes and can certainly expect to judge at more wine events.
I’m just happy he’s judging at mine this week.
Rod Byers, CWE, is a certified wine educator and wine writer as well as a California state certified wine judge. You can find information about his upcoming Sierra College Kaleidoscope wine classes at http://www.pinehillwineworks.com and he can be reached at 530-273-2856.
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