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By John Salvi
December 2005

The Japan Wine Challenge is in every sense of the word just that – a challenge! A challenge that takes place annually, in Tokyo, in June. Set up by the wine importer Ron Brown, an entrepreneur of major proportions and electric charm, it is organised and orchestrated by the incomparable, inexhaustible, vivacious, buoyant, delightful and utterly memorable Emily – THE Emily! Those few of us fortunate enough to be invited to participate are royally treated and regally housed in the Tokyo Hilton Hotel. This year we were a round dozen.

Once she has got us there our Emily believes firmly in her pound of flesh. We are each asked to head up a table of judges and take them through their paces. For the most part these are Japanese sommeliers and members of the wine trade, with a sprinkling of Japanese wine producers. Occasional other nationalities who live in or near Tokyo, and who are known for their tasting abilities, are also asked to judge.

The work is hard. None of your “Organisation Internationale du Vin (OIV)” rules about no more than 30 or 40 wines per day! Here we taste from about 0900 hours each morning until about 1800 hours each evening with a little over one hour’s pause for lunch and no coffee breaks. As an incomparably greedy person I would have liked rather more than the one hour to explore more deeply some of the wonderful and varied Japanese restaurants in the area.

As a panel we taste the wines in successive flights, we assess them, we write clear, readable and explicit notes on each and we give them marks. As the international judge leading the panel, I then had to ask each member of my panel for his marks and his comments. I then totalled up the marks and produced an average. We then discussed each wine in turn. We looked at the marks to see if they reached the number of points required for Gold, Silver or Bronze medals. If they got medals then they went through to the second round. If they fell short they were eliminated. If the marks fell between two predefined scores than we discussed them to try and agree to adjust them above or below thos scores, which meant their being sent on or being eliminated. We tried, by discussion, to avoid these marginal scores because, if we did not, then it simply meant that the two super–judges, John Avery and Steven Spurrier, decided for us instead.

The composition of the tasting panels changed each day, but each day I found myself with a set of highly intelligent, reasonable, reasoning and open–minded judges who were always prepared to listen to the opinion of others and to adjust their marks up or down if they were persuaded that the wine merited such revision. This was helpful, mature and immensely encouraging.

One of the most truly fascinating things revealed during the tastings, and which became ever clearer day by day, was that the descriptions and assessments of our Japanese friends and judges were remarkably sensitive and fine–tuned. They saw nuances, which I had failed to note or not properly registered, and they were always open–minded, flexible and genuinely interested in the opinions of the others and not just their own. They could, as I have already said, be persuaded to move their marks up or down, but one had to be very careful not to make them change if one was not very, very sure that one was right oneself beyond an doubt.

Since almost none of us international judges spoke any Japanese, the whole procedure was carried on in English or in French, and I never ceased to be amazed at their accurate and fluent use of wine terms and jargon and the seeming facility with which they described the wines, in precise, technical and professional terms, in a language that was not their own. It was exceedingly rare that we had any major disagreements about a wine and if we did we handed the matter over to our two super–judges, whose decisions were final.

This was a challenge with a difference and a challenge that must not be allowed to lapse. It is a tremendous opportunity for east and west to come together and exchange knowledge and opinions. It is in every way a tasting competition as professional as any other that I know, and I sincerely wish that many panels on which I sit at European Tasting Competitions, and which are members of FEDAVIN (Féderation des Concours Internationales du Vin), enjoyed such professional and capable judges. In all honesty, not only did I have a very good time but I learned a great deal during my five days and 40 hours of tasting! Vivat!

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