JAPAN WINE CHALLENGE 2005
By John Salvi
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
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
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!