Here at Sunset, we're gearing up for our second Sunset International Wine Competition. Starting next Monday, 48 wine pros from around the West will descend on our campus to taste and judge more than 2,975 wines. We asked winemaker and SIWC judge Adam Lazarre of LaZarre Wines, to give us an insider's take on judging on the wine circuit. Turns out it's less glamorous—but a lot more fun—than we thought.
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(R) Winemaker Adam LaZarre
Here at Sunset, we're gearing up for our second Sunset International Wine Competition. Starting next Monday, 48 wine pros from around the West will descend on our campus to taste and judge more than 2,975 wines, so we asked winemaker and SIWC judge Adam Lazarre of LaZarre Wines, to give us an insider's take on judging on the wine circuit. Turns out it's less glamorous—but a lot more fun—than we thought.
What on earth would make you want to taste 100 wines in day—and decide which ones are good?
As a winemaker, I need to stay on top of trends and set a benchmark for what my wines should be like, flavor-wise or stylistically. I certainly can’t afford to buy the 100 wines I’ll be tasting each day on a winemaker’s salary so there’s no better place for me to analyze all the freshest releases of Merlots or Pinot Noirs than here at the Sunset International Wine Competition. In addition, I get to yuk it up with dozens of the top wine experts in the world. Plus, I really like that buzzy feeling I get after plowing through 100 wines… Wait, we’re supposed to determine which ones are good? Shoot, I’m just here for the free wine…
I know you're spitting, but how do you taste that much wine and still survive the day?
I’ve been judging professionally for 18 years. The ability to make it through a day of wines while still maintaining your objectivity doesn’t come naturally. It takes a few years of practice. It’s not just about spitting. It’s also about knowing when to down some sparkling water or pop a handful of olives or roast beef in your mouth to not only keep your palate fresh but to keep your head and liver from exploding.
Interestingly, being an accomplished wine expert doesn’t mean you are suited for the job. About 12 years ago, I was judging a small Central Coast wine competition whereby a very well-respected Sommelier from a famous L.A. restaurant passed out halfway through the judging. It’s still a bit of conjecture as to whether he was spitting or not, but we left him passed out on the table until we were all finished, then carried him out of the hall and laid him down on a park bench until he sobered up.
What do you crave at the end of a long day of tasting?
Whiskey and a nap.
How do you get this gig?
My first professional judging was at an international wine competition 18 years ago on the Central Coast of California. I was a last minute fill-in for my boss who had an emergency obligation. I had such a great time I asked the competition director to bring me back the year after. Apparently I acquitted myself quite well so he did. At that competition, the director of another well known wine competition was a judge and so I went about lobbying him to let me in on his competition. After three years, he brought me in. By then I had developed a reputation for being able to analyze, identify, and objectively judge every type of wine and style out there. 2004 was the first time judging the then-largest wine competition in the U.S. and I won best-of-show with one of my wines. Several competition directors were judging at that show. The rest is history.
With so many wine experts in one room, how do you deal with the creative egos? What goes on behind the scenes?
That’s funny you ask that. It’s been brought up several times in the past. I think when you reach a level in your career where you have nothing left to prove, then the ego falls away. Some of the most humble people I’ve ever met are those who’ve earned the ultra-prestigious Master of Wine title, arguable the most difficult certification in the world of wine. At the Sunset competition, I’m surrounded by the best. Veterans who are, and have been, at the top of their game. And there is also a considerable amount of respect for each other. If you’re here, you are with your equals in many ways. Behind the scenes is just a lot of laughter, fun wine-related storytelling, and good-natured ribbing. Most of us have known each other for a long time and have spent many a day breaking bread and having fun together.
What's the worst thing you've ever said about a wine?
“This wine smells like ass. Like when you wake up in the morning and your cat is on your chest with its anus parked on your nose….” Yeah. I said that. We judges also have codes we use. For example: DNPIM means “Do not put in mouth”. It is the professional courtesy of the judge who is the first to come across a particularly foul wine in a line-up to warn the other judges with this acronym.
Anything else you'd like to share about this world?
If it weren’t for this world I live in, I’d be selling stolen car stereos and living under a bridge somewhere…probably near a vineyard and winery, though.