Photo: Demián Camacho Santa Ana
Magazines and newspapers list top ten winners that drive retail and restaurant staff insane with customers carrying clippings asking if you have any on the list. If you don't, you are looked at with suspicion and a pinch of disdain. After all, how could you be such a moron to not have at least one of the top 10?
Some companies exist for the main purpose of telling you what you should drink. The scenario usually goes something like this:
1. You send in a sample.
2. Samples are judged by a panel of experts.
3. Press releases and parties celebrate the winners.
Read more about the LeNell's take on wine and spirits awards, after the jump ...
Often a company must pay to enter their product to be judged. The winners can sometimes, for an additional fee, buy promotional material from the judging organization like those little advertisements next to bottles that grab your eye in liquor stores called "shelf talkers."
I don't care whether your tasting panel uses appropriate glassware, pairs the liquid with food or makes a cocktail, no judging is ever totally a level playing ground. First off, if you have to pay to submit your product, the little artisanal producers struggling financially are less likely to be represented.
The panel of expert judges might include writers, mixologists, sommeliers or someone who is not really an "expert" but who can bring press to the event. Expert judges would never show up to a judging with a cup of coffee in hand, would they? I've seen plenty of coffee consumed during breaks between judging flights. And if the coffee didn't kill your professional judging skills, the rows and rows of samples to be judged will. Your taste buds are numb after the first few, I don't care how many palate cleansing crackers you chomp on. Soon, the most flamboyant liquids stand out as your mouth tires.
If you spit to try to maintain some sort of sober balance to your expert judging, you may get weird looks, even from the so-called professionals. I once tasted and spat several wines and still felt a bit wobbly in my judging because even with spitting, your body absorbs alcohol in your mouth.
Before you grab that bottle just because it boasts a gold medal or spirit-of-the-year ribbon, realize that your own taste buds are just as expert. Buying guides and top ten lists may be helpful to get you started in your wine and spirit journey, but I hope you quickly learn to trust your own palate, conduct your own tastings, and think for yourself.
Alabama-born LeNell Smothers defines herself first and foremost as a bartender, but she's been called many things -- most recently, the proprietress of Casa Cóctel with partner Demián Camacho Santa Ana. She's owned her own whiskey label, called Red Hook Rye, and has been recognized by her home state as an honorary Colonel. Other interests include gin, sin and men.