Mon 02 Jun 2014

Wine Champions 2014: Could This Be My Last Time?


Having heard recently from trainee buyer Joe Mandrell about his first experience of our annual Wine Champions tastings, we now feature a report from Janet Wynne Evans, who wonders whether the 2014 sessions will be her last…

Assessing the 2014 Wine Champions candidates...

Assessing the 2014 Wine Champions candidates…

I suppose I’d attributed to impending old age the longer-than-usual exhalation of breath as I put my feet up after the last of 17 blind tasting sessions. After all, it’s the usual explanation these days.

But when I totted up the statistics to share with members in the June offer, the reason was clear – over 100 more wines tasted this year than last year, one record-breaking session of over 80 bottles, and two consecutive days of 100-plus wines. Time I hung up my tastevin, apron and quill, perhaps?

My first experience of something as full-on as a hard day at the Champs mill was a trip of Bordeaux in my early career with Society Old Boy and author Clive Coates, MW, and a back-to-back tasting of over 70 Sauternes from the 1988, 1989 and 1990 vintages. I have never forgotten what a privilege that was, and one that has served me well since, but if I’m honest, the undisputed champion on that day was the lily-livered, UHT-laced cup of tea I had afterwards.

Of course for any wine professional, tasting this number of wines is second-nature and my buying colleagues are often faced with many more at a time, which is why the words ‘stamina’ and ‘focus’ are important ones in any recruitment advertisement for the job. For me, a blind tasting demands an especially high degree of both, even if it isn’t the kind of Palate-of the-Year competition that will surely soon join The Voice, Dancing on Ice, Strictly or Bake-off in the remorseless spread of reality telly.

...and participating in previous tastings - clockwise from top left: 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

…and participating in previous tastings – clockwise from top left: 2008, 2011, 2012 and 2013.

On the one hand, there is complete freedom from the baggage that comes with knowing the identity of the wine. On the other, there’s the pressure to use well and wisely this rare opportunity to judge objectively and to cut to the chase – is it sound or not, ready or not, or – in the case of Champions – simply and indisputably delicious?

With the Champions campaign comes the added responsibility of recording one’s impressions for sharing with members when the final cut is made. Barely 10% of the original nominations will ultimately appear either in the annual June Wine Champions offer or the August Fine Wine List, but which? So, I do my best to be usefully eloquent about each wine so that my initial impression still reads fresh and true when the time comes to reveal the winners.

All too often, I lapse into abbreviations. Looking at tasting-sheets past and present, I note that some of them pop up rather a lot. I find I immediately dismiss very tannic wines (gbtb – go back to bed!) and then find myself redeeming them with vgf (very good finish) or not (booh = bat out of hell), or, exceptionally, bhcds (Bourne & Hollingsworth Closing Down Sale, ie interminable).

I note I’ve also taken to commenting, increasingly critically on bottle weight on a range of vhb (very heavy bottle) to uhb (unnecessarily or ultra) and sometimes beyond, which I leave to your imagination.

Wine Champions

If nac (not a champ) has satisfied quality control but failed to send me into raptures, nb (no- brainer) is my second highest accolade (see below).

Cp (crowd pleaser) is a readily likeable wine I can imagine my friends, to a man or woman, swigging happily. Ubc (unshowy but convincing) proves I’m not always swayed by the swaggering thrust of the iyf (in-yer-face) or the studied, pageant-friendly appeal of the sp (show pony) both of which can overpower very good wines less inclined to show their hand.

Less widespread, I’m glad to say is au (actively unpleasant) or, the worst indictment, yhal (you’re having a larf!) and more often than not, these are crossed out as another bottle is tasted or the one on the table suddenly explodes with previously unexpressed flavour. At that point yolf (ye of little faith!) might make an appearance.

Wow, on the other hand is not an acronym. It’s clearly a champion. If not, obviously wwr (we was robbed).

And with that, I hang up, with some relief, my tastevin, apron and quill.

Janet Wynne Evans

The 2014 Wine Champions will be revealed on Monday 9th June.


  1. JerryW says:

    Despite your complaints I suspect many Wine Society members would kill to be able to take part in such a series of tastings… after all, our money is paying for them, and at the end of the day this is just a marketing initiative, isn’t it, designed to tell us how good our wines are?

    I question how much money you should spend on that. Why not offer the wines cheaper instead, and rely on the members own comments to inform about how good value the wines are? They come free of charge..

    • Janet Wynne Evans says:

      JerryW, you make The Society sound pretty cynical. Wine Champions is not a marketing initiative but a very necessary departmental discipline which ensures that all our buyers taste each other’s wines in completely objective conditions to see how they are evolving. It occurred to Sebastian Payne MW, who started this exercise some 15 years ago that members might be interested in the results, and so it has proved. The offer is one of the most popular in our calendar and what makes it work is its integrity. Naturally our members will form their own conclusions and express them eloquently and openly, as the comment from DaveL suggests. That, too, is part of what makes us unique and it sends me off to work every day with a song in my heart. Any ‘complaints’ in this piece were about getting too old to be able do it for ever. However, with sincere thanks to Shirley Bridges, I am not about to curl up just yet!.

      • JerryW says:

        Hmm, are you really saying this is *not* marketing?

        “We are now just two days away from the unveiling of the 2014 Wine Champions,
        one of The Society’s most hotly anticipated offerings of the year.”

        I wonder what the sales profile of the named wines is.

        Come on, I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it; all large commercial enterprises do it. But a marketing initiative it certainly is, and one of the Wine Society’s biggest ones. you are wrong to try to deny it

        • Tim Sykes says:

          Thanks for your reply. We have a Marketing Department to ensure we make the most of our offerings, irrespective of their content. To call it a marketing initiative is, we feel, at odds with the process of Wine Champions and how we endeavour to present it. The only criteria for inclusion in Wine Champions other than victory in the tastings is whether we can get sufficient stock of the winning vintage to offer it without disappointing members (that is to say, ‘sales profile’ is irrelevant). The reason we mention it is ‘anticipated’ by members is purely because it provides a list of wines that have proven to be delicious to drink now, offering reassurance and guidance that we know many appreciate. Thanks very much again for your feedback.
          Tim Sykes
          Head of Buying

  2. DaveL says:

    Assessment of quality and value of holdings by a series of trained and consistent palates is surely essential. Opening a few hundred bottles and honestly evaluating them is a small price to provide us with consistently good value wines. If we know which palate tasted, we can guess if we also like it. With all due respect to members, they will rate according to their own personal scale – good, but one persons wow is another’s iyf!

  3. Shirley Bridges says:

    I just cannot believe that Janet Wynne Evans has hung up her tastevin, apron and quill. Her column is always eagerly awaited, especially her recipes and humour! So, do continue with your column – forget the quill, now change to a computer, it is much quicker!

  4. Nick Donovan says:

    I couldn’t disagree more with Jerry. We members rely on experienced and enthusiastic palates to buy our wines and then choose which to market particularly hard and subsequently buy more of. Picking a bottle each of a few hundred to taste is completely trivial in the context of the Society’s turnover.

    And obviously Janet isn’t complaining. She’s just trying to explain what it’s like tasting this many wines in a short period. I’ve tasted 130 new nebbiolo, dolcetto and barbera in four days and that was bad enough. I definitely fancied a cup of tea several times.

  5. John Harrison says:

    I am not concerned regarding the cost of the tastings but the buyers have already done this. I am satisfied with the choices they have made. DaveL’s last sentence applies to the expert tasters also. How on earth one can make really watertight decisions in a session tasting over 100 wines I find dubious.

  6. Peter Brennan says:

    I think John Harrison’s final sentence makes a serious point. Tastings such as these happen in circumstances so very different from those in which wine is usually enjoyed. If they send people such as Janet Wynne Evans and Nick Donovan gasping for the teapot, it suggests that they may not be a true way of assessing how appealing the wines really are. Anyone who drinks wine regularly knows how much factors such as mood, atmosphere, company and food affects their appreciation of a wine. I suspect the attempt to turn tasting into a quasi-scientific activity is a factor in the increasing standardisation of winemaking, with producers increasingly tending to play safe.

  7. Tim Sykes says:

    Thanks John and Peter for your comments. Being able to taste large numbers of wines with the prerequisite objectivity and scrutiny is a skill in itself, and an essential part of a Society wine buyer’s job. Our buying team is one of the most experienced in the country, and the buyers taste thousands of wines each per year. We are confident that they have the stamina and skill to do so without distraction or bias. Candidates for buying positions are assessed on a number of factors, and how adept they are at assessing larger line-ups of wines is as important a consideration as the quality of their individual palates.

    Many of the wines that The Society buys are selected via tastings of large line-ups of wines, though, as with the process we use for Wine Champions, we do endeavour to retaste the wines to confirm our opinions of them and, in the case of the latter, achieve consensus. Indeed, next week our new trainee buyer Joe Mandrell will be reporting on one such tasting of Alsace wines carried out here in Stevenage to whittle down a selection made whilst in the region.

    I hope this goes some way to clarify, and to address your concerns.

    Tim Sykes
    Head of Buying

  8. Robin Maulik says:

    I find I am in sharp disagreement with both the substance and the tone that JerryW makes, I see the work that the buyers perform as invaluable, and the value for money I receive from the society to be excellent, I would guess that there must be some degree of supplier funding? If Jerry wants to experience real marketing gimmicks………. join Laithwaites or the Sunday Times Wine Club!

    • Tim Sykes says:

      Thanks for your comment, Robin – very pleasing to hear. Supplier funding for our wines or offers only happens very occasionally (such as our Great Savings offer), and is not used in Wine Champions.
      Tim Sykes
      Head of Buying

  9. Alan Broughton says:

    For us “mere” wine drinkers the Society’s wine buyer sounds like a dream job, but how many of us have the palate to trawl through hundreds of wines swirling, sipping and spitting the making the decision of which wines are good enough for the Society to sell?
    I look forward each year to the Wine Society Champions as it shows that the buyers are up against each other on what has already been bought for we the members. It also points us towards wines that we may not have selected ourselves. Marketing maybe but please keep up this good work

  10. John Hart says:

    I think that JerryW should host a wine tasting and give his comments on each wine. Then he would realise how “easy” it is. I count myself very fortunate to have the expertise of the Wine Society to help me to choose from the best wine list I have ever come across.

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