Mentoring Judges for the Future

The first year of our new initiative – Judges Training Judges
by DJ Kearney

DJ Kearney

DJ Kearney

At WineAlign, judging wine is central to what we do. The entire point of our nationwide wine scoring and wine sourcing website is to help you, the wine-loving consumer find great wines in stores in your province.

We do this by posting thousands of wine reviews from our talent pool of Canada’s best wine palates and writers. In addition, we stage two important annual wine competitions; one that evaluates the best of Canadian wine (WineAlign’s National Wine Awards of Canada), and another that focuses on great value wines of the world (WineAlign World Wine Awards). These two colossal events involve thousands of wines and months of logistical planning before 16 judges sit down for an intense week of swirling, smelling, sipping and scoring.

The top results of these two competitions have just been published in Maclean’s 2014 Newsmakers edition; so please rush out to grab a copy, or go to for complete results.

We are extremely pleased to have this new national platform that broadcasts our results, and we hope it means many more opportunities in the years ahead for our up and coming judges.

Maclean's Special Edition - Wine report

Judging wine is not new, by the way; it’s very likely that wine has been ranked from its earliest days. It is estimated that wine was made as long as 9,000 years ago, but there is little known about those early ferments. We do however know a great deal about wines made by Egyptians, Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans who produced on a considerable scale and marketed wine around Mesopotamia and the Mediterranean. They inscribed clay amphorae with place names, winemakers and dates, and we know they had a well-developed ‘cru’ system. Certain wines were held in higher regard than others, and that by definition involves judging, the ranking of one wine over another.

Over the millennia wine continued to be judged and rated; the 1855 classification in the Medoc, the Judgement of Paris, culminating in the rise of the wine critics. The hundreds of wine competitions that are staged around the world today are evidence of the reality that results matter and scores matter. Competitions are only as good as the people who organize and lead them (in particular the head judge), and those who sit and judge. So what does it take to be a good judge? This is something that I have pondered for years now, since my own first judging experience.

A word on that: it was a mix of exhilaration and terror that I have never forgotten. As a first time judge, I felt thrilled and honoured to be asked, excited about using my tasting skills honed over the years of studying and teaching about wine. But sitting down before a large flight of wines with a room full of people I admired (if not idolized) made me anxious, dry-mouthed and doubtful. Judging is a mental endeavour and it takes non-stop concentration, physical endurance and constant resetting of the palate. A good judge should care enormously about the outcome, and only the best effort will do. You should feel an almost crushing sense of responsibility about your work and scores. And I sure did, all those years ago, but everything was ok because I had two Canadian wine greats show me the ropes of judging. Anthony Gismondi and David Lawrason briefed me, helped me stay on-time, were patient when I did not, gave me both gentle and not-so-gentle feedback, and asked me back the next year. Phew.

Hao Judges Table

Over the years Anthony, David and I have talked and schemed about how to improve and increase the judging pool in Canada, how to offer opportunities to up-and-comers, and how to start our succession planning. This past year we put our words into action. Repeating the trust shown years ago, they’ve let me spearhead a judge mentoring initiative. We call it ‘Judges Training Judges’, because all of our regular WineAlign palates are deeply committed to helping develop the next generation of wine judging talent in Canada. Before our wine competitions in 2014, we organized seminars and tryouts in both Vancouver and Toronto for a group of invited young guns we pre-scouted as having the right stuff.

What makes a good judge? This is what we discussed during the seminar.

– essential to have experience with all wines of the world

– be consistent when scoring

– be a strong structural, systematic, analytic taster

– be able to articulate your opinions free of personal biases

– be decisive and swift

– be confident

– be a team player

Then came the tasting tryouts. We put the apprentice judge candidates through many rounds of tasting, then evaluated their scores and discussions based on metrics we had established: consistency, parity with our experienced scores, speed, ability to defend scores, personality, etc.

DJ Training session

After the judging score sheets were assessed and ranked, we chose two judges for The Nationals from Vancouver, Sally Campa and Hao Yang Wang, and two from Toronto, Emily MacLean and Adam Hijazi. To allow our apprentices to really relax into the process, they scored all wines just like the full-fledged judges, but their scores did not count. You can read about their experiences below.

So how do we fund this? Adding two apprentice judges to the roster adds hard costs. Wine competitions are not money making ventures – not even close. Our core WineAlign judges contribute their own money to a fund that helps pay travel and hotel costs for the rookies. So, not only do we resident judges mentor, guide, encourage and share our own experiences and lessons, but we pay for the privilege. This in turn makes us completely invested in the process of developing the future and ensuring a succession plan with Canadian pros who are ready to step up and lay down their scores with confidence and accuracy. And that’s why this initiative is called ‘Judges Training Judges’. We really are.

What’s ahead? More of the same, but on a bigger scale. In 2014 we cast the net only in Vancouver and Toronto in our search for top judge prospects, but plan to eventually spread to every province. Watch us grow and watch us improve the quality of scoring wines and building even better competition results.

My take-away from this? There are so few opportunities for aspiring wine pros to break into judging, and our unique program gives them a chance to learn, observe, connect and expose themselves to challenges and opportunities. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and I cannot wait to see our initiative flourish.

Here is what our apprentice judges had to say:

Hao Yang WangHao Yang Wang directs the show at Vancouver’s Farmer’s Apprentice, voted Best Restaurant, in Vancouver Magazine’s 2014 awards, as well as Best new and Best Casual, and snatched second place in Enroute Magazine’s recent awards. Before this he was Sommelier and AGM at Pidgin (# 5 in Enroute Magazine in 2014 awards). Adding wine retail experience to the mix, Hao Yang sharpened his palate at Liberty Wine.

“It was an exciting and humbling experience to be an understudy amongst extraordinary mentors and talents. To taste and discuss at such high volume, and intensity, it required immense focus to stay alert. It was learning about keeping a truthful, honest and respectful mind to the products laid out in front of the panel, as well as the judges next to you; learning to speak with your gut, and leaving the ego back upstairs in the hotel room. I would participate again in a heartbeat, and would recommend any growing wine professionals in the industry to participate whenever such an opportunity arises.”

Sally Campa is the General Manager and Sommelier for Vino Volo at YVR airport. A Torontonian, she relocated to Vancouver to attend Dubrulle International Culinary and Hotel Institute of Canada. With over 15 years as a personal chef and caterer, she shifted her focus in 2007 to pursue her passion for wine further. After spending 3 years in wine retail, she returned to the restaurant industry in 2012 to open the Vino Volo locations at YVR.

Sally Campa“I was so delighted to be invited to sit as an apprentice judge at the Canadian WineAlign awards this past spring. Over the years, I have eagerly looked forward to judging wine as another branch of my career in the business. I was elated when I heard I would have an opportunity to sit amongst the judging panel as one of this year’s apprentices.  The WineAlign team are people who I have looked up to as mentors, and learned from over the years.  The idea of this experience was exciting, though somewhat daunting.

When I arrived in Penticton, I received warm welcomes from the entire WineAlign crew.  I knew right away that spending days amongst this talent would be an incredible education, as well as a true examination of my knowledge and skill. 

To evaluate so many wines in such a short period of time is an incredible test of staying focused while keeping your palate on point.  From glass to glass, flight to flight, I was quietly intimidated to say the least.

 On the first morning, I was full of nerves as well as a sense of overwhelm. As we began to taste, I felt mental and physical exhaustion, as I have never been exposed to quantity volumes and time restrictions like these during tastings. It takes time to get into a groove in such an environment, and to continue to keep oneself in check while coming to understand others on a panel. I received excellent tips and advice from my mentors.  They coached me through the tough parts and offered helpful tips all along the way.

While judging, I rotated around from panel to panel while tasting, providing excellent exposure, endless advice and guidance through the process. Each table offered a new experience, through the different energy and style of each judge. It was educational to listen to all of the discussions – from wine styles to quality levels. The conversations are full of wisdom and never shy on insight.  It didn’t take long to observe that at each table, every base is covered!

When I had completed my portion of judging, and finally got a tour of the back storage room, I was honestly speechless. To see such volume, the systems in place, and the organization behind the entire process is incredible. This is an extraordinary practice of judging, one I feel privileged and grateful to have been part of.  This was an experience and invite not be taken for granted.”

Adam Hijazi is a chef, sommelier, and adventurer. After going to culinary school and working in some of the hottest restaurants in Toronto he began travelling and working throughout Europe and North America. He is certified as a sommelier through CAPS and CMS and has worked internationally including cooking at 4 three Michelin starred restaurants. He is currently the general manager of Terroni Price Street, the flagship restaurant of the southern Italian inspired hospitality company.

Adam Hijazi“The apprentice judging program with WineAlign was a wonderful experience to be a part of. From the moment we arrived, DJ, David, Anthony and all were quick to welcome us with open arms and shortly after, get right into it. Wines kept coming and coming and with each glass of red or white I was given an insight into how the veterans approach each sip. It is a vigorous pace and you start to understand each judge’s style and proclivities within a few hours. Then the next day it starts again with a whole new panel. Your preconceived notions from packaging and marketing are thrown out the window and you focus on what’s in the glass. After several rounds with the expert palates every wine is sifted through and whittled down to the best of the bunch. In the grand tasting in Toronto (an event months later that featured Platinum and Gold winners) I was impressed to say that there were no duds.The WineAlign system really put together a fantastic bunch of wines! I am so happy to have been a part of this process and continue to build WineAlign into the go-to destination for wine buys. 

DJ and WineAlign are forerunners in a program of this nature and their efforts don’t go unnoticed.The world of experts is tightly booked and yet they all offered their time and knowledge to us in hopes of building the future generation of wine judges. We were matched with different judges each day to glean a little bit of their individual expertise that benefits the group and it became apparent why each of them was a part of this team. It was amazing to see so many different opinions come towards the common goal of the most delicious juice. They have started something that I hope carries on and spreads into adjacent vocations so that we all benefit from the dedication and efforts of these titans of the wine world.”

Emily MacLean narrowly missed a career in nursing in favour of shucking oysters and slinging wine. A few wine courses later, a dream job at the legendary restaurant Scaramouche, and then the chance to call the wine shots at Hopgood’s Foodliner, where she curates a killer list.

Emily MacLean“Being chosen as an apprentice judge for WineAlign’s 2014 World Wine Awards of Canada was one of the greatest experiences since beginning to focus on a future in wine; a personal growth experience that will resonate and will not be forgotten.

The three day experience began with a debriefing from the head judges, where we were introduced to the judging scheme and were given the opportunity to apply this in the form of test flights. This concise and well administered training program is vital, as it further prepares you to sit on the team of judges with whom you will spend the following days.  You are quickly reminded of the sheer value in tasting a wine blind. Prejudices are removed, and you focus on the varietal, method of production, and quality level for the price – aspects that unfortunately may be swayed in the presence of a visible label. 

The Mentorship Program has immense value, as it allows for an industry professional who has had no previous experience in judging to bring a different dynamic and a new perspective to the team. It allows for that individual to learn from and work alongside a team of high-calibre judges. Such an opportunity may not have surfaced otherwise.

After this experience, I was left with a pleasantly exhausted palate and a deepened appreciation for WineAlign. Through celebrating accessible wines, there is strong movement toward bridging the gap between the enormous and intimidating world of wine and their main focus, the consumer.”


Visit the WineAlign Awards page for more information and a complete list of 2014 results:

National Wine Awards of Canada
World Wine Awards of Canada