Canadian Wine Insider – July 2022

Notes from the Back Room of the 2022 National Wine Awards of Canada  

By David Lawrason and Anthony Gismondi

The 21st running of the National Wine Awards of Canada wrapped up on June 23 in Niagara. Category results have started to roll out and they will be rolling out throughout the rest of July, with the final Platinum, Best Performing Small Winery, and Winery of the Year announcements coming at the end of next week. We hope you will stay tuned to follow the results and become engaged in anticipating the final results.


Meantime, we want to take you for a look behind the scenes in the NWAC back room.  

The Set-Up 

The physical scope is impressive, captured in the photo below. Some 1,890 wines and ciders entered (times three bottles or six cans each). The wines are spread across seven panels over the first three days, each panel having a dedicated back room table or 75-foot run, colour coded with an assigned pouring team working with the front side judges whose tables are marked with the same colours.  

Checking and double-checking in the back room (Photo by Sarah Goddard)

There were almost ­30 volunteers in the back room over seven days — all willing to work from 7:30 am to 3:30 pm, masked and daily antigen tested. Yet, amid all the comings and goings, our Covid protocol plan worked perfectly, or nearly perfectly, with only one positive COVID test recorded in the back room — no judges were affected.  

There were 1,200 glasses on hand, each stem going through multiple daily machine washing and hand polishing. Nearby Niagara College generously supplied the glasses. Washer-in-Chief Wes James had a three-day unbroken streak going before the first glass shattered in the backroom, perhaps due to the whooshing-by of a “nona” ghost that frequents Club Italia in Niagara Falls.  

Only a few of the 1,200 glasses (Photo by Jason Dziver)

Club Italia was in many ways an ideal venue — just the right size, isolated from distraction, and staffed by very kind and conscientious folks providing hospitality to an event of which they had never seen the like.  

Three days before the judges arrive, the wines were unpacked and physically placed in flights (their position in the flight selected by computer) — that took just seven hours. The next day the tagging/stickering of bottles happened, and on the third day, the preparation of the glasses and double-checking of all entry information on the table sheets with the labels on the bottles. By day three, photographer Jason Dziver of Calgary begins shooting every bottle entered, working longer than any single judge or volunteer.  

Then there are impressive IT components designed by Vancouverites Mark Taylor and Earl Paxton, curated to the business of judging by co-head judge Anthony Gismondi, also from Vancouver. The competition software allows wineries to register, enter and assign their wines to categories before they are shipped to the consolidation points in B.C. and Ontario. They were delivered intact and on time to Club Italia, thanks to Timax and ContainerWorld.   

Photo by Jason Dziver

This year, for the first time, the judges entered all wine scores and reviews digitally. It greatly facilitated the scoring process and shaved hours off the back room work, compiling scoresheets and documenting all the scores by hand.  

All this came to pass in the back room with internet-based Radio Paradise music selections soothing the frenetic moments and energizing the lulls. But, of course, dancing did break out now and again or at least shuffled steps down the aisles. And Wes the Washer had his infectious 70s tunes going on as well.  

Packaging and Other Trends Observed  

As a roving, back room co-head judge, I was in a unique position to observe all 1900 entries. Before the judging began, I walked the rows and made notes of new labels and designs. There were many examples of Canadian wineries having re-imagined themselves and their possibilities during Covid.   

There were several new wineries, some that I did not know existed and some that had never before entered the awards. Later this year, I will profile the new wineries in Ontario and B.C., as we do annually. There were new entrants from Quebec, too, and increased Quebec presence overall, which is very encouraging and again worthy of a future column. 

NWAC 2022 Volunteer (Photo by Jason Dziver)

A second observation is that some established wineries are exploring new grape varieties and styles — particularly sparkling wine and rosé. And there is new, improved branding and labelling, all more professional and sophisticated, which is a good thing in the fight for consumer confidence.   

All this bodes well for Canadian wine — despite COVID, and all the trials and tribulations of making wine in Canada, eyes and ears are tuned to the future, and investment in Canadian wine forges ahead. 

The Judging Process 

Our judges from across Canada (see their bios here) were organized into seven panels of three for the three-day preliminary round. Each day, judges tasted about 90 wines in 11 flights of seven to ten wines per category and usually ordered to refresh the palate by serving whites or rosé between the big red flights with sweet wines before lunch or at the end of the day — all at the perfect temperature. The idea of the prelims is to find the best wines and to put them through to the second round for final analysis and scoring by larger panels.  

NWAC 2022 Judges & Admin (Photo by Jason Dziver)

In the end, a wine needs a high “silver medal” rating to make it to the finals; sometimes, only gold in the first round will get a wine to the second round. It is a simple concept on paper, but it requires three knowledgeable humans to come together as one voice. Our judges are first and foremost full-time wine folk who don’t make wine but are professionally engaged in writing, teaching, or consulting and otherwise communicating wine at a professional and objective level. Among the planet’s most esteemed wine titles, our ranks included three Masters of Wine and three Master Sommeliers. Our Canadian core was augmented by two highly experienced international judges, Jamie Goode of the U.K. and Evan Goldstein of San Francisco.  

NWAC 2022 Judges at work (Photo by Sarah Goddard)

No one is perfect or right all the time, so we leave it to the most experienced panel captains to sort through those differences and ensure the best wines progress to the final round. The final round — two-day judging of ideally some 25 to 27 percent of the wines pushed thorough — goes to the panels of five or six judges tasked with the same goal of evaluating the wine and giving it a score out of 100. Judges do not assign medals.

After all the scores are locked and loaded into the system, that task is left to the computer. The Platinum medal winners are determined later, taking the top one percent and ties of all the wines entered with the highest scores. The top awards of Winery of the Year and Best Performance by a Small Winery are calculated by a winery’s highest five medals. The process will be explained in more detail upon the release of the winners on July 28 – 29.

Our roles as co-chief judges is to review and bring a check and balance to the results. We do not sit on the front room panels. One of the primary functions in the back room is to oversee the repouring of wines that the front room judges perceive as having a fault — such as cork taint, high levels of volatile acidity, oxidation, Brettanomyces, or excessive sulphur. The rule is: if there is any doubt about the purity of the wine, it should result in a repour. The wine gets the benefit of the doubt, even if only one judge calls it into question. 

We were pretty busy with repours. There were 46 requests over five days of judging, 80 percent in the preliminary three days. The most common fault was cork taint, with 28 cork-related challenges. We track closures as wineries enter, and this year there were approximately 700 wines closed by natural cork. So, about 3 percent were questioned, which is on par with the global incidence.  

But to editorialize, why is any level of cork defect tolerated by the industry, not just in Canada?  We would further argue that the inherent potential brightness of cool climate Canadian wine is significantly compromised by cork taint. The Canadian industry needs to move to screwcaps or other non-cork closures ASAP, as New Zealand and Australia have done and many non-Euro producers are doing globally. It will not happen fast enough if some Canadian wineries remain rooted in Euro wine culture and ideology. Canada can fast-track its global acceptance by moving forward on this issue. 

Photo by Jason Dziver

Blind tasting is a challenging environment for wines. The glass in front of those judges is stripped of identity and context, except for style/grape variety. Therefore, the mind is left to consider more basic and internal concepts of quality — the whole raison d’etre of qualitative blind tasting.   

In doing so, it shifts judges’ attention to elements that compromise quality as well as those that create quality. Perceived negatives can stand out and become problematic if one point of negativity is so outstanding that it tips the balance against positives. We are looking for judges who can balance all the parameters and come to a helpful conclusion. 

In the end, as we have said from year one, this annual benchmarking of Canadian wines is a snapshot in time of where we are. From our perspective, we are a long way down the road from where we started, and for consumers, judges and wineries, that is a good thing.   

Stayed tuned for the final results of the 2022 National Wine Awards of Canada.