For Wine Lovers Down Under, The “Options” Are Endless

by Chuck Hayward

The Sydney Royal Wine Showis one of Australia’s most prestigious wine competitions.Ranking up there with shows based in Adelaide and Melbourne, the organizers have selected an international wine figure to serve as a guest judge since 1986 and this year, I was honored to be selected to fulfill this role. Judging duties kicked-off with one of the show’s most important traditions, the Peter Doyle Options Game.

Leave it to the Australians to take something like blind wine tasting and turn it into a game. Called Wine Options or just plain Options, it was developed byLen Evans, one of Australia’s pioneering wine educators and personalities. Legend has it that he dipped into his cellar after a long lunch and served a bottle blind, asking his mates a series of questions that became ever more specific until the wine was identified.

Today, there are many variations on how the game is played. Options games are frequently done after large dinners with everyone standing. As each question is posed to the audience by the emcee, those who answer wrong take their seat until one person is left who is then awarded a prize, usually a special wine.
The game might start with a general question such as “Is the wine from France, Italy or Spain?” Successive questions drill down to more detailed questions about the varietal, vintage or winemaking techniques. Answer a question wrong and you cannot participate in the following round. The winner is the last person left who has answered all the questions correctly, not necessarily figuring out the wine’s identity although that is the goal of the game.

Another variation was favored by Len Evans. His luncheon group met monthly for over 30 years and was renowned throughout the industry for the wines poured during their options games. He adapted the game by assigning each player five coins for every wine served to the group. Here, the person who brought their wine was limited to five questions and for each wrong answer, a coin is placed in the center of the table. The one with the most coins at the end of the meal is declared the day’s winner.

But even more important is what is required of the questioner. Asking the right questions in ever more detailed order is particularly important requiring options answers that are easy or difficult depending on the wine knowledge of the players. Figuring out interesting alternatives to the correct answer is not as easy as it seems.
As you can see, there are two skills here that help to fine tune one’s wine knowledge. It goes without saying that figuring out the right answer requires some understanding of wine. When conducted with players who have a more detailed knowledge of wine, your analytical skills can be really put to the test.

The Australian wine show system is built around many formal structures as well as informal traditions and among these is a welcoming dinner for the judges and show organizers. As part of the dinner, the more senior judges are asked to bring an interesting bottle to be used for an options game limited to the more junior associate judges. They are then asked to explain their answers to the rest of the group, a pressure-packed test in front a demanding audience. This year’s winner will receive a trophy at the concluding dinner and a deserving round of applause.