We Call It Camp

by Janine Galligani  |  12.06.2022

Wine Camp and Spirits Camp is not like any camp you’ve ever attended. It’s challenging but just as much fun!

Camp is the 8 weeks of preparation prior to the San Francisco International Wine and San Francisco World Spirits Competitions.  It is an extraordinarily complex, fine tuned system of procedures for processing the thousands of entries of wines and spirits submitted for judging.  It has taken years to develop.  Every year we strive to make it better.

Each competition needs 60-90 volunteers to run smoothly. The volunteers are drawn from every walk of life. They are teachers, chefs, nurses, engineers, bakers, artists and flight attendants.  Over the years, we’ve had orchid experts, skateboard camp counselors, and sound engineers.

Anyone can be a volunteer.  All you need is an open mind, a passion for wines and spirits and a willingness to learn and work hard.  It’s an unparalleled chance to meet and chat with some of the greatest wines and spirits experts in the world. Oh, and you get to taste some pretty good stuff as well.

The SF Wine Competition was started in 1980, the Spirits Competition in 2000.  One of our volunteers, Paul Bourbon, the Orchid Expert, has volunteered for the SF competitions for 42 years, only missing three. There are a few volunteers who have worked these competitions for 40 years, some 20-30 years and most have at least 10 years. 

I got my start as a volunteer.  In 2010, my friend, Ann Rudorf, a 25 year “camper”, recommended me to be a volunteer.  Twelve years later I am the Volunteer Coordinator and Event Manager for all four of The Tasting Alliance’s competitions.

Our competitions are among the most prestigious in the world.  With over 4,000 wine entries and over 5,000 spirits entries, the San Francisco judging is also among the world’s largest wine and spirit competitions.

Wineries send 4 bottles of each product entered, Distilleries send 2 bottles.  The entries are all shipped to our warehouse in San Francisco.  In a typical year, the warehouse processes approximately 16,000 bottles of wine and 10,000 spirits bottles. Entries come from all over the world. In 2022, more than 40 countries submitted entries!

The entries are checked in, processed, organized, cataloged, re-checked, & tracked during the weeks prior to the competition.  Every single bottle is treated with care from the moment it arrives at the warehouse, and that attention to detail continues while they are being transported to the competition. 

At the competition, which is usually 3-4 days, we have panels of 3 volunteers that work all day with a panel of 3-4 professional judges.  It takes 12-17 Panels per day to ensure all entries get poured, tasted and evaluated.  We call each group of samples to be tasted “flights.” The volunteers line up the bottles to be tasted, and the lead panel volunteer checks that each bottle belongs in that flight and is in the correct order.  For example, in a flight of 2018 Malbec, all bottles are checked to make sure they are all 2018 Malbecs.

The competitions are completely blind tastings.  To preserve the integrity of the competition, judges are never allowed to enter the staging area so they have no clue on whose product they are tasting. 

Once the flight is checked, the bottles are labeled and opened then the sample is poured for the judges to taste. The flights, about 12 glasses each, are brought out to their panel of judges and lined up in an arc on the table, in front of each judge.  While the judges are doing their tastings and evaluations, the volunteers set up the next flight. A typical day has 7-10 flights per panel.  Spirits judges taste about 70-80 products, while wine is 110-120.  

Let’s break down the glassware situation. Glassware to the competition is like wood is to a fire.  The glasses have to be cleaned and dried all day long to keep the competition going.  And we use a lot of glasses.  Each flight is 12 glasses.  Each panel has 3 judges. So each flight is 36 glasses per panel. 17 panels tasting 10 flights of 36 glasses each is 360 times17.  That is over 6,000 glasses per day being used.

At our competitions, the judges give an entry a no medal, bronze, silver or gold medal. The final medal is an average of the judges individual medals.  Often, the judges need to discuss a glass and agree upon a medal. If all judges on that panel give the product a gold medal, it becomes a Double Gold.  They then discuss if that entry should go to the next round, the finals, which we call Sweepstakes.  Sweepstakes takes place on the last day of the Competition. All of the judges attend and taste the flights together. Without a doubt, it’s one of the favorite parts of the competition which is no surprise; they are tasting the best of the best out of all of the entries. 

Sweepstakes usually has about 200 tastings.  Our managing director, Maddee McDowell runs the sweepstakes tasting.  She directs the Judges which glasses to taste, then voting takes place and the outcome is our Best in Class and Best in Show winners. 

Of course, the past 2.5 years, due to Covid protocols, our competitions were adjusted.  The numbers and information I just wrote are pre-covid and now currently what we are returning to.  During Covid we had to adhere to restrictions on the amount of people allowed to gather, and distance requirements.  As for most businesses, we had a challenging shift of procedures.

I have 42 years of experience in the hospitality business which includes waitressing, bartending, food & beverage manager on dining yachts and I co-owned a restaurant for a decade. Even with all of that experience, in my first year of Wine Camp I was astounded by the sheer amount of work that gets accomplished and how smoothly it all gets done.   

I love everything about the hospitality business, including planning & managing so many different kinds of events but these competitions challenged me like nothing I could ever have imagined.  I want to learn and experience more and more.

In 2014, our beloved, incredible, Managing Director, Chandler Moore, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.  She spent the last year of her life, making sure the future of the competitions was set up for success.  

A new Managing Director was relocated from our LA office and Chandler asked me to coordinate and manage the volunteers.  Chandler tirelessly taught me how she organized and managed the volunteers. She was a superb teacher and mentor.

Fortunately, I was able to experience one wine competition & one spirits competition with Chandler as a safety net.  She passed in August of 2015 and is greatly missed by all who knew her.

On my own without Chandler’s guidance, I utilized my past experiences. I taught the volunteers simple hospitality protocols. Do not touch the rim of glassware, all panels/tables need to look the same.  Napkin to the left, palate cleansing food all in the same place facing the same way.  Check your tables before you walk away, make sure judges have water and all looks good before they dig into the next flight. At one competition, the volunteers were using saucers as plates.  This made me cringe.  Hey all, we are a world class competition. Saucers are for coffee cups, not food.  

I am so proud to be a part of the Tasting Alliance’s four successful competitions.  Besides the two competitions in San Francisco, we also have the New York World Wine & Spirits Competition and the Singapore Spirits Competition.  Our President & COO, Amanda Dias Blue and our Managing Director, Maddee McDowell, have some exciting future events being added including Consumer Tastings and Events and our Spirits Awards Gala.

It is an honor to lead the volunteers at Camp. Their commitment to the integrity and smooth running of the competitions makes my job easy.  I have now been on staff for 7 years. When someone asks me what I do, I’m often at a loss to adequately describe my job. I  just say “I have my dream job I never even knew existed”.