Warren Mason believed wine should be judged with food

Vale Warren Mason

Warren Mason passed away on 10 April 2019 at the age of 82. He leaves a fine legacy behind as the founder of the Sydney International Wine Competition.
Huon Hooke
courtesy of the mason family

Creating a great wine and food match is like creating a great romantic moment. You know when you’ve had one – sure you do – but it’s not so easy to plan that great moment. Most great moments happen by accident.

Experience teaches you that there are certain things you can do to make a great moment more likely to happen. Soft lighting, the right music, room not too hot or too cold, good food and wine, etc.

With wine and food matching, you might start with the premise that oysters go well with Champagne, prawns with chardonnay, duck with pinot noir, and so on.

And then, if the planets are in alignment at the right moment, you stand a chance of making the sparks fly.

These thoughts were inspired by the recent passing of Warren Mason, who was for 17 years president of the International Wine & Food Society, NSW chapter, and the creator of the Sydney International Wine Competition (SIWC), which I helped judge for 17 years and chaired for several.

Warren died on 10 April 2019 aged 82 years. He was a man who polarised opinions, but his commitment to wine and food and the enjoyment of the two together was beyond doubt. The SIWC, which is celebrating its 40th instalment this year, is still to my knowledge the only wine competition in the world at which wine is judged with food.

Mason’s eureka moment was realising the chemistry of the mouth changes when food is introduced, and that alters the way we perceive wine. He reckoned regular wine competitions, of which there are dozens every year in Australia alone, are missing the point, because they ignore the critical fact that wine is normally consumed at the table with a meal.

In his comments for the SIWC judges in 1994, he wrote: “The principal aim of the competition is to increase the enjoyment of wine by making it easier to choose wines that will better complement different food, and to make wine an essential, enjoyable part of each day’s sustenance, adding contentment and pleasure to our everyday lives.”

Of course it would be nigh impossible to judge 2,000 entries with food, taking a bite and chewing it before a taste of each wine. So a culling process takes place by which entries, capped at 2,000, are judged conventionally and reduced to 400, and these are re-judged alongside food. This is a mammoth task in itself. It’s hard work, and it’s educational. You begin to appreciate many subtleties. You realise, for instance, that as a dish of roast beef gradually gets cold, its taste changes and the way it interacts with wine varies.

You notice how, in a class of 20 light-bodied whites, graded from lightest to fullest, that the lightest wines in the group may be perfect with a delicate prawn dish, but the heaviest wines will tend to overpower it. The pairing can’t always be precise.

And it wasn’t as though Mason was dictatorial about what goes with what. “Complementing food with wine is an individual thing,” he wrote. “Thus, the competition is not in the business of telling consumers that ‘you should drink this with that’, but rather… it offers two important pieces of information to supplement what is already on the wine’s label.” These are firstly an indication of the wine’s palate weight or impact, and an assurance of high technical quality.

The competition generated a ‘Top 100’ wines showcase which for many years toured annually around the major cities of Australia and New Zealand as well as London. It also generated medals, termed ‘Blue Gold’ to differentiate them from the gold medals of conventional shows. And still does. The SIWC was sold to new owners in 2016 who continue it in the same spirit as Warren and his wife Jacquie did. Long may it continue. Warren Mason has left a fine legacy.