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New co-chair to join Decanter World Wine Awards: Welcoming Beth Willard

Beth Willard announced official fifth DWWA Co-Chair

Marking Beth Willard’s 10th year as a DWWA  judge, including principal roles as regional chair for North, Central & Eastern Europe and Spain, she will join the 2024 competition as co-chair alongside the existing four-strong team.

An accomplished wine buyer with well over a decade of experience sourcing quality wines across the globe, Willard’s buying roles have covered the UK, US and Australian markets with key responsibility for wines from Spain, Central and Eastern Europe, South America and France.

She’s an Australian native with a wine career beginning in Canberra, but her love of languages and travel has seen her travel the world over to work for high profile companies such as Syndicat des Vins de Bordeaux and Direct Wines (Laithwaites). Long based in the Northern Hemisphere, she’s not forgotten her Aussie roots, however – cricket, that is.

‘The most important thing to understand about me is that no matter where I am, whether I’m visiting vineyards, blending with winemakers, or just researching and writing at home, I will be watching a cricket match (often more than one at a time) or following the scores online. Given I spend most of my time working in Spain, it isn’t always easy to explain this keen interest to my friends and colleagues there,’ she said.

A member of the Gran Orden de Caballeros del Vino, Willard plans on spending a lot more time in Spain to be closer to emerging trends and to work on projects which contribute to the future success of growers and winemakers there.

Naming Rioja among the wine-producing regions to watch in 2024, admitting an odd proposition given its notoriety, she said: ‘I am hoping that Rioja gains more attention in the coming year for its superb vineyard-focused wines. Rioja is the source of some of the finest wines in the world with the rare combination of producing immediate pleasure while also ageing like very few other wines.’

It’s not all Spanish wine, though. ‘Personally, I’m really excited about tasting new wines and vintages from regions I haven’t visited for a few years, especially from countries like Argentina, South Africa and Hungary – DWWA is always a great opportunity to stay up-to-date with new trends and emerging producers,’ she added.

Beth Willard during Platinum judging week at DWWA 2023. Credit: Nic-Crilly Hargrave

‘There has been a big improvement in quality from many regions I’ve tasted during my time judging at DWWA. Particularly regions in Eastern Europe and the Balkans are entering more and more premium wines with beautiful balance and unique character.

‘This has been one of the most exciting regions to be involved with over the past few years. Certainly tasting lots of obscure indigenous varieties from far away, exotic regions reminds you just how big the wine world is, and that there is always something to discover, a gem of a wine that you might stumble across during a day’s tasting.’

Reason & responsibility

Willard’s appointment marks the first time DWWA will have five co-chairs overseeing the competition in its 21-year history, with legacy chairs including the late Steven Spurrier and Gerard Basset OBE MW MS.

The expansion comes in response to the competition’s continued growth, breaking entry records three years consecutively from 2021 to 2023, with the most recent edition seeing 18,250 wines judged from 57 countries.

In tandem, Willard’s election will see the dynamic co-chair committee’s expertise cover even more ground from winemaking and writing to consulting, buying, importing, educating and wine service.

DWWA is getting bigger and bigger,’ said Hill Smith, ‘but for me, the numbers are less important. What’s important is the credibility of the judging, the credibility of the results.’

With utmost focus on integrity of judging, by specialist judges, and of varied backgrounds for greatest objectivity, Decanter’s events & awards director Victoria Stanage commented: ‘We are in unanimous agreement that Willard will be a fantastic addition to the team.

‘She is a very thorough and fair judge, with a positive collegiate attitude. Her expertise will bring a new perspective to the co-chair team with her commercial view and experience as a buyer consultant.’

Beth Willard (left) at DWWA 2023 as joint regional chair for Spain, discussing with panel judges Almudena Alberca MW (left) and Pilar Cavero (right). Credit: Ellen Richardson

Most recently, Willard held the role of joint regional chair for Spain alongside Pedro Ballesteros Torres MW and Ferran Centelles. With her appointment, Pierre Mansour has officially been announced the new joint regional chair for Spain in 2024. On this, Mansour commented, ‘I’m excited to be working alongside the other regional chairs, learning from them, discussing and debating the pros and cons of the wines we taste, and I’m looking forward to hearing the views of the panels.’

So, what is Willard looking forward to most as DWWA’s newest co-chair?

‘Apart from tasting exceptional wines, I love the time spent with fellow judges from all over the world. This is a great opportunity to meet outstanding wine professionals and exchange ideas about emerging wine regions, wine styles and market trends,’ she said.

‘To have such a high level of expertise under one roof is exciting, and while everyone works very hard, it is so much fun to make new connections and meet up with old friends.’

Willard’s advice

For DWWA entrants who don’t win a medal:

‘Firstly, don’t be disheartened. Remember that the number of wines entered into DWWA is huge so competition is fierce, and the tasting panels at DWWA are very demanding.

‘I would recommend looking at the award-winning wines to see what judges are looking for. Are your wines much oakier than those scored higher? Have judges favoured younger, fresher vintages or perhaps they have rewarded the balance of wines with more age. Read the tasting notes of the highest scored wines to see what has caught the judges’ attention. And try again next year!

For wine professional looking to get into wine buying and judging:

‘Taste… not just professionally but with non-wine people, with your family and friends, in bars and restaurants in wine regions, try new things. Drink cheap wine, fine wine and everything in between.

‘Find your own area of interest within the industry (what gets you really excited?) and learn everything you can about it but approach it with your own personality and unique take on things – people will respond to your knowledge but, more importantly, to your enthusiasm and passion.’

Beth Willard (left) sits in on a panel discussion with Senior judge Nick Dumergue (left) and judges Miquel Hudin (right) and Amaya Cervera (right). Credit: Nic-Crilly Hargrave

And finally, listen.

Willard’s most valuable lesson working in the wine industry is ‘Listening! People in the wine industry – growers, winemakers, buyers, marketeers – all have really interesting stories to tell and come from so many different and varied backgrounds.

‘You can learn so much by giving people the time to talk and explain their passion for the wines they make or love. Wine is more than just a product or an academic exercise: it brings people together and represents human endeavour, culture and history. There is always something new to learn and it’s the human element that keeps our industry constantly exciting and dynamic while also tying us to its rich past and those that have gone before us.’

DWWA 2024 entries are open now until 15 March 2024. Learn more and enter today at enter.decanter.com

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