Judges at wine competitions usually are asked to evaluate 100 or more wines a day; in some competitions, the total is double that.
Even if a judge expectorates every sip, the palate assault is extreme. With all the alcohol that passes through the mouth, not to mention the acids in white wines and tannins in red wines, the result can be more akin to pain than pleasure.
As a result, wine competition directors usually try to have palate-refreshing nibbles to ward off the negative effects of large amounts of wine.
Decades ago, a Los Angeles retailer used romaine lettuce. Although it worked great, it left the dump bucket an unsightly mess. In Germany three years ago, evaluating rieslings, we were offered, among other things, sliced tart apples.
Water crackers without any flavors and rare, unsalted roast beef both work well, too. The beef especially works because it has protein, which challenges red wine tannins.
In the last quarter-century, one idea that has grown rapidly among competition directors is use of a low-salt olive grown in Ontario that not only work wonders for the palate, but happen to taste sensational.
Graber olives, founded exactly 120 years ago, today is one of a handful of tiny craft houses that make specialty olives. The major difference between Grabers and many others is that the company uses only tree-ripened Manzanilla olives that are hand harvested.
Today at nearly two dozen wine competitions around the United States, the appearance of Grabers in a small cup at the side of each judge is the sign of a competition director who cares about quality.
Cliff "Dad" Graber started the business in 1894, delivering olives out of barrels to local markets. Canning began some 20 years later, and then the business passed to Cliff's son, Robert. Today, the founder's grandson, Cliff Graber, 76, operates the small tree-shaded farm and processing facility in a residential neighborhood.
Though the Manzanilla is the same olive many other major packers use, Cliff says the secret to his success is extreme care in handling — sort of the way the best pinot noirs are made.
Most other companies pick olives while they are green and during processing they are intentionally oxidized. Moreover, most canners add ferrous gluconate to the brine to turn them dark brown.
"We let our olives ripen on the tree," Cliff told me last week. "We don't pick them until they get to be pink to cherry red in color and then after they are processed, the color changes to a nut brown to greenish brown."
Roughly 100,000 tons of Manzanillas are canned throughout California. Graber canned some 35 tons last year.
There is absolutely no parallel between tasting typical black canned olives and Grabers.
"Tree-ripened olives are very tender, so you have to handle them carefully, he said. "Everything is hand-picked and they are poured into 30-pound boxes." Larger olive packers put the firmer olives into multi-ton bins.
As a result, the differences in taste between almost all black olives and Grabers, which are green-gray and a few are actually pale, are dramatic.
For one thing, Grabers are soft — so soft that they cannot be practically de-pitted; Cliff says if he tried to do that, he'd end up with tapenade! (We make a terrific tapenade from them at home.)