Until I got the email from Clark Smith, I hadn't given much thought to how a person should prepare to judge at a wine competition.
An argument could be made, I suppose, that a judge should abstain from wine entirely for several days before a competition, thus arrive with a palate clean, rested and anticipatory.
On the other hand, why not drink up, thereby seasoning the palate for the fast-rising tide of tannin, alcohol and acidity entailed in tasting 100 or so wines?
Smith, however, isn't concerned with those sorts of mechanics. One of California's more cerebral winemakers, he relentlessly challenges old assumptions while searching for new approaches to what wine is and can be.
Thus, on the eve of the 29th Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula, Smith sent judges who are to sit on the petite-sirah panel 37 pages of homework. They amount to a compact and provocative brief on Smith's current quest to pin down and define the aesthetic attributes of petite sirah. He wants to see how the appearance, aroma, flavor and balance of petite sirah grown in one area differs from petite sirah grown in another. In other words, does petite sirah from Mendocino County really smell like maraschino cherries and lavender, while petite sirah from Fair Play smells like grapefruit, tar and dark plum?
Smith didn't pull those descriptors out of thin air. They stem from panels that in recent years tasted and tracked the regional profile of petite sirah under the auspices of AppellationAmerica.com, a winery-direct marketplace seeking to better define the connection between place and character in wine.
The Riverside competition, thus, will be an extension of that research. Members of the petite-sirah panel not only will weigh the merits of each entry before them, the varietals will be grouped according to their appellation - Alexander Valley, Sierra Foothills, Lodi and the like.
Why petite sirah? It's grown in a wide variety of climates, soil types, thermal regions, altitudes and latitudes, thus providing a broad spectrum of styles, says Smith. Also, he has found petite sirah to be made "more out of love than for profit," providing high quality across the board.
Beyond determining the regional fingerprints on petite sirah, Smith has another goal. He believes the time has come for wine competitions to establish regional standards for each varietal and style of wine. Thus, in the long run wines would be evaluated not only against a loose set of expectations that include clarity, balance and an absence of flaws, but against a set of well-defined, agreed-upon regional attributes.
Smith likens what he hopes to achieve to a dog competition. "In dog competitions," says Smith in his email, "thousands of entrants are judged according to exacting breed standards, and ribbons awarded based on exacting criteria put forth by the breed clubs and documented by the American Kennel Club. An Irish Setter and a Cocker Spaniel, although they are both considered Sporting Dogs, are judged by completely different rules. It would be silly to hold them to the same criteria, and sillier still to have no standards at all!"
It's the start of a long process, he concedes. This sort of refinement, however, goes back to what wine competitions are all about - providing consumers with guidance to distinctive wines they might enjoy. Anything wine competitions can do to improve reliability and consistency, Smith is eager to embrace, however risky and controversial it may be. "Everybody knows judging needs to be reformed," he says. He also acknowledges that this whole effort may fizzle, but I suspect it won't. The American wine consumer is adventurous, eager to explore and to get a grasp on what distinguishes one varietal or style of wine from another. They travel from one wine region to another for all sorts of reasons, but to secure a better understanding of place could be near the top of their list of goals. If the results of a wine competition can help them get a more secure grip on what sets apart one region from another, they will make that journey all the more relevant and intriguing.
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