Thursday, August 19, 2010
This year, several wine competitions, stung by criticism that their conclusions too often have been shaky, and mindful that entries generally have been down, have taken steps toward improving the consistency, reliability and relevance of their panels. In Dallas, judges tasted white wines after reds, contrary to the usual approach, and were given the chance to enroll in pre-dawn yoga sessions in hopes of keeping both body and mind limber and balanced. At Riverside and Long Beach, petite sirahs were grouped by place of origin in hopes of refining the standards by which wines generally are evaluated. And at Lake County, medals were eschewed altogether as the competition switched strictly to a point system. That is, judges were to assign each wine a value up to 100 points. Though the results are being reported in terms of points only, judges were mindful that 90 to 100 points was the equivalent of a classroom "A," or gold medal, while 85 to 89 points represented a "B" grade, or silver medal, and 80 to 84 points amounted to a "C," or bronze medal.
At most wine competitions, judges sit on panels that get to taste just a fraction of the wines entered. At Lake County, however, they did something else novel. Director Ray Johnson arranged the format so all judges got to taste all 146 wines, though not simultaneously. Two panels of five judges each were convened. Each panel came to a consensus on how many points should be awarded each wine, and their results subsequently were reconciled to come to one average score per wine. Under this format, the debates that ensued at the end of each flight seemed to take longer than they do when arguments focus on whether a wine deserves a bronze medal or a silver. At times, I found myself wondering whether mental fatigue from adding and subtracting all those numbers, then discussing whether a wine should get 83 points or 85, might be as distracting to concentrated wine evaluation as palate fatigue.
As I look over the results, I'm not sure whether wine consumers and Lake County vintners are better served by assigning points instead of medals. We ended up giving a lot of wines between 80 and 89 points, and consumers tend not to get excited by a wine if it scores anything less than 90 points. Furthermore, in at least two classes the overall results this year aren't as impressive as they were last year, when Lake County held its first modern commercial wine competition. Sauvignon blanc, for example, is a variety by which Lake County long has done exceptionally well. Last year, of the 21 sauvignon blancs that were judged, four got gold medals. This year, of the 20 sauvignon blancs judged, just one scored 90 or more points, the equivalent of a gold medal. Petite sirah is another variety for which Lake County historically has been recognized. Last year, five of the 13 petite sirahs in the competition got gold medals. This year, two of the 12 petite sirahs that were judged scored 90 or more points. Tougher judges this year? Weaker wines? Or did using points instead of medals somehow affect the perception or commitment of judges?
The competition formally is known as the People's Choice Wine Awards. The 10 judges who assembled at Langtry Estate and Vineyards in Middletown merely whittled the field of 146 entries to a more manageable 56 that consumers will be able to taste blind and vote on during a Sept. 26 tasting at Six Sigma Ranch & Winery in Lower Lake. Tickets for that event are $25 in advance, $35 at the door, and are available online here.