This has been a long and strange day, the first of two at the Pacific Rim International Wine Competition in San Bernardino. Some 1400 wines have been entered. They can be from any wine-producing area on any continent brushed by the Pacific Ocean. Panels of three or four judges each are trying to determine whether the wines deserve a gold, silver or bronze medal.
The panel on which I sit judged 137 wines. We were told the varietals, styles and vintages, but not the producers or the regions where the wines originated. Our classes included "non-vintage pinot noirs" and "2008 cabernet sauvignons under $20."
As the day progressed, several possible story themes developed, ranging from "do wine competitions really matter?" to "what was there about the vintage of 2008 that accounted for such a disappointing roundup of cabernet sauvignon?"
But for now, in keeping with the traditional positive impulse of wine writers, I'd rather ponder the significance of Class 359, otherwise known as "other white blends." We had 32 of them. In years past, this would have been seen as a kiss-off class, consisting largely of kitchen-sink wines - blends for which there was no purpose other than to market them under a catchy name and to hope that an audience materialized. Neither quality nor value was high on the list of steps to check off as they were made.
Customarily, "other white blends" has been a small class. Today, however, I first was impressed by the number of wines in the category. Then I was impressed by their range; they not only represented daring mixes of grape varieties - riesling and chardonnay, anyone? - they showed that wineries throughout the United States and beyond recognize the power and pleasure that can be delivered by blends, and thus are striving to come up with fresh and authoritative combinations. In short, this was the most provocative and uplifting class of the day.
Of the 32 wines, six got gold medals. One of them was our only double-gold medal of the day. (A double-gold medal is awarded when judges agree unanimously at the outset, without discussion, that a particular wine is worthy of gold.)
I won't know the identities of the wines until after the competition. Of this, however, I am confident: The gold-medal wines are as likely to be from Missouri, New York or even Pennsylvania as well as California. I find that both comforting and amusing. The United States not only now consititutes a wine-drinking culture, it is showing that wine can spring from a wide range of settings.