Thursday, January 27, 2011

From Oz, Answers For Ailing Aussie Wine Trade

Chris Hancock
When Americans began to catch the mighty wave of wine arriving from Australia a couple of decades ago, the board they often rode the longest and most gleefully bore the brand Rosemount.

Early on, no label was more effective at introducing Americans to the lush and forceful wines of Oz, especially chardonnay and shiraz. This was long before Yellow Tail sprang onto the American wine scene, remember.

Today, Australian wine has lost much of its cachet among Americans, for reasons that mystify even the most sagacious of the industry's observers, as Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer notes in this essay. Rosemount remains relatively popular in the American market, but it no longer generates the buzz it once did.

The two guys most responsible for Rosemount's early success also are still around and still making and marketing wine, though they no longer are affiliated with the brand, which passed from them to a series of corporations. They're Robert Oatley and Chris Hancock, both well past traditional retirement age but still charged with the conviction that Australian wine has a place on the American table.

Their vehicle for making that case is Robert Oatley Vineyards, nestled in the low and gentle hills of Mudgee, northwest of Sydney.

Chris Hancock, who makes the Robert Oatley wines, reprising his role at Rosemount, paused in Napa Valley not long ago to entertain a group of wine writers over dinner at Ken Frank's smart restaurant La Toque.

Hancock brought along several new and pending releases to show that the wines of Robert Oatley Vineyards represent another side of the Australian wine story. But before pouring them, he was asked why he didn't just pocket his money from the Rosemount sale and kick back at Robert Oatley's posh resort Qualia on Hamilton Island in the Great Barrier Reef. Why in 2006 did they start all over with an entirely new winery?

"It's in the blood," Hancock says. "What else are you going to do - sit on the beach and wait to die? I need to remain occupied, and what's better than to do something you do well? Besides, we have a bit of a history in the business, and we want to continue that legacy for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren. This is their heritage."

He and Oatley have no designs to repeat their immense success with Rosemount, though in just five years their annual production has hit 200,000 cases, with about a fifth of that exported to the United States.

As at Rosemount, Hancock's stylistic decisions focus on texture, flavor and balance. Now, as then, his wines are intended to be immediately accessible, true to varietal, and with a thrust that grabs the palate at the outset and keeps massaging it so endearingly that the diner returns eagerly for more.

That combination of accessibility and punch is what wine needs to keep attracting new customers, he believes. "Non-wine consumers tend to judge wine on the first taste. They don't judge on the bouquet, the nose," Hancock says. "Wine should deliver a hit of freshness in the front of the mouth, and then it should open up. You want to avoid green flavors, excessive tannins and too much acidity."

Australian wines could be languishing on the American market, he speculates, because much of what is being exported to the U.S. is perceived as "rich, heavy and high in alcohol."

"That's the antithesis of our style," Hancock says. "We want our wines fresh, bright, crisp and, above-all, food friendly."

Early on, he adds, Australian wines did tend to be richer and higher in alchol than what customarily was being found on the market. "They were almost syrupy," says Hancock. "That style was an instant hit, but it wasn't lasting, and now it deservedly is out of style. It was driven by one or two influential wine writers in this country. But now the Australian wine style is reverting back to being more food friendly. More thoughtful winemaking is going on right now."

Several other reasons could help account for the slip in esteem of Australian wine, he adds. Competition has intensified; Argentine vintners especially are making smart wines, Hancock says. In the United States, the economic recession, consolidation of distributorships, and the plunge in the value of the American dollar all have combined to complicate the prospects for Australian wines in the U.S., in particular Oz's smaller producers. "The U.S. has to stop printing money. A few years ago the Aussie dollar was worth half the U.S. dollar. Now we're almost at parity. This has made a lot of wine exporters look twice at their profitability."

But Hancock has been around long enough to see several economic booms and busts, and he's confident that the American economy will bounce back so strongly that the nation's wine enthusiasts will start to discover and embrace higher-priced boutique wines from Australia. "We're optimistic that the U.S. will resume its position as the economic powerhouse of the world. You have this great ability here to heal. We just want to be around when the good times come back," Hancock says.

In preparing for that day, the wines he is crafting at Robert Oatley represent a sharper and more graceful turn on the Rosemount model. Drinkability and authority still are evident in his signature, but the body is more buoyant, varietal flavors more distinct, acidity more refreshing. Today, he says, people are tending to eat lighter and fresher foods, filling their plates with a greater array of weights and flavors. He's tailoring his wines for that appetite. "You have to keep pace, or you get left behind," Hancock says.

"We're getting as much purity of flavor as we can from each varietal. We want recognizable varietal flavor in the same way that salmon tastes like salmon and beef like beef. It's a matter of making wines as focused as you can. We want to add another flavor to the table, but a flavor complementary and compatible," he says.

Where does terroir come into his equation? "One begets the other," he says. "It's getting the terroir right for the variety that gives you varietal character." Thus, while Mudgee is Robert Oatley's principal appellation, several of its wines carry appellations such as Mornington Peninsula, Margaret River, Great Southern and King Valley.

And with that, he took his seat and began to pour his wines. For starters, they included the lean and peachy Robert Oatley 2010 Great Southern Riesling, whose pointed acidity offset its modest residual sugar, and the broad and deep Robert Oatley 2010 Mudgee Gewurztraminer, whose unusually solid build and vibrant and persistent flavors of lychee nuts and rosewater were just the match for the warm lobster salad with roasted sweet potatoes that constituted the first course. The Robert Oatley 2009 Mudgee Chardonnay was a curious yet satisfying blend of older and more modern sensibilities in the handling of the varietal, at once ripe and toasty yet dry, taut and refreshing in the zest of its finish. While pinot noir isn't a varietal often associated warmly with Australia, the Robert Oatley 2009 Mornington Peninsula Pinot Noir was substantial enough in rich cherry flavors, solid structuring and generous oaking to pair delightfully with ravioli of chickpeas and ricotta in a broth of wild mushrooms and parmesan.

My other favorites were the highly aromatic, sweetly fruity and complicated (earth, herbs, chocolate) Robert Oatley 2008 Margaret River Cabernet Sauvignon, and the Robert Oatley 2009 King Valley Tempranillo, which for its inky color, ripe fruit, firm tannins and generous oak was a husky departure from the rest of the lineup. Both would have gone splendidly with the lamb loin and the carrot puree seasoned with cumin had not the meat been so salty.

Aside from the dinner, I've been impressed by several other Robert Oatley wines in recent months, including the racy 2010 Pemberton Sauvignon Blanc, which in the assertiveness of its grapefruit, cilantro and lime essence could as readily be from New Zealand as Australia; the bright and refreshing 2009 Mudgee Rose of Sangiovese, smelling of roses and tasting of strawberries; and even the coppery 2009 South Australia Pinot Grigio, which while lean in build and slow to open nevertheless rewarded the patient diner with clean fruit flavor and prickly acidity.

Robert Oatley wines, bottled with screwcaps, and widely distributed, generally are priced in the $15 to $20 range, though a few will be close to $30. Climb aboard for a different sort of ride on the Australian wave.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Barbera Bucks Into Zinfandel Territory

Darrell Corti's cryptic directions to Hank Cooper

I've told this story before, but I like it so much I'm telling it again. Besides, not only have four years elapsed since I most recently told it, the yarn continues to evolve, developing intriguing new nuances, just like wine.

The tale opens in the mid-1970s. Hank Cooper, a longtime walnut and prune farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County, invites some friends over to his ranch to share lunch. Cooper is thinking of getting back into growing grapes. He'd tended zinfandel during World War II, selling the fruit to the military for medicinal alcohol. When the war ended, the bottom fell out of the zinfandel market, and Cooper swore off the variety. Never mind that when he convened his luncheon gathering zinfandel was surging in popularity in the Shenandoah Valley. He'd made up his mind that he didn't ever want anything to do with the variety again, and that was that.

But what should he plant, he asked his guests, one of whom was Sacramento grocer Darrell Corti, who at that time was playing a pivotal role in the development of zinfandel in Amador County. Nonetheless, he understood Cooper's reluctance to jump onto the zinfandel bandwagon. As a consequence, Corti suggested that Cooper plant barbera and dolcetto. Cooper wasn't familiar with either variety. He asked Corti to jot down their names so he could look into them some more. When a piece of paper was slow to materialize, Corti pulled from his wallet a dollar bill and wrote "Barbera" and "Dolcetto" right next to George Washington's portrait.

Cooper appreciated the advice, and followed up by acquiring some barbera cuttings from Shenandoah Valley vintner Cary Gott of Montevina Winery (now Terra d'Oro Winery), who in 1971 was the first person in the area to plant the variety. Dolcetto, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as available, and even wines from its native turf in Piemonte weren't selling well, recalls Corti. Besides, dolcetto can be challenging both in growing and in making wine. "I told Hank that and he probably was put off by it. But it would have been difficult to get cuttings here in any event," says Corti.

Thus, Cooper ignored dolcetto but enthusiastically began to cultivate barbera. His heirs, most notably his son Dick, have been even more passionate about barbera. Dick Cooper not only has expanded his plantings of barbera on his Shenandoah Valley ranch over the past three decades, he's been responsible for providing advice, cuttings and grapes for most of the barbera grown and made in the Sierra foothills. This past fall, 35 tons of the 88 tons of grapes crushed at his eponymous winery were barbera. And twice out of the past four years barbera from Dick Cooper's vineyard has been largely responsible for the wines declared the best reds in the commercial wine competition of the California State Fair.

When I first wrote of the barbera buck four years ago, the dollar itself was missing. It had been stashed with other family heirlooms, then lost. Not long ago, however, the wrinkled bill was rediscovered. Chrissy Cooper, one of Dick Cooper's daughters, sent me the photo above. The dollar now should be pressed, framed and displayed in the tasting room at Cooper Vineyards, perhaps not far from copies of Dick Cooper's book, "Vineyard Development & Maintenance in Amador County."

Perhaps that can be arranged by June 11, when the first Barbera Festival will be held. Fittingly, it will be staged at Cooper Vineyards. (When plans for the festival first were announced last summer it was tentatively scheduled to be at Deaver's Amador Flower Farm, but since then it has been moved to the nearby Cooper spread.) Brian Miller and Deirdre Mueller of Fiddletown, who are pulling together the festival, report that about 60 California wineries with barbera in their portfolios have shown interest in participating. To keep abreast of festival developments, check out its website.

One winery sure to participate, naturally, is Cooper Vineyards, which likely will be pouring its 2008 Amador County Barbera ($25), a hefty yet sunny take on the varietal, juicy with bright red-fruit flavors, sweet and tender with American and French oak, and readily accessible for the suppleness of its tannins. It also packs 15.2 percent alcohol, which means, ironically, that it isn't likely to be found at Darrell Corti's grocery store in Sacramento, where table wines with more than 14.5 percent alcohol are an endangered species.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Clif Family Winery Bags A Peak

For the first time this year, the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition included a judging of wine labels. The winner was the dramatic black-on-white label of a wine marketed under the brand name The Climber. It shows a mountain climber rather casually yet confidently scaling a vertical rock formation that could be any of a number of sheer stone monoliths in Yosemite National Park. If the label suggests the packaging of the Clif Bar line of energy bars, which shows a climber similarly sweeping precariously across a rocky outcrop, there's a reason: The Climber is a brand of Clif Family Winery & Farm in Napa Valley, a branch of Clif Bar & Company in Berkeley.

I'm glad to see the Chronicle judging give some overdue attention to wine labels. Like any other wine enthusiast, I hesitate to say I'm occasionally persuaded to buy a wine by the balance, tension, color and so forth of its label, though I do. Beyond that, I simply enjoy trying to figure out what a winery is attempting to say by the design of its label. In the case of The Climber, the message seems pretty clear: Here's a wine for someone willing to take a risk, who enjoys the outdoors, and who appreciates nature at its most basic and direct.

Whether the wine in the bottle behind the label is equal to those aspirations, I can't say. I haven't tasted it. Judges at the Chronicle competition apparently were unexcited by the wine, which is the Clif Family Winery 2009 California Red Wine ($14), which they gave only a bronze medal. According to the winery's webiste, the wine is a blend of 63 percent zinfandel, 21 percent cabernet sauvignon, 12 percent syrah and 2 percent each of petite sirah and merlot. The grapes that went into the wine were grown in Mendocino County and Lodi.

Winery officials recommend that the wine be poured with any red meat, pasta in a spicy red sauce, and hearty fish dishes, suggesting that it has just the sort of muscularity and agility expected of a rock hopper hoping to live to a ripe old age. Curiously, they don't say a thing about serving the wine with organic brown rice, roasted soybeans, milled flaxseed, rolled oats or any other ingredient commonly used in Clif Bars. Maybe if that's what had been given judges to help revive their palates during flights the wine would have been awarded a gold medal.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Boutique Wineries Raise Paso's Profile

Paso Robles, which among California's wine regions has been hammering most insistently on the door of respectability over the past decade, saw it swing open in warm welcome earlier today. As the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition ended its four-day run in Cloverdale, judges named two wines from Paso Robles as the red-wine sweepstakes winner. Deadlocked for the honor were the Thacher Winery 2008 Paso Robles Triumverate ($36), an up-front zinfandel whose dark juicy flavors are backed with generous oak, and the lithe and finely modulated Ecluse Wines 2008 Paso Robles Lock Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($32).

What's more, a third Paso Robles wine, the honeyed and citric Alapay Cellars 2009 Paso Robles Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc ($30), was declared the best dessert wine in the competition. In all, seven wines from Paso Robles entered the sweepstakes round as best-of-class winners.

The only sweepstakes winners not from Paso Robles were the brassy Gloria Ferrer Champagne Caves 2006 Carneros Brut Rose ($42), declared the best sparkling wine; the pretty and fresh Bernard Griffin 2010 Columbia Valley Rose of Sangiovese ($12), the best pink wine; and the exceptionally fruity, floral and spicy St.Clair Winery New Mexico Gewurztraminer ($11), the best white wine.

A total 5,050 wines from 23 states were in the competition, the largest in the nation devoted solely to American wines. Eighty wines, all of which earlier had been named best-of-class, were tasted during the concluding sweepstakes round.

Wines from the Sacramento area named best of class were:

- The McManis Family Vineyards 2009 California Viognier ($11), an interpretation of the varietal that was all pure honeysuckle and peach in rare equilibrium.

- The sleek, supple and persistent McManis Family Vineyards 2009 California Petite Sirah ($11).

- The Michael-David Winery 2009 Lodi Incognito ($18), a pleasant blend of several varieties of green grapes customarily grown in France's Rhone Valley.

- The densely fruity and delightfully spicy Truckee River Winery 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45).

- The robust Oakstone Winery 2008 Fair Play Paso Vista Vineyard Higgins Clone Reserve Zinfandel ($18).

- The Bokisch Vineyards 2008 Lodi Clements Hills Terra Alta Vineyard Garnacha ($18).

- The juicy and licorice-accented Grant & Eddie 2008 North Yuba Ramey Vineyard Merlot ($27).

- The youthful and silky Idle Hour Winery 2007 Clarksburg Heringer Estate Tempranillo ($24).

A public tasting of wines from the competition will be at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco on Feb. 19. For complete results, information and tickets, visit the competition's website.

Kent Rosenblum Continues To Rock

After 30 years of running his eponymous winery at Alameda, Kent Rosenblum sold the brand two years ago but didn't leave the trade for long. Almost immediately, he teamed up with his daughter Shauna to establish Rock Wall Wines, also in Alameda, where he's the CEO, consulting winemaker and marketing manager. This week, he's been at Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County, judging at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

1) How long have you been judging wines? "Twenty-two years."

2) How many competitions did you judge the past year? "Three."

3) What are the strengths you bring to a panel? "My ability to detect problems in wine. My ability to detect beautiful wine. My ability to detect too much oak in wine. Mostly, I vote for something I love."

4) Any weaknesses? "I like rich, robust wines. The weaker red wines I tend not to appreciate much. That's why I don't often judge pinot noir and sangiovese."

5) Who benefits by competitions? "You have to hope that the consumer does, number one. Then the wineries. Wine competitions don't advertise the results enough, so wineries have to toot their own horns. So many competitions miss the ball in getting the word out about the results, especially to local newspapers. If a wine wins a sweepstakes award, why isn't that on the front page? There's a story there."

6) Other than that, how would you like to see wine competitions improved? "Here, the sweepstakes is ridiculous, with so many wines. Each day the panels should be deciding the very best wines to send up, so at the sweepstakes you have maybe 10 whites and 10 reds. We should have just one zinfandel or one cabernet sauvignon to consider at the sweepstakes, not several. My favorite wine has never won the sweepstakes, not that I'm the best judge."

7) Any surprises here? "The number of entries (more than 5,000). And the class of zinfandels priced $20 and under had some great values. They would have been in the $30 class two years ago. That's a sign that not enough wine (at higher prices) is being sold. And the cabernets in the $40 to $50 class were a little disappointing."

8) What do you most like to judge? "Zinfandel, because of the fruit, the aromas, the sexiness of it and its seductivity. It has it all. And I don't mind judging chardonnay, and the odd varietals like semillon."

9) What are the principal characteristics that a gold-medal wine should have? "Balance, great fruit, juicy body character and a long finish."

10) What advice do you have for aspiring judges to develop their palate? "Taste a whole bunch of wine and form an opinion. It's important to make a commitment and not get stuck in the middle. Judges give a lot of bronze and silver medals because no one is willing to take a stand for a gold medal or no medal at all. You might be wrong, you might be right, but it's important to express your opinion. The most important thing to remember is that it's your own palate."

Thursday, January 6, 2011

An East Coast Palate On The West Coast

At the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale this week, Marguerite Thomas sits on a panel that has judged syrah, zinfandel, petite sirah, sauvignon blanc and cabernet sauvignon. She lives in Baltimore, where she is a writer for Wine Review Online, a columnist for the trade magazine Vineyard & Winery Management, and the travel editor of the consumer magazine Wine News.

1) How long have you been judging wine? "Since the beginning of the earth, it seems, but probably closer to 15 to 20 years."

2) How many competitions did you judge this past year? "Four or five."

3) What are the strengths you bring to a panel? "My experience at judgings and tastings. I taste a lot of wine. I probably taste more kinds of wine than California-centric judges. I travel a lot. I live on the East Coast. My palate often differs sharply from other judges. I'm very critical of very sweet and very oaky wines. I like tasting unusual wines. I'm happy tasting hybrids, up to a point."

4) Do you have any weaknesses as a judge? "I'm always concerned about hitting the wall, which is when I suddenly can't taste. It happened this afternoon with the second-to-last flight of syrah. It's a panicky feeling, but you pause and then get over it."

5) Who benefits by competitions? "Retailers and wineries. One would like to think that consumers benefit, and maybe they do, because of the guidance provided. Judging isn't a perfect science, but competitions can offer some guidelines."

6) How would you like to see wine competitions improved? "I'd like to see them all pay an honorarium. It's a professional thing that should be done, and some do. An honorarium for judges would give competitions more credibility, and make them more professional. Secondly, while it's good to have a winemaker on each panel, at some competitions they have a real strong presence. They can be hard to judge with. They don't judge wine like normal people. They're looking for flaws, and too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

7) Any surprises here so far? "None. This is a really well-organized competition, with a really good staff. Ideally, I'd like to see red and white wines mixed up more. Your palate gets so fatigued when you judge so many wines of one style."

8) What do you most like to judge? "The things I don't get to taste a lot, oddball things like tannat and touriga, and anything I don't have to taste too much of, even chardonnay. That would be fine as long as there wasn't 200 of them."

9) What are the principal characteristics that a gold-medal wine should have? "The most important thing is balance. I don't care if a wine is high in alcohol or tannin, as long as it is balanced. And length is important. A lot of wines today were short. If a wine doesn't have length it isn't a gold-medal wine."

10) What advice do you have for aspiring wine judges to develop their palate? "I know a lot of professional and non-professional wine people who get together every month or so to taste. Each will bring a bottle of wine that isn't their own, then taste and discuss it. Get together with friends who also have this interest in wine. Organize the tasting by region, varietal or price. That's the simplest way to go about developing your own palate. And also read a book about basic wine appreciation. Kevin Zraly's book ("Windows on the World Complete Wine Course") is good."

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Rich Thomas: A Seasoned View

Rich Thomas at San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition
Rich Thomas, retired director of viticultural studies at Santa Rosa Junior College, is one of some 60 judges evaluating more than 5,000 American wines this week at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale in northern Sonoma County. After one stretch of judging, he agreed to play "10 Questions:"

1) How long have you been judging wine at competitions? "Thirty-one years."

2) How many competitions did you judge this past year? "None. I'm just getting back into it after some heart problems. Before, I was doing three or four a year."

3) What are the strengths you bring to a judging panel? "I represent the consumer. I've got consumer tastebuds. I'm looking for the good in a wine, not the bad. I'm looking for the enjoyment in a wine, not whether it is technically correct. I look for good drinkable wines. Look at those (65) zinfandels we judged today. There were some great wines there. Judgings today have very few unsuitable wines."

4) You have any weaknesses as a wine judge? "I don't have the words some wine judges have. When they say a wine 'smells like a Chinese whorehouse' or 'Boston harbor at low tide,' how do they figure that out?"

5) Who benefits by wine competitions? "Hopefully, the consumer. If not, the wineries, which could use the results as a learning experience. The results provide consumers with knowledge, wineries with publicity."

6) How would you like to see wine competitions improved? "I'd like to see competitions bring back the old retain or eliminate round. That is, on the first day a panel would taste wines and decide whether they should be eliminated from further consideration or retained for reconsideration the next day. Now, without that, panels are asked to judge too many wines in a day. That's why we end up with more medals. I think we should eliminate the dogs on the first day, then judge the better wines on the next day. If we did that, I think the results would be more consistent."

7) Any surprises so far in this competition? "Yes, the petite-sirah class. There's a lot more good petite sirah now than there has been in the past. They've really improved. We gave eight gold medals out of 48 petite sirahs."

8) What wines do you most like to judge? "Zinfandel and sauvignon blanc. I was born and raised in Sonoma County."

9) What are the principal characteristics that a gold-medal wine should have? "Accessibility in the nose, and then mouthfeel. Number one is the aroma. If it doesn't smell good it doesn't get a second chance. It has to have a very pleasant nose. You've got to want it. Then I don't want anything offensive in the mouth. It can't be too tannic. If it's entered in a wine competition it's got to be drinkable right now. We're not judging it on its potential. It better be drinkable now."

10) What advice do you have for people to develop their palates so they might judge wines at competitions? "If you live in this area, take some wine classes at the junior college. Get some basic knowledge and do some networking. Work in a tasting room, or volunteer to work in the back room at a competition. Work your way into it. And it helps to be in the right place at the right time."
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Monday, January 3, 2011

New Tool For Assaying The Gold

Here it is, the eve of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale, the first major judging of the new year. Over the next four days, some 60 judges will evaluate more than 5,000 wines, all American. I'd planned to spend the evening brushing up on tasting philosophy and methodology by reading "How to Taste Wine," a slim new book by the late Len Evans, an Australian vintner and writer credited by the "Oxford Companion to Wine" with doing more for "the cause of wine in Australia than any other individual."

But just as I was about to settle in with the book I got distracted by this Wine Spectator report about researchers who apparently have found a way to identify the variety of grape in a given bottle of wine. That is, they now have a method to show that a bottle labeled "zinfandel" is actually zinfandel. The test, developed by researchers at the University of Texas and the University of California, Davis, involves measuring tannins. The tannin of each variety of grape produces its own distinctive pattern, which can be revealed by the elaborate analysis used by the scientists, according to the report.

Though the application is in its infancy - the error rate hasn't yet been determined, for example - researchers already are boasting of its potential application. The analysis, for one, could assure wineries that when they buy bulk wine from another producer they are getting the variety they think they are purchasing, notes the article. Such analysis also could help prove whether valued old wines are authentic, not counterfeit. Maybe, but I'm a bit dubious. Pinot noir may be pinot noir, but not necessarily from a particularly cherished vineyard, or even a specific vintage. Duplicity still could be at work.

Nonetheless, I'm excited about another possible benefit of the test, though it wasn't mentioned in the report: Wine competitions theoretically could use it not only to verify that a sweepstakes winner is what it claims to be but that bottles of the wine that consumers subsequently buy have the same profile as the award winner. Competition directors wouldn't have to test every bottle on shelves, of course, just the major award winner and a few samples picked randomly in wine shops and grocery stores. If the tannin structure of the sweepstakes winner compares favorably with the tannin structure of the store samples, the findings of the judging would be reinforced, more or less. Aside from questions about whether this might be possible, is such verification even needed? Probably not; vintners and competition directors, I'm convinced, almost always are keen on playing on a level field. Yet, many consumers as well as many people within the wine trade are skeptical of the results of wine competitions. They wonder just how scrupulously they are conducted, how reliably their results are reached. This test, if itself is shown to be reliable, could be a step toward giving wine competitions more credibility. The year is young, but maybe before it is over some wine competition will step up and invite researchers at the University of Texas and UC Davis to apply their test to a judging's principal results, just to verify that the winning wine is what it purports to be, and is the wine that consumers also will be buying.