That evening, at a dinner also on the fairgrounds, all wines recognized with a gold medal earlier in the day were announced. As the list was recited, I heard the names of a whole lot of wineries from beyond El Dorado County. Increasingly, I got the uneasy feeling that more wines from outside the county got awards than those from El Dorado. That could say something of the quality of the county's wines. Or it could say something of the caliber of the judges. It just may say that more wines from outside the county were entered than were entered from within, a curious development for an institution created to showcase local attributes.
Over the weekend, I received from fair officials the complete list of the wines entered and the awards they received, if any. Out of nearly 500 wines, 67 were awarded gold or double-gold medals, the latter given whenever a panel unanimously concurs that a wine is as good as it gets. Of the 67 gold-blessed wines, just 15 bore the name of both an El Dorado County winery and an El Dorado County appellation. Seven more wines from El Dorado County wineries won gold, but the grapes that yielded the wines were from appellations that said nothing of the county. Of the 67 wines to hit paydirt, 44 were from wineries outside El Dorado County, and the wines bore the name of appellations beyond the county. Only one wine to win gold came from an outside winery but with an El Dorado appellation.
What's more, of the nearly 500 wines in the competition, fewer than half - 219 by my count - were from wineries in El Dorado County.
These figures raise a number of questions and can be interpreted in a number of ways, but one thing is clear: The El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition isn't a celebration of county wines or county grapes. The intent of a county fair is to highlight for locals and outsiders alike what the county is about, especially with respect to its agricultural traditions and evolution. The commercial wine judging at El Dorado isn't measuring up to that standard.
Once upon a time, the fair's focus was on the local wine trade, though if I remember correctly it's always been open to wines from throughout the Sierra foothills, as are fair competitions in neighboring Amador and Calaveras counties. Several years ago, in a move that was timely and savvy, the El Dorado competition opened itself to wines from small producers throughout the state, defined as a winery with a total annual output not to exceed 20,000 cases. It also distinguished itself by creating classes to recognize growing industry and consumer interest in wines made with grapes traditionally associated with France's Rhone Valley, which at the time were gaining momentum in El Dorado County. These moves helped set apart the El Dorado competition from other judgings, and generated buzz that drew attention not only to the winning wines but to the county generally.
Then, a couple of years ago, fair officials opened the competition to any and all wineries. Maybe the impetus was to acknowledge reality - wines available to residents of El Dorado County can come from anywhere these days. Maybe the impetus was economic - county fairs are struggling financially, and wine competitions generate revenues that almost invariably exceed costs.
|Top wine had no clear El Dorado association|
What's the El Dorado County Fair to do to regain its relevance, to show that the county has a vital and colorful wine industry, and to remain financially viable? It could go back to being a competition open to only wines made by wineries in the Sierra foothills or with grapes grown in the Sierra foothills. The competition's entry booklet this year says that at least 25 cases of any wine entered must be for sale currently; perhaps that could be tweaked to say that a minimum 25 cases must be for sale in El Dorado County during the run of the fair. The entry fee, incidentally, is $25 per wine, cheap by current standards of the competition circuit; if wines with no link to El Dorado County are eliminated, the entry fee could be raised. Boutique wineries with small production may complain, but maybe not when they recognize that the field has been recast and that a gold medal or other high award will bring them added prestige and, most likely, enhanced sales.
When I mentioned to an El Dorado County winemaker that maybe the fair should eliminate wines with no association to the county, he said the present arrangement gives local vintners an opportunity to see how their wines stand up to competitors from elsewhere. Fair enough, but that goal can be realized another way, though at a cost that the fair may not want to pay. In short, it would involve identifying, buying and rolling into some classes a wine considered a benchmark for the varietal or style. Judges wouldn't know its identity, and it wouldn't actually be awarded a medal. Immediately after the class in which it is entered, judges would be told the wine's identity and asked to jot down notes on how the local wines measured up in comparison. This feedback then would be given vintners with wines in the same class. A similar method has been used in a New York wine competition for years, apparently to the enlightened delight of the state's vintners.
In the long run, I'd like eventually to see a single wine competition dedicated solely to wines of the Sierra foothills, a merger, if you will, of the individual competitions now conducted in counties like El Dorado, Calaveras and Amador. Many of the same wines compete in all three judgings. Vintners likely would go for it, especially those who enter more than one of the existing competitions. Whether the county fairs are ready to embrace that kind of cooperation is another matter.