Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Nuggets Weren't Necessarily From Local Paydirt

When the El Dorado County Fair gets under way in Placerville on June 14 the theme will be "The Grapest Show on Earth." That apparently means that the county's varied and vibrant wine trade will be the focus of promotions, contests, displays, shows and the like. However, that isn't exactly how things played out at one of the fair's early events, its commercial wine competition, convened on the Placerville fairgrounds about two weeks ago.

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
 Whatever the rationale of El Dorado County Fair officials, the effect has been to lessen the significance and relevance of the competition results. The winner of this year's sweepstakes, for example, was a Rhone-inspired blend with a California appellation, made by a Livermore winery. It says nothing of El Dorado County. Furthermore, just 150 cases were made. The chance that any of that wine is available in El Dorado County is remote.

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.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

You Say Cinsaut, I Say Cinsault

On the drive home from Lodi, I had an imaginary conversation with the esteemed British wine writer Jancis Robinson.

I started it: "Sorry you missed that."

Jancis: "And what would that be?"

Me: "A tasting of wines from what may be the oldest cinsaut vineyard in the world."

Jancis: "Seriously? Wouldn't that be in France, Algeria or South Africa?"

The Turley portion of Bechthold Vineyard
Me: "You'd think so, but evidence suggests it's in upstart California, and at Lodi of all places. It's believed to have been planted in 1885 or 1888 by Joseph Spenker, a German immigrant who struck out in his search for gold in the nearby Sierra foothills but subsequently made a killing by providing prospectors with provisions. As he settled into Lodi, he first grew wheat, then wine grapes. The vines certainly look old - dark, short, gnarly, propped up with supports here and there, but thriving with spring growth. Until about a decade ago, however, the folks who own the vineyard, Al and Wanda Bechthold, didn't know it was planted to cinsaut. They thought the grapes were black malvoise. Whatever, demand for the fruit has been growing in recent years. Al Bechthold recalls getting only $45 per ton for the grapes, and as recently as a decade ago the fruit was selling for just $250 a ton. Today, it's going for $2,000 the ton, and no fewer than half a dozen highly regarded winieries, including Scholium Project, Michael David, Jessie's Grove, Bonny Doon and Turley, have their own designated sections of the vineyard.

Jancis: "Well, I've never been much of a fan of cinsaut. Oh, it's OK as a blender, bringing color, perfume, acidity and a bit of character to grenache and carignane, but on its own it has a rather meaty, chunky sort of flavor, uncomfortably suggestive of dogfood to some. In their youth they can be charmingly fruity, but otherwise they're unremarkable."

Me: "Dogfood? Dried or canned?"

Jancis: "Don't get smart with me."

Me: "Sorry, I just don't know what dogfood tastes like. I certainly didn't taste anything in today's wines that I'd associate with dogfood. They tended to be meaty, yes, but also floral, fruity, broad, plush and spicy. They were different. I don't think anyone would confuse any of them with cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel or merlot, let alone dogfood. They were husky, but the tannins seemed to shatter and fade when you put the wine in your mouth. They fell on the agile side of the athletic scale rather than the muscular."

Jancis: "I beg your pardon, but I can't recall any cinsaut with the individuality or class of, say, even a syrah. But I'll give you this - cinsaut can yield an excellent rose."

Vineyard owners Wanda and Al Bechthold
Me: "Agreed. That's what kicked off the tasting, an assortment of roses in which cinsaut played a supporting role with the likes of carignan, grenache, mourvedre and syrah. Just about any of them could give the acclaimed roses of Provence a run for their money. They were just as bright, fresh and wiry, their dry fruitiness and crisp finish the perfect accompaniment for ceviche or some other light summer appetizer."

Jancis: "Fine, but I just don't see cinsaut as a dark stand-alone table wine. Look at its history: It's a grape cultivated mainly for the large crops it can produce and for the high sugar levels it yields. In California, they might as well just plant more zinfandel."

Me "I'm not getting through to you. These wines were different and impressive. Few red varietals have the forward floral fragrance of the cinsauts we tasted. And I'm talking of the dark table wines, not the roses, which were, understandably, more delicate. The reds also carried an herbal current in smell and flavor. They were peppery more often than not. They occasionally suggested cranberries or rhubarb. And while earthy, they generally weren't over-the-top with alcohol, sugar or oak. These were wines to get excited about."

Old vine, new growth
Jancis: "I'm not convinced. Isn't Lodi known for its table grapes? Maybe that's what they should do with their cinsaut, market it as a table grape rather than a wine grape. Or let it get lost in blends dominated by something more noble, like cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir."

Me: "I think I know your problem. In France and elsewhere cinsaut often is spelled c-i-n-s-a-u-t. In California, on the other hand, it almost invariably is spelled c-i-n-s-a-u-l-t. Get it? In contrast to the vignerons with whom you are familiar, California vintners just might know what the "L" they are doing."

(Footnote: Jancis Robinson's fanciful comments here were inspired by her serious appraisal of cinsaut in her books "Vines, Grapes and Wines" and "The Oxford Companion to Wine.")

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Renwood Stretches Its Wings

For nearly a year, the new owners of Renwood Winery in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley have remained pretty mum on their plans for the site. Early on, however, they did indicate that they would continue Renwood's long commitment to vineyard-designated zinfandels.

They didn't indicate, however, that they'd be going to at least one region far from the foothills for zinfandel, nor that their plans to raise the varietal's stature would involve selling it for $100 a bottle.

The cat slipped out of the bag, however, at Friday's El Dorado County Fair commercial wine competition in Placerville. Two of the four wines up for best red wine in one of the final rounds of the voting turned out to be a Renwood zinfandel. When the bottles were unveiled, the Renwood bore a handsome new label, but more provocative was the appellation on the label: Dry Creek Valley, which is in Sonoma County. Up to now, Renwood, as far as I can recall, has relied on fruit from the Sierra Foothills, Amador County in particular. Even more startling was the suggested retail price of the wine, $100, according to fair officials.

Jamie Lubenko, Renwood's newly hired marketing and communications director, confirms that the winery's expanding lineup includes "a few Dry Creek designates." She adds: "And yes, we do have wines in our portfolio that will retail near $100." Renwood's new package and new wines won't be released until June or July, to be followed by a new tasting room in August. Despite the allure of Dry Creek Valley zinfandel, Renwood, noted Lubenko, isn't retreating from its focus on Amador County grapes. "I will briefly say that we are extremely committed to this region and Renwood’s future as a premier zinfandel house."

At El Dorado, the ripe, juicy and rigid Renwood 2010 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel lost out in voting for best red wine to the spirited and complex Thomas Coyne Winery 2010 California Quest, a proprietary blend that included such traditional Rhone Valley varieties as grenache, mourvedre and syrah. Quest, which sells for a suggested retail price of $15, went on to be named the competition's overall best wine.

About a year ago, Ren Acquisition Inc., a privately held company chaired by Alejandro Pedro Bulgheroni, an Argentine whose wealth was built largely on oil and gas exploitation, purchased Renwood for about $7 million.

Friday, May 18, 2012

New Zealand Pinot Gris: Coming On Strong

I spent $62 yesterday for an Amtrak trek to San Francisco and didn't get to see Matt Cain throw a single pitch. When I disembarked along the Embarcadero I turned north, not south toward AT&T Park, and made my way to Fort Mason, where a bunch of New Zealand vintners were showing off their wines. A few struck out there, too, but overall there were more hits than errors, something you can't always count on at a Giants game.

By now, we all know that New Zealand is quite capable of producing exceptionally assertive sauvignon blanc. (Coincidentally, I spent my time on the train reading "Empire of the Summer Moon," and am tempted to compare what New Zealand sauvignon blanc does to your palate to what the Comanches did to scalps, but I won't.)

Thus, I was interested primarily in exploring other varietals, especially pinot gris, which while not my favorite white wine is rising more sharply in plantings and exports than even riesling, the other green grape on which New Zealand vintners have been counting to raise the country's standing for fine wine.

So why does pinot gris from New Zealand seem to be quickly but quietly developing a following? Price certainly isn't the answer. The 10 I tasted were in the $16 to $23 range on the U.S. market, pretty stiff for a varietal still gaining traction here, especially when it's from an area not closely associated with the varietal.

The 10 I tasted didn't really explain the varietal's growing popularity, other than that they were consistently clean and finely structured. They also suggested that pinot gris from New Zealand tends to be slightly richer than interpretations from California, Oregon, Alsace and other established sources for the varietal. Pinot gris, incidentally, is the same as pinot grigio, though examples from New Zealand invariably are labeled pinot gris.

At any rate, no one style of pinot gris is emerging from New Zealand. That reflects both the country's varied topography and climate and its tradition of independent-minded vintners. The wines ranged from the lithe to the lumbering, from the simple to the complex. By and large, they were clear and friendly, finishing with cool-climate flintiness. They could be as assertive and as juicy as fully ripe apricots, as teasing and tangy as a squirt of lime juice.

I came away with several favorties:

- Waimea Estates 2009 Nelson Pinot Gris ($20): One of the more substantial takes on pinot gris at the tasting. Both brand name and wine come from the Waimea plains of the Nelson region at the northern reaches of the south island. It's warmer there than Martinborough and Marlborough to the east, but still cool. Assistant winemaker Martin Carrington says he shoots for an Alsatian style of pinot gris, meaning he's looking for a take that is slightly richer, fuller bodied, more concentrated and somewhat sweeter than usual. Here, he hit the bullseye, crafting a fruity and hefty but nonetheless direct pinot gris, with enough acidity to continually refresh the palate whenever a sauced seafood dish is on the menu.

- Astrolabe Wines 2011 Marlborough Pinot Gris ($23): Another substantial pinot gris, but also not at all cumbersome. You get an apricot and peach smoothie that is fruity and refreshing, not sweet and thick. The name "Astrolabe," incidentally, is taken from an old instrument used in astrology and navigation. It's also the name of a reef just off New Zealand where a container ship got grounded last fall and eventually broke apart early this year. One of the nearly 90 containers that plunged into the ocean contained about 1,000 cases of Astrolabe wine.

- Distant Land Vintners 2011 Marlborough Pinot Gris ($16): Marlborough, the south-island region celebrated for lean and racy sauvignon blanc, is capable of producing similarly athletic pinot gris, as shown by this firm and steely interpretation. In one corner of the room that housed yesterday's tasting, a representative of Hog Island Oyster Co. was shucking small yet vibrant sweetwater oysters, the perfect accompaniment for this crisp style of pinot gris.

- Mt. Beautiful Wines 2011 North Canterbury Pinot Gris ($18): More peach fuzz than peach flesh, but nonetheless intriguing and lasting. A touch of beguiling spice set it apart from most other takes on the varietal. If the dinner table is to be set with pasta primavera, this should be the wine alongside the dish.

- Staete Landt Family Estate 2010 Marlborough Rapaura Pinot Gris ($23): The most unusual pinot gris at the tasting. Unlike most of the others, which were fermented and stored solely in stainless-steel tanks, this one was fermented in large oak casks, giving it a creamy texture suggestive of a lot of California chardonnay. Ruud Maasdam, the owner and winemaker of Staete Landt, says he ferments pinot gris in oak because he likes the "gooey texture" it gives the wine while helping "blow off" alcohol and add complexity. The wine is that, all right, as well as dry, medium-bodied and with the ample fruit and intriguing spice to make it an ideal companion for a rich fish dish.

Friday, May 11, 2012

They Love Jeff Runquist Wines In The Southland

Judges get started on another round
Story lines to emerge from the 31st annual Riverside International Wine Competition, which ended Thursday afternoon in Temecula Valley as judges wrapped up two days of evaluating nearly 2,000 wines:

- Amador County's Jeff Runquist retained his crown as perhaps California's most honored winemaker. His robust and lively Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Amador County Dick Cooper Vineyards Barbera ($26) emerged as the competition's best red wine. Just a couple of weeks ago, the same wine was crowned best red wine at the Pacific Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino. At Riverside, the barbera competed for top red-wine honors with another Runquist wine, the unusually complex Jeff Runquist Wines 2010 Lodi Silvaspoons Vineyard Touriga Nacional ($24). In the final tally, the barbera gathered 25 votes, the touriga, which finished third, got 22. In second spot with 23 votes was the juicy and persistent Davis Bynum Winery 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($35). In all, 21 red wines were up for best-of-show consideration. For the sweepstakes round at Riverside, judges can vote for as many or as few of the nominees as they want. I voted for the barbera, the pinot noir and the bacony and sappy Gatt Wines 2010 Barossa Valley Shiraz ($55). Judges taste the wines blind, not knowing producer or price. Runquist wines won four other gold medals and eight silver medals for a staggeringly consistent showing through his extensive portfolio. The only question now is whether any of his most highly acclaimed barbera will be available to be poured at the second Barbera Festival coming up June 9 in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley.

- Korbel Champagne Cellars of Guerneville in Sonoma County also turned in an impressive performance, winning two of the five sweepstakes awards. The feathery Korbel California Brut Rose ($11) was elected the best sparkling wine over four other nominees, while another Korbel label, the lean, spicy and cherry-accented Valley of the Moon 2011 Sonoma Valley Rosato di Sangiovese ($14) was voted best rose over two other nominees. What's more, two other Korbel wines won rare unanimous gold medals in the judging's earlier rounds, its Kenwood Vineyards 2011 sauvignon blanc from Sonoma County and its Kenwood Vineyards 2011 Moscato Zacchera with a California appellation.

- I've got to add Canada's Okanagan Valley to the list of wine regions I need to visit, right after Sicily. And not just for the classic complexity of the competition's best white wine, the Wild Goose Vineyards 2011 Okanagan Valley Mystic River Dry Gewurztraminer ($23), but also for another candidate up for sweepstakes, the substantial but finely balanced Joie Farm 2011 Okanagan Valley Dry Muscat ($23). Several other Okanagan Valley wines also performed especially well through the judging. Joie Farm, incidentally, also won the competition's Terroir Award, given the winery that "displays the best regional character in its wines."

- Riverside prides itself on the diversity of wines it attracts and recognizes, with proportionally more varietals, more styles and more regions represented than perhaps any other competition. This was most evident in the white-wine sweepstakes, in which 17 wines competed. For example, in addition to voting for the Wild Goose gewurztraminer and the Joie Farm muscat, I cast votes for the assertive Huia Vineyards Hunky Dory 2011 Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($15), the Old Bridge Cellars Kilikanoon 2009 Clare Valley Mort's Block Riesling from Australia ($20), the elegant and accessible Chateau Ste Michelle 2011 Columbia Valley Dry Riesling from Washington state ($9), and the luxurious and long Thirsty Owl Wine Company 2011 Finger Lakes Diamond from New York ($10).

- Best dessert wine was the honeyed Arrowhead Springs Vineyards 2009 Niagara River Late Harvest Vidal Blanc ($20), though I was more partial to the Galleano Winery Cucamonga Valley Angelica ($33), a long, viscous and layered (chocolate, coffee, plums, nuts) interpretation of a California antique.

The Riverside International Wine Competition, incidentally, has a comprehensive and easily searchable website where wine enthusiasts can look up how specific wineries fared in the judging.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Russian River Valley Pinot Noir? You Bet

Though not his intention, Dan Berger, director of the Riverside International Wine Competition now under way in Temecula Valley, has added an exciting new angle to judgings: Side bets.

For the first time this year, classes of wine are arranged by region of origin as well as by varietal and vintage. For example, all chardonnays from the Russian River Valley in 2010 are being evaluated as a group rather than being mixed in with chardonnays from various other appellations.

Berger is calculating that this technique will result in a higher proportion of gold and silver medals because wines of a type will be judged in a more equitable context. That remains to be seen. I'm more excited by the new format because it addresses the matter of terroir, the theory that the first obligation of wine is to faithfully represent a sense of place, the definition of which is open to all sorts of interpretation. What the new procedure has to say of terroir also remains to be seen.

As usual, judges don't know the identity of the wines they judge, beyond varietal or style and vintage. We only are told the identity of the regional origin of the wines in a class after we have reached our conclusions and awarded medals. This is where the side bets come into play. Before the appellation of origin is revealed, judges of a panel can speculate about the regional source of the wines in the class just evaluated, and then find out whether they were correct or mistaken. When the panel on which I sit finished judging a class of 14 pinot noirs from 2010, for example, a fellow panelist said he thought the wines were from California's Santa Maria Valley in Santa Barbara County. I thought they were from Russian River Valley in Sonoma County. We bet a bottle of wine with a value of about $20. Tomorrow, I need to remind him of my shipping address.

Beyond that, what did we learn by today's exercise? For one, aside from the opportunity to wager, the dividing of wines into smaller classes seemed to help to keep interest high in the task at hand. Our panel judged 53 chardonnays and 59 pinot noirs, nearly all from the harvest of 2010. That's a lot of wines, but at the end of the day I don't feel as spent as is often the case after such a trial. I'm thinking that maybe breaking what ordinarily would have been large classes into a series of smaller and potentially more cohesive classes may have helped us retain our focus.

Most of the wines we tasted were from California. And most were from 2010, a challenging vintage in much of the state. That showed in several of the classes. Of the 15 chardonnays from Russian River Valley, for example, just two got gold medals. None of the three from Sonoma Coast got gold. Ditto for the five from Mendocino County.

The single most exciting class we judged consisted of eight pinot noirs, all from the 2010 vintage. We gave five of them gold medals. Four of the five were from the Carneros appellation at the southern reaches of Napa and Sonoma. The fifth was from Napa Valley, though the grapes for the wine also might well have been grown in Carneros. In short, Carneros may have eluded the weather-related challenges that other districts faced in 2010.

Tomorrow our panel wraps up with petite sirahs and merlot-dominant blends, followed by the sweepstakes round.

My fellow panelists, incidentally, are Wes Hagen, vineyard manager and winemaker at Clos Pepe Estate in the Santa Rita Hills at Lompoc; Ann Littlefield, a Napa wine consultant; and Marcus Garcia, sommelier at the San Francisco restaurant Fleur de Lys. This photo, by the way, is of the overall conference room at South Coast Winery & Spa where the competition is being held.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Gold Rush In States Not Named California

Viognier from Virginia, Texas and elsewhere
Five or so years ago, the president of a prominent and popular Northern California winery piped up when conversation around the table turned to wines from other states. "They're terrible," was his blunt and surprising assessment. End of conversation, as far as he was concerned. Clearly, he hadn't traveled about the U.S. much, or if he had he'd kept on his California blinders, refusing to see that while wines made in other states might be different they aren't necessarily terrible.

I don't travel much about the U.S. myself, but I get to judge at several wine competitions that attract entries from thoughout the nation, and I've got to tell you, the range and refinement of wines being produced in other states looks to be accelerating faster than even in California. That Washington, Oregon and New York can produce exceptional wines is widely acknowledged, but states often seen as dependent on California and Europe for something decent to drink - Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa, Texas, etc. - are showing themselves capable of making some mighty fine homegrown wines.

Often, winemakers in other states work with grape varieties far different than what is found in California. They're apt to be grapes native to the North American continent rather than Europe. Or they could be hybrids created to thrive in the sort of heat, cold and humidity generally not an issue in California. Sometimes, they aren't made with grapes at all, but other fruits.

Stylistically, they frequently are more than just a little sweet. In part, that's an indication of how grapes and other fruits in other parts of the country best express themselves. Also at play is that residents of the nation's interior seem to have more of a sweet tooth than residents along the east and west coasts, though that's a long-held view open to question, especially now that sweet wines are finding an openly receptive audience along both the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Dryness and sweetness aside, what's important in wines regardless of where they are from is the pleasure and interest they deliver. Are they alluring? Are they refreshing? Are they balanced? Do they offer an intensity that invites you back for another taste, and more after that? If you routinely drink California wines, such as chardonnay and zinfandel, a "marechal foch" from Wisconsin or a "norton" from Missouri initially may startle you. Give it another sip. You just may find something in the glass that grows on you, in a pleasant way.

This afternoon, I head out for the Riverside International Wine Competition in Temecula Valley. Over the past decade, the Riverside judging has stood apart from other competitions for the willingness of judges to award gold medals and other high honors to wines made with obscure grape varieties from settings not often identified with fine wine. Whether that distinction continues with this year's results won't be known until later this week, but one thing for sure is that Riverside no longer is alone in acknowledging how vibrant and polished the wine trade is in other parts of the country.

And the willingness, even eagerness, of judges to pay high tribute to wines from other states isn't limited to releases made with such novel grape varieties as "traminette" and "diamond." Wines made in other states with such popular mainstream varietals as gewurztraminer and viognier also are collecting honors. At the recent Pacfic Rim Wine Competition in San Bernardino, the panel on which I sat judged an astonishing class of pinot blanc. Of the six wines, we gave gold medals to three, an exceptionally high percentage for any class of wines. Afterwards, when the identities of the wines were revealed, I was even more astonished. Not one of the six was from California, where pinot blanc long as been a popular variety, though not as popular today as it was 20 years ago. Two of the three gold medals went to wines from Michigan; the third went to a wine from Okanagan Valley in Canada. The other entries were from Canada and New York.

And at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition early this year, the sweepstakes white wine was a gewurztraminer from the Finger Lakes district of New York, winning that honor over 21 other candidates.

Judges no longer look to be intimidated by the old standard that an exceptional wine that isn't a dessert wine must be dry, or without noticeable traces of residual sugar. At the recent Pacific Rim Wine Competition, for example, the sweepstakes white was a "niagra" with seven percent residual sugar from upstate New York, while the sweepstakes rose was a sweet blush made from "marechal foch" grown in Wisconsin.

The rise of acclaimed winemaking in other states is no threat to California, which dominates the domestic wine industry and continues to expand. Wineries in Colorado, Florida, Idaho and elsewhere tend to be small, with their wines generally distributed within their immediate area. It's actually unfortunate that only a few of them ever can be found in California wine shops and on California wine lists. If they were, even that outspoken winery president likely would agree to rescind his blanket condemnation of wines from other states.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Sobering Results From A Wine Test

Wines lined up to be judged at Pacific Rim
I so enjoy tasting wines blind with fellow enthusiasts that I generally jump at a chance to judge at a commercial wine competition. Thus, in recent years I've judged at about a dozen competitions annually. Maybe it's the Libra in me, but to judge wines of a type without knowing who made them is the most impartial way to discover a wine that might have a story to tell.

Yet, several aspects of wine competitions concern me. Near the top of the list is palate fatigue and alcohol absorption. Constant exposure to all the elements in wine is bound to tire a person's tastebuds. Judges take pains to refresh their palate, from repetitive rinsing with water to nibbling on the likes of bread and olives. Beyond that, wine competitions generally are blithely unconcerned about determining when a judge hits the wall. One of wine's more potent elements, naturally, is alcohol. Though judges spit every wine they taste, some alcohol is bound to be absorbed by the body. Competitions recognize this; thus, for the most part they provide judges with transportation to and from the venue where panels are housed.

To my knowledge, little research has been undertaken to gauge how the number of wines a judge evaluates and how much alcohol he or she assumes affects their perception, but strictly by my own observation I've developed a theory: When judges evaluate large classes of a wine of a type they get both so tired and so comfortable that they progressively award more gold medals. In other words, entries at the tail end of a class stand a better chance of winning gold medals than those near the front.

To put this theory to a rudimentary test, I'm tracking the pace of gold medals awarded in the larger classes of wine I help judge at competitions this year. After tasting at three larger competitions so far, this is what I've found: The rate at which gold medals are awarded through the course of judging a class of wine varies so little as to be statistially insignificant. If judges are tight in awarding gold medals at the start of a class, chances are they will be just as tight - so to speak - at the end. And vice versa. In short, my theory isn't holding up. If anythng, the opposite could be happening; that is, more gold medals may be handed out earlier than later.

Let's look at the evidence:

- On the first day of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at Cloverdale in January, I was on a panel that judged 98 zinfandels priced between $20 and $24.99. By the end of the class, we'd awarded seven gold medals. When the total number of entries are divided into quarters, two gold medals each were awarded in the first, second and third quarter, just one in the fourth. This could suggest that judges do get tired and perhaps less attentive by the end of a class. But on the second day of the competition, our panel judged 97 red wines made with grapes customarily grown in France's Rhone Valley; each was priced more than $20. We awarded nine gold medals - one in the first quarter of the entries, five in the second quarter, none in the third, and three in the fourth. This uneven and inconclusive pattern continued on the third day. First, our panel judged 58 rose wines, awarding seven gold medals, four in the first half, three in the second. The same day we judged 47 merlots priced between $30 and $39.99; we awarded two gold medals in the first half, four in the second. Three of the gold medals were awarded in the fourth-quarter alone, including our only double-gold wine, and it was for the very last wine of the session, so maybe there's something to my theory after all, though I'm unpersuaded. In sum, we gave a total 39 gold medals over three days, 19 of them in the first half of the classes, 20 in the second.

- On the first day of the Dallas Morning News and TexSom Wine Competition in February, our panel judged 45 cabernet sauvignons, all from Napa Valley. We gave nine gold medals - two in the first quarter, three in the second, one in the third and three in the fourth. Later, we judged 22 chardonnays, also all from Napa Valley. We gave five gold medals - one each in the first, second and fourth quarters, two in the third. After two days, we'd awarded 28 gold medals, 16 in the first half, 12 in the second.

- On the first day of the Pacific Rim Wine Competition at San Bernardino last week, our panel judged 106 wines split among several relatively small classes. We gave 16 gold medals, four each in each quarter. The second day we judged a single class of 33 blended white blends. They varied widely in varietal or style, but a third won gold medals - four in the first quarter, three each in the second and third, one in the fourth, which could be interpreted to suggest that judges got weary and distracted as the day progressed. But then again, let's not forget that the wines in this class were diverse, and perhaps the final quarter was made up of an unusually weak section.

At this point, at any rate, I'm not about to draw any conclusions about palate fatigue and alcohol absorption. The evidence just isn't there to suggest that they affect perception, at least in the rate by which gold medals are awarded. Overall, by quarter, the fewest number of gold medals were awarded in the fourth - 21. This compares with 26 in the first, 24 in the second and 23 in the third. The rate drops, yes, which does seem to suggest that judges are...what? Less demanding? More demanding? Maybe the wines simply weren't as alluring. Beats me. The sample is just too small and the method too simple to mean much, but that at least gives me a reason to continue to accumulate data, which means tasting more wine. If this pattern is sustained, however, I see an opportunity for wine competitions eager to enhance their revenues; they could ask wineries for a surcharge on their entry fee to have their wine placed in the first quarter of a class. Stranger things have happened.