I’ve judged wines professionally. I’ve sat on blind tasting panels and swirled, sipped, and spat my way to wine evaluation zen. But no competition tests your palate or has quite the consumer influence like the Chronicle Wine Competition does. The annual event is the largest competition of American wines in the world.
The competition, backed by the likes of Target, has humble roots at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair in Cloverdale, California. It began in 1982 when a small but dedicated group of wine industry insiders sat around a table in the upstairs room of the fairgrounds office, tasting and judging local wines out of brown paper bags.
Today, and specifically, this January, the competition received record-breaking entries: More than 4,900. So, when executive director Bob Fraser of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department shot me an email a few months ago asking me to be one of the judges, I got my editor’s blessing and jumped at the chance.
In total, I judged 353 wines in three days alongside an exceptional panel. They included: Berkeley wine writer and educator Derek Schneider; Ellen Landis, owner and sommelier of Landis Shores Ocean Front Inn in Half Moon Bay; Jill Ditmire, Indiana-based Omnimedia Wine Specialist; and Carl Brandhorst, vice president of the Vinifera Wine Growers Association in Fairfax, Virginia. I learned a lot from them and enjoyed their company.
I was at once humbled, puzzled, and enlightened by the experience, and expect it will come up in my blog, column and stories to come. If you’re interested, here’s exactly what we judged: 16 semi-dry sparklers, 10 sweet sparklers, 76 white blends, 8 reds made from native grapes, 11 reds from hybrid grapes, 48 brut sparklers, 69 chardonnays in the $25-$29.99 range, 19 whites made from hybrid grapes, 45 dry roses, 42 tempranillo, and nine fruit wines.
And here’s a snapshot of the week:
1. There is a lot of negotiating in wine judging. Fellow panelist Derek Schneider explains it well in his post here about the judging process. In a nut shell:
Panelists sit in draped off rooms. We spend 10-15 minutes judging each flight of 12 wines or less. After we’ve tabulated our personal judgments – no award, bronze, silver, or gold – we go around the table and a volunteer writes our awards on a chalk board. In instances when a simple majority vote didn’t determine the final award, we would hash it out. And naturally, with something as subjective as wine, there was a lot of discrepancy. More than a few times, my Bronze would be another judge’s Gold. And vice versa. In these situations, the judge passionate about the wine would make a case for it to the group, and the judge who was weighing the team down with a weak award would often come up to a silver or gold. Sometimes, the opposite would happen, and a panelist’s evaluation of a bad wine would convince the rest of us to come down.
2. The lack of diversity in wine judging is troubling. Out of 58 judges from around the nation, I was one of 14 women and one of three people in their early to mid 30s. We were the youngest, I believe. There were two Asians judges. Everyone else was a white male over 50. This can’t be reflective of the North American wine drinking population.
3. I absolutely have to drink more fruit wines, particularly those from South Dakota’s Prairie Berry Winery. Everyone on my panel loved their sassy rhubarb wine.
4. Way more than 2 to 5 percent of wines are flawed. I’d put the number at 7 to 10 percent.
5. California Chardonnay can be compelling, exotic, and beautiful. My panel gave a double gold (meaning that all five of us gave it a gold medal) to a smoky, balanced, unctous Chardonnay.
6. Graber Olives out of Ontario are addictive. The buttery, meaty unbrined version served as the best palate cleanser I’ve ever had.
7. I am forever convinced. California makes some of the best sparkling wines in the world. Some are dead ringers for Champagne. Some are better, in my opinion.
8. Ag folks love telling jokes about goats. Goats and Minnesota.
9. There is a lot of hot malbec and one-dimensional muscat made in the United States.
10. Blind tasting many wines in one sitting is an exceptional way to fine tune your palate. And you don’t have to be a judge to do it. Anyone can. Make it easy. Just round up 20 bottles among your friends, some paper bags, and random, mismatched stemware. If you like wine, blind tasting will quickly illuminate what you love about it.