February 13, 2005


One of the key analytical tools for making Cider is your sense of smell and taste. With training, the average person can detect parts-per-million of the chemicals that affect flavor and aroma.

The same is true with Wine. The Sacramento Bee has a fun article about this.
The author J. Freedom du Lac is invited to judge at the 2005 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

Here is the link to the article at the Bee — they require “free” registration but you can use the website Bugmenot to get a username and password.

You be the judge
Does a first-time wine judge have the palate to sip with the big sniffers?

The competition hasn't even started when palate paranoia sets in.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m., an angular-faced guy in a white lab coat sitting to my right begins boasting about having power-tasted his way through nearly 200 wines in a six-hour period - and then having done the same thing the very next day.

I'm sure I didn't taste that many in all of 2003 and 2004, let alone over any two-day period, ever.

But whatever.

Right now, the focus is on quality - which, suddenly, I'm not so certain I can discern.

Sitting among so many enological experts with teeth that appear to be permanently stained a grapey purple color will do that to you.

It's the first day of the 2005 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition at the Cloverdale Citrus Fair building, and for some reason, I received an official invitation to participate in this thing.

It feels like interloping, given that I've never before judged in a wine competition.

And yet I'm about to help decide the medal-winning fates of a good many of the record 3,200 wines submitted for this competition - which, I'm told, is now the largest one for American wines.


The story is a lot of fun — some interesting characters at this event.

The rest of the article is available by clicking on the Continue reading “Tasting” link below.

Hat tip to the Vinography Blog for this link

Good thing I've seen “Sideways” and, therefore, know how to look the part of Serious Wine Taster.

You know: Swirl. Sniff. Sip. Gaze skyward while getting a Deep Thoughts look. Spit.

Rinse. Repeat.

“It's like I tell my customers: It's whatever you like,” says Kristi Mohar, wine buyer for Fiesta Market, a grocery in nearby Sebastopol. “It's just grape juice, if you think about it.”

Mohar is trying to make me feel better, having learned just moments ago that I'm a wine competition virgin.

It works, kind of.

I can do this, I'm now telling myself.

I know from bad boxed wine.

My self-trained palate sits on the right side of the American average.

Then the meeting starts, the introductions are made, and I realize that I'm well out of my league.

But it's too late: I'm now committed to tasting 71 chardonnays before lunch - and to comparing my dubious notes and ratings with two professional wine critics, the wine-savvy owner of Sacramento's Italian Importing Co. and a retired viticulture professor who has a wine bacterium named in his honor.

Though rarely said out loud, the sole purpose of wine competitions - of which there are dozens annually in the United States - is to offer an assist to the $20 billion domestic wine industry.

Some consumers, you see, need a reason beyond a pretty label to buy a particular bottle - and a “Double Gold Medal” sticker on the store shelf apparently can help make that happen.

Jess Jackson, who lords over the Kendall-Jackson wine empire, even credits a silver medal with helping his billion-dollar business get going in the early 1980s. (Couldn't find a New York distributor to save my life, he says, until our chardonnay got that medal.)

But while the competitions are vetting devices, in which experts separate the wine world's wheat from its chaff, there also exists considerable internal pressure to give generous scores - to the point that one veteran panelist half-jokingly notes at the judges' meeting here that “the goal is to give golds to half the wines.”

Unafraid to acknowledge the elephant in the room, Bob Fraser, the executive director of the competition, is basically admitting as much at this gathering of great fermented-grape tasters.

“My idea of the competition is to give wineries help in selling wine,” Fraser tells the judges, of whom there are around 50 - wine writers, wine buyers, winemakers, wine professors and such. “It's for the sake of the industry.”

As Fraser says this, Robert Mayfield's eyes are coming uncorked.

The publisher and editor of a wine journal called The Wine Iconoclast appears to be amazed by Fraser's frankness.

“That,” Mayfield says, “is the first time I've ever heard somebody at a competition actually admit that's the goal.”

Hey - me, too! Of course, I've never been to a competition before.

Nor, by the way, have I tasted wine this early in the morning.

And yet, it's now 9:30 a.m., and I'm shuffling to my assigned tasting area - a few tables arranged in an L, covered with white tablecloths and surrounded by silver and burgundy curtains.

At each of the five folding metal chairs is a lineup of 10 wines in crystal glasses with numbers written on the base - 72 through 81.

There are other tools of the trade, too: A stack of scoring sheets, two pencils, a red plastic cup and small white bucket for spitting out the wine. (Spitting is critical at a competition, in part because you need to stay fresh while tasting so many wines, but also, apparently, because a good number of the wines are bad enough that they could well kill you.)

There is also a bottle of water, a bread plate and a lab coat - which no doubt delights my fellow panelist, Ralph E. Kunkee, the retired enology professor from the University of California, Davis, for whom the wine bacterium Lactobacillus kunkeei is named. (Loose translation: Don't drink this!)

The mad wine scientist is seated two spots to my right, next to Eric Degerman, an associate editor for Wine Press Northwest who has drawn the assignment of baby-sitting me during the competition.

Wedged between Kunkee and Luigi Velo, the Italian Importing Co. owner, is Rosina Tinari Wilson, a senior editor at Wine X Magazine.

Staring at the five of us is Debbie Moore, a volunteer coordinator whose primary role, it seems, is to help make those results positive for the wine producers who've submitted their wares.

In real life, when she's not working for free wine at this competition, Moore is an executive at a mortgage brokerage.

Here, she is a taskmaster: She tells us that we can personally assign a gold, silver, bronze or no-medal ranking to each wine.

But, she adds: “Think gold.”

And thus, after brief introductions, the heavy lifting (drinking?) begins.

All my panel knows is that the 71 wines we're scheduled to taste this morning are chardonnays, costing between $14 and $19.99, and produced in California, Washington, Oregon or Idaho - the four states invited to submit wines at this competition.

We taste the first 10 wines in silence, aside from the occasional sound of somebody sniffing or spitting loudly.

I manage to convince myself that a couple of the wines are very good. Three, I decide, are horrible. The rest are somewhere in between: Potable but hardly profound - whatever that means.

After maybe 10 minutes, the fun begins in earnest as Moore asks us each to read our rankings out loud to determine what, if any, medal each wine will win.

The gig is up, I think; surely, I'll be exposed as a fraud and asked to turn in my lab coat.

But a strange thing happens: As we read from our results sheets, wine-by-wine, I realize that my rankings are aligned with the rest of the panelists' - particularly Velo's and Wilson's.

I begin to feel better about my palate, which has never had any formal training - no sensory evaluation courses, no tasting seminars, nothing but wine books and wine magazines and conversations with winemakers and, of course, all those bottles I've consumed over the past 10 years.

I don't even flinch when Moore gets all pop-quizzy and asks me to talk up a wine that I'd scored higher than anybody else, in the hope that I can persuade them to raise their rankings (a common practice at this competition, as it turns out).

Though nobody moves their medal up, I still hold my own by speaking in tongues about, like, green apple notes on the nose and lemon-curd flavors and bright acidity and well-integrated oak and all that.

In all, the first flight passes without incident: Though two of the 10 wines do not receive a medal, and four are awarded bronze, there are two golds to go along with a pair of silvers - enough to keep the coordinator Moore happy.

Kunkee exhales. He's judged at a few tastings in each of the past 30 or so years. But still, he says, “The first flight is always nerve-racking.”

This rookie is now relaxed. Already, I'm thinking about lunch and a nice walk through town.

Just then, two guys wheel in a cart that's holding another 50 glasses - 10 more wines for each panelist.

Flight 2 of seven in our chardonnay round.

This is going to be a long, long day - though I don't even know the half of it yet: Fraser stops by later to tell my panel that we're adding a bunch of port wines to our afternoon schedule, which already includes cabernet francs.

By the end of the day, we'll have tasted 159 wines in six hours - a period during which my mouth turns purple, my handwriting turns to Sanskrit and I can literally feel the enamel melting away from my teeth.

I'll also have consumed eight bottles of water and, somehow, 16 dinner rolls.

(Even if my palate does not impress my fellow tasters, I am sure my appetite does.)

In 2004, the panelists received denim shirts that identified them thusly: “Professional Judge.” This year, the shirts we're given say nothing about being professional.

It's my fault, I'm sure.

Most of the other judges, after all, have probably spit out more great wine in their lives than I've dreamed of drinking.

It's a blue-ribbon group of wine geeks that includes winemaker John Parducci, one of the founders of this competition, which has seen staggering growth since it was first held in 1983.

It was known then as the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition, and five judges - including Parducci - evaluated 38 wines from a small area in and around town.

This year, there are more than that many in just the sweepstakes round, which includes the top wine from each of the 56 classifications - from sauvignon blanc and pinot gris to pinot noir under $14 and zinfandel $30 and over.

In total, more than 3,200 wines have been submitted by about 900 wineries for consideration.

The majority will receive medals.

So, too, should I.

After all, this is hard work.


Wine judging is not the boondoggle it may seem in theory.

You are exhausted by the end of each day, if not earlier. You sit on metal folding chairs for hours and subject yourself to more than your share of terrible wines.

You don't get out much, either. Cloverdale may well be a swell place, but I wouldn't know: I didn't have a chance to see much beyond the Citrus Fair building and the nearby motel where the judges were sequestered over three nights

“It's jury duty with alcohol,” jokes Tim McDonald, a longtime judge who works as a marketing executive for Gallo.

Says Fraser, the executive director of the competition: “It's not easy. It's physically and mentally taxing.”

So why do it?

There's ego involved, for sure. Your presence on a judging panel implies that you have a particularly good palate.

There's also a social aspect: Most of the judges seem to know each other, as though this is some sort of fraternity. (And it is more fraternity than sorority, as the panelists tend to fit a particular demographic: 40-plus white male.)

There are professional reasons, too. Velo, the Italian Importing Co. owner, says he uses the results to make purchasing decisions. Winemakers and educators and writers say they like to take the industry's pulse by tasting a bunch of wines in a short period of time.

But there's also the undeniable fact that these people simply love their wine.

They talk about it incessantly before, during and after the tasting - about soil types and synthetic corks and cabernet clones and great German rieslings, about whether the American appellation system makes sense and whether there's such a thing as a great petite sirah.

“This is a privilege,” says Sue Straight, the marketing director for Limerick Lane Cellars. She has been doing the Cloverdale tasting for about 15 years. Wouldn't miss it for the world, she says. “We're so fortunate to be able to do this.”

So, when it's time for sweepstakes on the final day and the judges come together to taste the top 56 wines from the competition, I tell myself that I should count my lucky stars rather than wonder how in the world my fatigued palate is ever going to pick the best red, white and sparkling wine out of the field.

And then, the palate paranoia returns as I look around the room at all the experts and realize that my vote will count just as much.

Something is wrong with this picture.

Still, I soldier on and make my picks.

And when I compare notes with Wine Press Northwest's Degerman after the ballots have been collected, I see that he loved the 2003 Earthquake Petite Sirah from Lodi enough to rank it in first place.

Then, Fraser tells us that the red-wine sweepstakes winner is … the 2003 Earthquake Petite Sirah.

Degerman beams. “I do know what I'm talking about,” he says.

Apparently, so do I: I'd ranked the wine second out of 39 reds on my ballot.

I guess my palate's nothing to sniff at, after all.
Posted by DaveH at February 13, 2005 04:50 PM | TrackBack