Awash in wine

Judging the biggest American competition - 544 glasses worth - is a palate challenge, sobering and exhilarating.

Posted: January 21, 2010

CLOVERDALE, Calif. - As a professional imbiber and drink columnist, I've had the sipping part down for years.

But when I took my seat recently in Sonoma County for my first experience as a judge in the largest American wine competition in the world, one thing became instantly clear: I was finally going to have to learn how to spit.

It was 9:30 a.m. on Day 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, and there were already 10 carefully numbered glasses of chardonnay waiting at my seat. This was just the opening wave of 123 glasses of chardonnay I'd be sampling that day - the first 50 before lunch. And I do not love chardonnay.

Could I finally learn to enjoy America's favorite white wine through the oncoming chard-tsunami? Would I even be a good judge? The dreams of the 1,250 wineries from 23 states that entered this competition depended upon it.

The countless consumers, too, who turn to such ratings from competitions for their wine-buying advice would rely upon the verdicts.

"It can have a huge impact," said winemaker and judge Daryl Groom, owner of Australia's Groom Wines (and former partner in Sonoma's Geyser Peak). "Wineries that do well here will see an immediate impact in sales and movement on the dial."

For a $30 billion American wine industry that has been severely challenged by a recession that has knocked nearly 20 percent off the price of many bottles entering this year's show, the stakes are as high as ever.

But would I even survive this four-day marathon through more than 500 wines, a sensory slog that alternately left my taste buds delighted, surprised, evolving, and stunned numb - including one terrifyingly tannic sip of cabernet franc that momentarily paralyzed my top lip?

"Breathe through your nose," counseled Dan Kosta, a renowned pinot noir maker at Kosta Browne who was among my fellow 58 judges.

Other judges, virtually all competition veterans from different corners of the wine industry, offered their best advice on keeping the palate fresh, from gnawing tiny bits of sourdough bread and sliced roast beef to munching unbrined green olives.

"Sometimes I lick my napkin," confided Ben Pearson, the general manager for Bottle Barn in nearby Santa Rosa.

"Sparkling water is your friend," said former Philadelphian Jeanne Christie, the wine editor for Arizona Gourmet Living who sat to my left on Panel 10.

"I can tell you this," said Denise Gill, general manager of the nearby Hop Kiln winery, seated to my right, "you're not going to want to drink chardonnay tonight."

A week of wine-sipping amid the vine-laced hills of gorgeous Sonoma might sound like an appealing adventure. But there is little glamour to the proceedings inside the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds. The gymnasium is curtained off into sequestered judging booths, where from early morning through afternoon, small panels of experts blind-sip their way through a blitzkrieg of unnamed wines identified only by their class and a number on the stem.

"This is the nitty-gritty," said judge Michael Overholt, a wine educator at the nearby Stryker Sonoma winery. "It's brutal. A lot of wines. A lot of hours."

There are 4,913 exclusively domestic wines in this year's wine competition - the largest of any kind in the United States, and the biggest stage for American wines in the world. And each wine, grouped by varietal and price range, gets sipped, noted, discussed, and graded by consensus with medals of double-gold, gold, silver, bronze, or no award at all. The golds in each of the 97 classes, about 13 percent, get retasted for higher distinctions - Best of Class, and the ultimate Sweepstakes finals.

Much buzz among judges this year concerned a controversial study of wine competitions by Robert Hodgson, a winemaker and retired Humboldt State University professor. His papers in the Journal of Wine Economics and the California Grapevine, noted in an article in the Wall Street Journal, essentially called such award competitions severely flawed due to inconsistent judges and medal results that were no better than random.

Not surprisingly, this crowd strongly disagreed.

"I track our award winners through other competitions, and it's uncanny how consistent we are," said Bob Fraser, executive director of the Chronicle Wine Competition. "But it's a subjective evaluation. Judges will be off. So when you have a dialogue between five different judges, that evens out the inconsistencies."

The small groups, often a blend of tasters with different backgrounds, represent a major difference between these competitions and magazine ratings, which are usually doled out by individuals.

"The mix of palates is deliberate," said Kosta. "The winemakers will pick the wines apart. The retailers will focus on salability. The journalists are a bit more unbiased. But sometimes egos can still get involved."

My panel - two journalists, a winery manager, a retailer, and a retired academic - was not short on spirited opinions. Amid the images of "butterscotch," "green apples," "fresh peas," and "artichokes" that swirled about (as well as wrinkled noses pronouncing "stewed tomatoes" or "too much herb"), judges were often challenged to defend their grades.

"So, Craig, what exactly did you like about that?" was a typically pointed question from Kristi Mohar, the wine buyer for her family's Pacific Market groceries.

Hint to novice judges: When in doubt in California, I found that evoking the Old World (as in "This tastes almost Burgundian!" or "I smell Alsace in this glass!") is generally disarming.

But I was also learning with every sip from my more experienced colleagues. In particular, the walrus-mustached Ralph Kunkee, a professor emeritus from the University of California at Davis specializing in the microbiology of wine, could sniff out an encyclopedia of icky flaws.

The smell of nail polish remover? "V.A.," or volatile acidity. Dirty socks? That's a "Brett Bomb," a contamination of brettanomyces yeast. And there's no mistaking the rotten-egg smell "H2S," or hydrogen sulfide, which reared its sulfurous head amid a flight of cabernet francs. Suffice it to say, "baby vomit" was among Kunkee's lesser insults.

My own palate, meanwhile, at first deluged by the rapid-fire splash of samples, quickly adjusted to subtle differences between wines, picking out shades of fruit and oak and steel, measuring the weight and balance and linger of tannins and acidity on my tongue.

If only I could be faster. Inevitably, I'd look up halfway through my notes only to find my panel-mates patiently waiting for me to finish.

"Don't worry," Christie consoled. "We all were rookies once."

Still, we had hundreds of wines yet to taste.

On Day 4, the long tables were set with a forest of stemware for the "Sweepstakes," the final stage in which all the judges come together to taste and decide which of the 81 class champions would be named the competition's top five wines.

"This is the best the panels could put out there," said Jon Bonné, San Francisco Chronicle wine editor. "But you realize there was a lot of pain and suffering along the way."

I knew exactly what he meant. After 362 glasses of chardonnay, primitivo, pinot noir, and gewürtztraminer, I had run into a buzz-saw final round of 101 cabernet francs.

Cabernet franc is an earthy grape when it's well made. When it's not, it can taste like liquid dirt. One sip midway through the round was so intensely tannic, my top lip suddenly froze, and I literally had to peel it from my purple-stained teeth.

And yet, one of our cabernet franc picks was waiting on that Sweepstakes table. Could it be the winner? No one knew the names of any of the thousands of wines we'd sipped that week. But they would soon be revealed, no doubt, with surprises.

"Some of those East Coasters might sneak up on us," said judge Christopher Sawyer, the sommelier at Carneros Bistro in the Lodge at Sonoma. "There might be a New Mexico in there, too."

Sawyer was referring to last year's winning red, a 2007 cab franc from New Mexico's D.H. Lescombes. And his comments were prophetic.

After two hours of final tasting, the near-silence broken only by muted slurps and the chime of clinking stemware, the five category winners were unveiled. The champion white was a bracingly balanced $16.99 gewürtzraminer from Keuka Spring in the Finger Lakes region of New York, a boon to those who say great wine is now being made across the country. The champion red was a $40 pinot noir from Graton Ridge Cellars in Sonoma's Russian River Valley.

But what was my second favorite among the 48 final reds? The 2007 cabernet franc from D.H. Lescombes in New Mexico. Last year's champ had nearly found its long way back through thousands of blind-tasted glasses to the winner's circle again.

So much for inconsistent judges. I raised my glass one last time, and finally, after a week of spitting, I took a swallow.


And the Winners Are ...

Complete results of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition are posted at www.winejudging.com.


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2593 or claban@phillynews.com.

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