Posts Filed Under on the road
No, you didn’t see one of these selections coming, okay?
Don’t even try it. No one, least of all me, would buy it for even a second.
This Summer, I once again had the pleasure of judging at the Critics Challenge in (stay classy) San Diego, my second stint as a judge there. A more well-executed U.S. wine competition you’re unlikely to encounter, and the judging panels boast some impressive collective credentials. Before I get into the two most memorable (for me) wines coming out of this year’s incarnation of the event (full results are here), I should give you a quick primer on how Critics Challenge works.
The judges are paid (well… duh), and for two days each is given a series of wine flights organized by category and tasted blind (residual sugar, grape variety, and category are known, in some cases vintage as well). The judges work in pairs, awarding (or denying) medals as they deem appropriate, and each wine is officially awarded the highest of the two medals determined by the pair of judges. The assumption, of course, is that as judges we all know what the hell we’re doing.
For 2014, I was fortunate enough to be paired of with writer and educator Deb Parker Wong, someone for whom the term “consummate professional” was invented, and a judge with a methodically brilliant tasting approach. I’ll stop here before this turns into a Deb valentine, but I feel compelled to add that Deb also possesses the rare and uncanny ability to double the elegance quotient of any room into which she walks (since I possess the equally rare and uncanny ability to halve a room’s elegance quotient, our judging table vicinity essentially remained elegance neutral)…
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Over the next two insane weeks, I’ll be waving to the Midwesterners among you from 30,000 feet as I fly back and forth across our great country twice in order to lend my taste buds (and, no doubt, subsequently further increase not only my frequent flier mileage but also my dental hygiene and surgical fees) to two Left Coast wine competitions.
First, there’s my second stint at the venerable Critics Challenge wine comp., held in (stay classy) San Diego (San Diego is still there, right?), the 11th year for that event, which is unique in its assembly of judges who are pretty much exclusively in the wine journalism/critic biz.
This will be followed shortly (as in, a few days) by my first stint at the San Francisco International Wine Competition, as part of a group of seventeen newly-minted judges joining the cadre at SFIWC this year, its 34th (see inset pic on that as reported by SOMM Journal earlier this month).
The thing that tickles me Provence-rosé-pink about all of this is not so much that I am getting wined, dined and paid for doing something so cool (ok, that does, in fact, tickle me a bit Provence-rosé-pink now that I think about it), but that I know so many of the other judges, and am fortunate enough to call several of them friends. Technically, these are business trips for me, but they are hardly the kind of business trips about which one could complain, particularly when compared to some of the locales, efforts, and intensely driven personalities I frequented in my corporate life (ever been to Hackettstown, NJ; Slough, England; or Stupino, Russia? No? Well, take it from me, you don’t want to be in too much of a hurry to visit).
Let’s just say I’m not complaining!
More to come from all of that (if you’ve got requests on what you’d like to see in terms of coverage out of those comps., shout it out).
Not sorry for
The things I’ve said
There’s a wild man in my head
There’s a wild man
In my head”
– Morrissey, “I’m Not Sorry”
Christophe Baron, the short, edgy, high-energy force behind Walla Walla’s controversial Cayuse, is sniffing dirt. And – in a very thick French accent that betrays his Charly-sur-Marne heritage and belies his nearly twenty-year stint in the Pacific Northwest – he’s imploring me to do the same.
“C’mon! You’ve come all this way to Cayuse! You’ve got to SMELL IT!!!”
Just moments before, a burly and beautiful Belgian draft horse was turning over this soil (in a vineyard named, for obvious reasons, “Horse Power”), so I am less than totally enthusiastic about the possibility of getting horse shit up my nostrils. But this guy’s energy is such that he makes me seem calm, so I acquiesce (as if I had a choice). These newer plantings were “designed for the horse,” Baron explains, with three-feet between the rows. “With the horse, you can’t rush it, you can’t force it. But the texture of the soil is like couscous… This is the reason why I’m here.”
Spend any appreciable time with Baron and you will not only sniff horse-powered dirt, you will hear impassioned proclamations such as “I am not a winemaker;” “Let’s all take off our clothes and get naked;” “There are a lot of things about Biodynamics you cannot quantify… you cannot quantify the smile on a beautiful woman;” “I’m like a dealer, I sell pleasure… liquid pleeeeeasuuuuuure;” and “no pictures on Facebook!” not all of which you might fully understand or be able to distinguish as serious or jovial.
But there’s one thing that is easy to understand: why Baron’s wines are controversial. Garnering stratospheric scores from The Wine Advocate and skyrocketing in secondary market prices after release, Cayuse offerings can be stunning, odd takes on Rhone-styled reds; often demanding, beguiling, and off-putting all at the same time. If you’ve ever watched a movie – or read a novel – that seems brilliant but has disturbing scenes in it, the kind of scenes that haunt you later but without which the central themes of the work wouldn’t be nearly as powerful, then you’ve got an idea of what it’s like to come face to face with Cayuse’s juice.
To understand these take-no-prisoners wines, you need to understand the background of the take-no-prisoners Baron, and Walla Walla’s take-no-prisoners geographical landscape…
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“See, this pisses me off…”
Rob Mondavi, Jr. is upset. Moderately. It’s almost difficult to imagine why, given the sunny day, and the subsequently stunning Napa Valley view from his family’s Animo vineyard on Atlas Peak. But moderately upset he is.
The trigger for Mondavi’s small bit of angst? The spacing of the pruning cuts on some of the vines isn’t uniform. One is reminded of the scene in The Aviator, when Leonardo DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes is running his hand down the side of an airplane hull, testing to see if all of the rivets are totally smooth.
Rob Mondavi, Jr. is, it seems, a bit of a perfectionist, particularly when it comes to viticulture (as he remarked to me during our vineyard lunch, “the biggest challenge in Napa is that we’ve become complacent in farming”). An amiable perfectionist, with the Mondavi flair for gab and working the crowd, but a perfectionist nonetheless.
As it turns out, Rob’s excellent high-end wines can almost be too perfect, polished smooth to a such an glistening, art deco metallic sheen that one might start to pine for a blemish of any kind; not that the wines lack soul, it’s just that you want to see and feel more of that soul.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, aren’t we? Back to the vineyard, where the view is lovely and the scenery, apart from vines, is of liberally strewn about rocks, rocks, and more rocks on this volcanic soil…
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