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What I Learned At Summer Wine Judging Camp (Inside The 2011 Lake County Wine Awards, Part One)

Vinted on August 10, 2011 binned in going pro, on the road, wine industry events

A little over a week ago I helped to judge the 2011 Lake County Wine Awards Competition, which was held at Brassfield Estate Winery in the ludicrously-beautiful Clearlake Oaks area.  Over 180 wines carrying the Lake County AVA on their labels were submitted to the competition.

While I’m well-past the “cutting teeth” stage of judging when it comes to wine writing competitions, before the Lake County event I’d never judged wine in that professional of a setting before.  Here’s the quick-take on the LCWA event, in the form of the top five things I learned after taking the judging plunge:

1) Organizing wine writers, critics, winemakers, and wine educators at an event held at a winery is like herding hungry cats with attention-deficit disorders at a tuna processing plant. But somehow Ray Johnson, our panel director, the Lake County Wine Assoc. and Brassfield managed to do it with nary a hiccup. Made props to those peeps.

2) Lake County wines are very good, but not yet quite All-That-And-A-Bag-Of-Chips. I was especially pleasantly surprised by the whites in the competition, and there’s certainly no shortage of tasty wines providing great QPR in Lake County.  But the big reds, the Cabernet flights in particular, were a bit of a let-down after the heights to which my hopes had climbed coming into this competition of Wines With Altitude.  Yes, there are some amazing Cab blends being made there, and a ton of value to be had, but a high number of duds were in there, too – some downright flawed and others just downright dull. There’s serious red wine potential to be capitalized on out in Lake County, I just hope more producers get the lead out on making it happen for the reds.  Speaking of reds…

3) Much like trying to convince people that the word varietal is not a noun, judging big reds poured right out of bottle is an exercise is frustration.  These wines needed time (in some cases, probably several hours in a decanter) to properly show their stuff – pouring the big reds right out of the bottle is not being fair to the producers who entered their wines into the competition.  Yes, I know it’s totally impractical to decant dozens and dozens of wines for hours before a competition – but producers of big, complex red wines need to know that they’re setting themselves up for lower competition scores.

4) Much love, respect and good vibes are due my panel-mates : Randy Caparoso, Deborah Parker Wong, Marc Hinton, Tina Caputo, and Martha Dunne.  You should be checking out the work being done by each of these people, if you’re not already familiar with their writing. The event was divided into two panels, and luck of the draw had me paired up with this group.  I upped my wine tasting IQ by about sixty points just watching these people, all of whom have some tenure on the wine judging circuit, and all of whom were so damn fun that I found myself wishing the event would go on longer than two days.  On the not-at-all-related-to-wine front, it’s just awesome to hang out with people like Deborah (who exudes approachable elegance), and Randy (who has seen just about everything in the wine and food business, and to whom I owe a big-time favor for driving my ass to the Sacramento airport at the crack of dawn… on second though, I bought him dinner so f*ck that, we’re even!).  The whole crew was great, and they also put up gracefully with my disruptive behavior, god bless ‘em.

5) Expect wild inconsistencies in how wines are scored.  I doubt many of you out there haven’t caught on to this already, but just in case: one person’s “No Award” is another person’s Silver Medal.  We all taste differently, and no one at that level of tasting experience is totally right or wrong.  In the end, if you can support the why of your decision, you have the basis for solid discussion and will reach a point where none of you are losing sleep because you didn’t ‘do right’ by a wine you were judging. As Randy put it, “we all respect each other as tasters” (to be fully honest, I’m still kind of blushing from that remark!). And that’s not even getting into how differently the same wines might show across multiple days.  If you ever needed proof positive that wine appreciation is at least partially a subjective art, and/or that no wine critic can ever capture the essence of a wine in a single snapshot judgment, I recommend that you volunteer for the humbling assignment of being a wine competition judge!

Much more to come soon on the process behind the competition, and the wines that took top honors (some of which are probably going to surprise you).  For now, I offer some event pics below (after the jump).

Cheers!

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Focus, Focus, Focus: Zeroing In On Wines For Now At Virginia’s Blenheim Vineyards

Vinted on August 4, 2011 binned in crowd pleaser wines, elegant wines, on the road, wine review

I am not a fan of small producers in emerging wine regions bottling and selling a large array of varietal wines; almost everyone loves having choices, but too often the cumulative result in this case ends up feeling like a Zinfandel that’s been watered-down in a feeble attempt to get it under 16% abv – a diluted mess with a lack of focus (with even the worst results being pawned off at inflated prices to unsuspecting tasting room visitors).

Which is why meeting winemakers like Kirsty Harmon is more refreshing than a chilled Monticello Viognier on a steamy Virginia Summer Sunday.  She’s the kind of person who, through their laser-like determination, make me eat my own virtual words!

Harmon is the driving force behind the wines of Virginia producer Blenheim Vineyards – a short, wavy-haired whirling dervish of a woman whose freckles belie a winemaking stance that is supremely mature in its simplicity: make wines for now, that are true to place, and make them as delicious as possible.

“I’m not a very patient person,” she told me when I (and several other wine bloggers) visited Blenheim as during the producer visits that were part of the recent 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference in Charlottesville. “I try to make wines that are balanced and ready to go right out of the bottle.”

Focus is the friend of the emerging-region winemaker, as is talent.  Harmon has both, and Right Coast wine producers would do well to focus on her… well, her focus. “Yummy” is usually a terrible descriptor to bandy about when you’re trying to relay the essence of a wine to someone else, but in the case of Blenheim’s bottlings the word just fits. Harmon makes yummy wines, and she makes them from several varieties – Syrah (peppery and bright), Chardonnay (peachy and solid), Viognier (floral and elegant), Merlot (herbal and hefty) and Cabernet Sauvignon (tangy and minty), to name a few – without any of them sucking

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The Great Big G*ddamn South American Wrap Up!

Vinted on July 18, 2011 binned in on the road

Whew!

When I agreed with South American PR firm Brandabout to join them on a wine-touring excursion to Chile and Argentina, I never expected to come back with enough material to fill a novella.  But that’s more or less what happened – and that’s after shelving the idea for about five more articles from the trip.

Over the last six months or so, I’ve featured the good, the bad, the ugly, and the stunning from my South American jaunt, all with the intention of trying to provide coverage that is more personal, in-depth, and human that you might otherwise find when it comes to on-location wine coverage. While helpful in introducing you to a wine region, the tourist-angle stuff rarely gets into the nitty-gritty of what the wines – and the people – are really like, on their own turf and their own terms.

Hopefully, the stories from my travels brought you close to those kinds of insights, or taught you something new, or engendered an idea to try a wine that maybe you’ve never heard of before.  Or at the very least kept your mind of your mortgage/rent payment for a few minutes and kept you from surfing porn…

Below, after the jump, are links to the entire wrap-up of coverage from that trip, along with some images that didn’t make it to full-blown articles but that I wanted to share.  As always, I welcome your feedback (comments, emails, tweets, fb messages, carrier pigeon…) on what you liked/loathed/loved about the coverage!  

Enjoy!…

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Dance On A Volcano: Grapegrowing At The Edge Of Time At Clos de los Siete

Vinted on July 7, 2011 binned in elegant wines, kick-ass wines, on the road, overachiever wines

“This…. this was all vineyards of Malbec…”

They say the Italian influence runs strong in Argentina, and nowhere does it look stronger than in the face of our driver, Carlos Tizio Mayer – Plump, Roman-nosed and topped with a wavy shock of grey hair, he could be any of a dozen Italian uncles plucked straight from of the memories of my youth growing up in Wilmington’s “Little Italy.”  He is driving with one hand, and waving to articulate his words with the other (as they saying goes, if you want to get an Italian to stop talking, hold down his hands).  He’s waving towards the South American urban sprawl passing through the view from my passenger-side window.

Even his cadence seems Italian – or, I should say eeeeee-TAL-haaaaahn – deliberate, slow, and almost bearing a sing-song quality.  I have plenty of time to consider the nuances, as Carlos is talking nearly non-stop during a two hour pickup truck ride (with me, uncomfortably, in the back “seat”) from downtown Mendoza to the small town of Vista Flores, home to the winemaking properties of Clos de los Siete, and the vineyards which Carlos maintains as their General Manager.

Carlos is holding court with his captive audience during our drive, but I’m only paying half attention.  For one, Argentina’s roads aren’t exactly conducive to legible pen-and-paper note-taking; for another, I’m having a hard time keeping my eyes off of the view to our west, where Tupungato, the massive Pleistocene-era statovolcano, is also holding court. Tupungato is a giant among giants, towering over most of its Andean neighbors in a stunning, unmoving testament to the immense pyroclastic forces that, an immense amount of time ago, poleaxed an equally-immense stretch of land between what is now Chile and Argentina.

While I stare out the window waiting for the morning sun to get high enough to change the snow-capped peaks from auburn to bright white, Carlos continues without pause his history lesson of Argentine grapegrowing.

“We had fifty thousand hectares, now, it’s about thirty thousand” he says.  The vineyard plantings around Mendoza gave way to sprawl in the 1980s, when local consumer tastes changed.  Domestic per capita wine consumption here in the last twenty-five years has decreased from eighty liters a year to “less than thirty.  The younger generation is drinking soda… and beer.”…

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