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(Surprising) Results Of The 2013 Critics Challenge

Late last month, I wrapped up a stint at the fourth and final wine competition in which I’d be judging in 2013, the 10th Annual Critics Challenge in (Stay Classy) San Diego.

The results of that comp. have been announced. Following are some thoughts on the Critics Challenge itself, and notes on some of the winning wines.

All hyperbole aside, I loved judging at the Critics Challenge with a passion that burns like the core of a million undiscovered stars [ Editor’s Note: not all hyperbole has been taken aside ]. And so, this might turn out to be a love letter of sorts to the CC.

The only CC cavil I’ve got is that the location, a bit outside of downtown (Stay Classy) San Diego isn’t the most convenient or picturesque of spots (unless you really enjoy close-up views of twelve-lane highways and strip malls). Otherwise, the CC is the kind of wine comp. in which almost any judge wishes he could take part: high-caliber judges who aren’t douchebags, a volunteer staff that keeps pace with any (I’ve yet encountered) worldwide, a well-organized agenda, generally very-good-to-excellent wines being entered, and a total dismissal of what has become a meaningless award given in American wine comps. (the Bronze Medal). I can’t even fault them for giving me that Petit Sirah flight, since a) many of them were good, and b) they gave us Sensodyne whitening toothpaste.

Each of the CC judges is paired up, with each pair getting a volunteer captain to coordinate logistics, and the highest medal awarded between the pair for any given wine becomes the final award chosen (predicated on the idea that if you only invite judges who know what the hell they’re doing, this system should turn out to be fair to the wines and to consumers). In what I can only conclude was a fit of insanity, head honcho Robert Whitley paired me with ThirstyGirl.com founder and all-around-awesome-girl Leslie Sbrocco; we beat the oddsmakers, though, in that neither of us was either kicked out of the comp. or arrested by the (Stay Classy) San Diego police…

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Planes, Trains, And Single-Day Butt-Numbing Automobile Rides To Dão (Quinta dos Roques Recent Releases)

Vinted on May 30, 2013 binned in elegant wines, overachiever wines, wine review

The first thing I need to tell you is that I’m deeply grateful to ViniPortugal for having invited me to Lisbon to judge in the 2013 Wines of Portugal Challenge (the first time they’ve opened it up to international judging), and for the hospitality that they showed to me while I was there.

I have to tell you this first because I’m about to spend the next few hundred words sounding as if I’m undermining every word of that previous sentence, even though it happens to be the truth, truth that’s balder than Bruce Willis.

What’s also the Die-Hard-With-A-Vengeance-bald truth is that, despite the fact that I’m about to recommend a Dão producer (Quinta dos Roques / Quinta das Maias) to you, I cannot tell you diddly-squat about them. I know, we are off to a swimming start here, aren’t we? Hang on, it will get better, I promise.

Here’s the thing: the Wines of Portugal public relations folks face a daunting task in trying to herd a large amount of fiercely independent winemaking and food-crafting cats. If they ever get the PR situation to match their culinary and wine prowess, I suspect they would conquer the planet storm trooper style. Until then, though, you won’t need to stock up on any ammo, based on my recent experiences (but I still love you, Portugal!).

Exhibit A: I, along with about ten fellow newly-minted international judging alumni, spent more time on a bus traveling from Lisbon to Dão and back in one day in May than I spent (by about an hour) in a plane flying from Philly to Lisbon, all in the name of tasting the wares of a few of the best-regarded producers in Dão. The number of wines we tasted that day? About 12. The number of bottles of water or beer (or anything else) aboard the bus on that 7+ hour jaunt? Zero.

Exhibit B: We were served a fixed menu of bacalhau (traditional Portuguese salted cod, of which there are rumored to be one thousand different preparations) five times in four days, often successively for dinner and lunch on the same days (including the day of our Dão expedition). When we burst out laughing at the final dinner when we each received a serving of cod the size of my mastiff’s head, I was asked “what’s wrong, don’t you like it?” My reply: “I didn’t say that; it’s amazing food, but I don’t like anything five times in one week no matter how amazing it is… with the possible exception of sex with my wife…”

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Toilet Frogs And Whale Tails (Alto De La Ballena Recent Releases)

One could go their entire blogging life and never be fortunate enough to use the phrase “toilet frog.” And yet… here I am, able to use the term from personal experience.

I need a moment to revel in this, people. Please, indulge me a moment, for I have met them, in person.

T-o-i-l-e-t   f-r-o-g-s…. As in, frogs that live in a toilet. Yes, seriously, and for realz, as the youngins say these days.

The toilet frogs moment comes courtesy of Alto de la Ballena (literally, “height of the whale [hills]”), a relatively small producer (about 55k bottles) with a relatively small vineyard area (about 20 hectares) in a relatively small country (Uruguay) who are making relatively excellent wines that are not yet available in the U.S. (though they are working on it; it’s a situation I sincerely hope changes after this, and not just because they showed me their toilet frogs).

The story begins in the Sierra de la Ballena, a stretch of hills that begin at a whale-watching peninsula near the seaside resort town of Punta de Este, a spot where the seafaring mammals stop during their August/September migration to Patagonia. Taking their name from the whales, the Sierra de la Ballena undulate to the north, about fifteen kilometers inland to the town of Maldonado, which is where Alvaro Lorenzo and his wife Paula Pivel decided to plant their vineyards in 2000/2001.

Lorenzo and Pivel were all alone on the steep, rocky, gravel, granite, limestone, and schist hills in Maldonado.

“At the time, no one was here,” Lorenzo told me when I visited the property as a guest of Wines of Uruguay; “we took the risk.”

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Rocks, (PhD) Papers, Capybara (Bouza Winery Recent Releases, Uruguay)

Bouza Winery is small even by Uruguay’s petite wine production standards. 25 hectares of vineyards spread out between two plantings, in the Melilla and Las Violetas regions near Montevideo, yielding about 120 thousand bottles a year. But you wouldn’t know it tasting their wines, which are bold, modernly stylized (okay, and in a few cases too modernly stylized on the aggressive oak treatment), and bigger than some of California’s heftiest reds.

But while you might justifiably dismiss Bouza’s in floral, plummy and spicy experimental 2011 single-parcel “A6 ” Tannat as being too, well, boozy, you’ve got to admire the gumption undertaken in trying to bring it to life. The vines are trained low to the ground, a ground covered with local stones red stones brought in specifically because their wavelength provides maximum light reflection, the better to ripen up that tricky Tannat with less need for leaf thinning and with fewer of that grape’s often punishing tannins.

Bouza has a bit of a secret weapon, and it’s not Pincho, their local male capybara who is friendly and fond of having his rough fur petted (by the way, capybaras purr when they’re happy; who knew!??). No, the secret weapon isn’t a dog-sized rodent that acts like a cat (although that admittedly is very cool), or the fact that Bouza’s renovated 1940s-era property and excellent restaurant have them set up better for receiving tourists than just about any other winemaking outfit in Uruguay. [ Editor’s note: as far as I’m aware, Pincho is a relatively rare case among capybaras, who are pensive in the wild; do NOT get hosed on Bouza wine and the go to the zoo trying to pet one, unless you want to possibly lose your hand! ]

The weapon is mild-mannered, be-speckled and willy-haired former physics teacher and chemical engineering PhD Eduardo Boido; the kind of head winemaker whose doctoral thesis centered on oenology, and just the kind of guy that you’d expect to think up an idea like trucking in wavelength reflective-wavelength red rocks and dumping them in an experimental vineyard…

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