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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 under 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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High Elevations, High Expectations (Judging At The 2011 Lake County Wine Awards)

Vinted on July 27, 2011 under going pro, wine industry events

As you read this, I’ll be fresh (or maybe not-so-fresh, after thinking about the stamina-melting temperatures, and lengthy after-after parties!) from the 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference – and after about 24 hours at the homestead, immediately off to Lake County, CA where I’ll be a judging in the 2011 Lake County Wine Awards Competition

The deal goes down on July 28 at Brassfield Estate Winery in Clearlake Oaks (gotta love town names that make multiple bucolic references!).  It will mark the first time that I’ve been in any way involved in an area’s sesquicentennial celebration, by the way (I’m guessing there aren’t too many of those going around).

Several things attracted me to this gig, not the least of them being the fact that the competition doesn’t really deal in medals or trophies that have little consumer meaning – just the opposite, in fact.  From the website:

[On] November 5, 2011, a consumer event will be held at Langtry Estate & Vineyards—People’s Choice Wine Awards—where the people get to ‘blind taste’ the judges top picks and select the “People’s Choice.”

In other words, after the judges’ faves are revealed and promoted, the real winners are picked from that bunch in a large blind tasting where consumers decide who gets top honors.  That’s awesome.

The competition is meant to showcase wines that specifically state Lake County or a Lake County AVA on the label.  That means, generally, wines from high-elevation vineyards, and for me personally, wines with some pretty high expectations…

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Wake Up, Wine People: Boomers Won’t Be Buying Your Wine Forever

Vinted on July 20, 2011 under best of, commentary, going pro, wine industry events

Although the conclusion implied in the title of today’s post probably seems obvious to many (i.e., a company/brand has to eventually court younger customers because older customers will not be able to buy their products forever), it’s worth providing some background (and a pertinent example), because otherwise this post would be really, really short (and god knows I’m not a fan of that – pithy, yes, but succinct, no).

Aaaaaand… I’ve got Millennial wine interaction on my mind, given the topic of this weekend’s panel discussion at the upcoming 2011 Wine Bloggers Conference

Below is an embed of a podcast created and originally posted by the guys over at (the excellent) Wine Biz Radio, which in part covers the Nomacorc-sponsored “Marketing to the Next Generation of Wine Consumers” conference held at the CIA in Napa (here’s some of my vid from the same event – and yes, this is probably the last time I’m gonna talk about it, okay?).  Listening to the WBR episode reminded me that some (probably most) wine producers and/or their PR folks still aren’t talking to Millennials in a serious way, and if they are, they likely aren’t doing it in the way that Millennials themselves would prefer.

I’m not a Millennial, so don’t take my word for it – listen to the podcast: at about the 56-minute mark, WBR host Randy and I talk to Kayla Koroush, a twenty-something Millennial who more-or-less told the entire audience during my panel at the event that she was age-profiled when visiting a winery tasting room in California. I.e., no one wanted to talk to her, take her seriously, or treat her as an educated consumer (and, therefore, a likely potential customer).

The trouble with that approach, aside from it being economically stupid prima facie, is that this particular young woman was actually a very educated consumer – she works at a winery.  And she was willing to stand up and talk about her experience at an industry event attended by a few hundred people, who in turn went on to tweet, facebook-post and write about it…

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VA Is For… Wine Bloggers (WBC11 Bound)

Vinted on July 19, 2011 under wine bloggers conference, wine industry events

This week marks the kick-off of the 4th annual North American Wine Bloggers Conference, held (for the first time in its history) on the Right Coast (Charlottesville, VA, to be exact).  And I’m excited to be attending for the fourth time.

I’m excited to see old friends. I’m excited by the fact that this year’s conference is on the East Coast. I’m excited to be moderating one of the breakout session panels.  I’m excited to see who takes away the 2011 Wine Blog Awards (even though I’m a finalist for Best Overall Wine Blog, my money in that category is on Tom Wark – like Japan in the recent Women’s World Cup, he’s the sentimental fave, after all).  I’m excited to see the keynote speakers and get a chance to talk to them again in person, because I can tell you from personal experience that they’re as gracious, talented and delightful a duo of wine communicators as ever walked the planet.  I’m excited that every year I personally know a smaller and smaller percentage of the conference attendees.  I’m excited about the whole f*cking thing.

Ok, I’m not that excited about the drive down I-95, actually. But other than that, I’m looking forward to all of  it.  Even the wine speed-dating stuff, if just to see which producers pull it off successfully, and which ones stumble and do the on-line equivalent of a vinous face-plant (dear wine producer participants: sorry in advance for the schadenfreude).  If you’re attending, then I’m excited to meet you – even if you’re that PR guy who keeps emailing me about when I’ll try your clients’ wines (your answer, by the way: I don’t know). I’m excited to see people walking around in colonial reenactment garb… and teasing them with offers to sip whatever wine I have in my glass at the time (okay, I wouldn’t stoop that low… I think…).

I’m excited because I’m a geek, I’m in love with wine the way that I’m in love with music and almost as much as I’m in love with my wife and daughter – and I’m about to go hang out with a supportive community of like-minded geeks for the better part of three days, in a beautiful part of the country, in an area where an historic-and-now-budding wine industry is trying to secure its footing in the national wine market.

I’m not sure it gets much better than that. Actually, I’m quite sure it doesn’t get better than that.  Unless vintage port will also be poured… by lingerie models in swimwear… (note to my wife: the items preceding ellipses in this sentence are, in fact, included for humorous purposes only).

But what I’m most excited about?

My past forays with VA wine have had mixed results, and there have been no shortage of people offering me but-onlys and what-ifs about those experiences.  So, I’m most excited to see if those people are right – I’m most excited to see if the VA wine industry brings its A-game to this conference.

More to come from Virginia, where the proof will be in the anti-Federalist pudding…

Cheers!

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