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).
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If you love wine, you can do something that costs $0.00 and almost certainly will up your wine appreciation and wine tasting I.Q. score varios puntos. Namely, start a wine blog.
Right now. It will take you less than ten minutes. Go to wordpress.com and create a blog, and your first post can be as simple as “hey, I really think I dig wine, and I want to talk about it.”
You shouldn’t expect anyone to read it yet, but that’s not the point. The point is to journal your own personal journey with wine.
I can feel the collective groan of WineSpectator.com forum members, other wine bloggers, and print media at the suggestion that every Tom, Dick, Harry, Sally, and Bacchus start churning out their own personal impressions on the wines that they try and how it affects their lives.
And I’m here today to tell those people to go shove it.
Start a wine blog, and piss all of them off. Do it because it will help you learn about wine, because it will help you share some of your wine experiences with your friends, because it will encourage you to taste more and more wine and get to know your own wine preferences better.
But most of all, do it because it’s good for the wine industry if you start blogging about wine, because the positives of every additional ounce added to the volume of the current wine media sea change far, far outweigh the potential negatives. More on that in a minute.
You will hear from many that you shouldn’t, of course, for a large variety of reasons. So let’s just call bullsh*t on just about every one of the reasons right now…
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Uhm, like what is this stuff?
I taste a bunch-o-wine (technical term for more than most people). So each week, I share some of my wine sample tasting notes via twitter (limited to 140 characters). They are meant to be fun, quickly-and-easily-digestible reviews. Below is a wrap-up of the twitter reviews from the past week (click here for the skinny on how to read them), along with links to help you find them so you can try them for yourself. Cheers!
- 10 Schloss Saarstein Serriger Schloss Saarsteiner Riesling Kabinett (Mosel): A touch off-kilter now… but let’s see in 10+ yrs… $27 B+ >>find this wine>>
- 08 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir (Carneros): This guy is really, really likeable – but man, I think maybe he smokes too much. $30 B >>find this wine>>
- 08 Merus Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley): Blackberry, blueberry, plum, cedar, cinnamon & granite. Are we baking pie in my kitchen? $140 A- >>find this wine>>
- 08 Altvs (Napa Valley): Brooding, black, spicy, and more beautifully complex & multi-dimensional than most Calabi–Yau manifolds. $75 A >>find this wine>>
- 09 Chacewater Syrah (Red Hills): A bit of RS & near 16% abv can’t keep this fruity, balanced big boy down. Sometimes fruit bombs work. $18 B >>find this wine>>
- 10 Jed Steele Shooting Star Sauvignon Blanc (Lake County): What kind of herbal, zesty bargain is this? Expect the price to go up… $12 B >>find this wine>>
- 10 Ceago Vinegarden Del Lago Syrah Rose (Lake County): Strawberry lovers… Unite! Strike at yonder salad with all speed! Attack!!! $16 B >>find this wine>>
- 10 Ceago Vinegarden Muscat Canelli (Lake County): A gift of flowers & sweets for that bowl of spicy Asian noodles you’re eying up. $18 B >>find this wine>>
- 08 Quinta do Vallado Vinho Tinto (Douro): What ground it loses in vibrancy is more than made up for in heaps of dried herbs & red plum $20 B >>find this wine>>
- 08 Michael Shaps Meritage (Virginia): It’s velvety. It’s fruity. But it ain’t quite spicy enough. Give it a chance (& a bit of time). $32 B >>find this wine>>
- 07 Michael Shaps Merlot (Virginia): Black fruit, black olive & spices so hoppin’ they could stand in for a Mexican jumping bean. $32 B+ >>find this wine>>
- 08 Michael Shaps Viognier (Virginia): Peachy, pithy & elegant. Just not sure the fruit is gonna stand up long-term to all that verve. $32 B >>find this wine>>
- 08 Michael Shaps Chardonnay (Virginia): Lemon curd, cream & enough vitality (& structure… and character…) for a long haul. $32 B+ >>find this wine>>
- 09 Williamsburg Winery Acte12 Chardonnay (Virginia): Apples, a fair amount of bite, & not short on complexity; a.k.a., a total bargain $16 B >>find this wine>>
- 10 Blenheim Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon (Virginia): Ripe/fruity enough to be inviting, minty/herbal enough to keep you at the party. $20 B >>find this wine>>
- 10 Blenheim Vineyards Viognier (Virginia): The peach farm is surrounded by white flowers, & they won’t mind if you bring chips & salsa $19 B >>find this wine>>
- 09 Blenheim Vineyards Blenheim Farm Chardonnay (Virginia): A peachy/zesty charmer w/ nary an ounce of flab (but several oz of balance) $21 B >>find this wine>>