Articles Tagged California wine
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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Imagine a a narrow, unevenly lit, and thoroughly cramped comic book shop near the Delaware / Pennsylvania state borders, inside of which we find a short, lanky kid in a blue-and-white 3/4-sleeve t-shirt fresh from rummaging through the bargain-bin boxes. He’s holding up two “B-grade” comic books – one in each hand, suspended like some kind of very odd but colorfully shrink-wrapped leaves suspended from opposite branches of a geek tree.
“Excuse me… I have a question… which of these comics will be worth more in a few years?”
The (ok, admittedly bearded, large, and in appearance at least completely-fitting-the-cliché) comic shop owner stops what he’s doing, gives the kid a sideways glance, then slides his chair closer and leans over the shop counter. He looks the kid squarely in the eye in a rather… serious way, and answers him.
“A better question,” he says in a voice filled with much more kindness and understanding than would be belied in his stare, “would be ‘which one of these comics would give me more enjoyment.’”
The name of the comic shop and its owner are lost somewhere in my memory (or more likely were stored in brain cells long-since destroyed by alcohol consumption). The kid, of course, was me – many, many (many) moons ago. And that comic shop visit was just about the last time I can remember finding myself in the throes of what I like to call “blind collection mode” – a mode of “appreciation” in which far too many wine aficionados would likely find themselves today, if only they’d take the personal blinders off long enough to realize it.
BCM isn’t caused by wine scores, but it is enabled by them. Because once you put a numerical value on a product or experience, you’re inviting a comparison of worth – and people will define the “worth” part in various ways, even to the point of absurdity…
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During my most recent jaunt to Napa, I had the pleasure of visiting a few producers in the Valley to get a feel for just how the hellish 2010 vintage (remember that?) was coming along in barrel (well, for those fortunate enough to get fruit picked and crushed from 2010, that is).
So after that totally loaded intro., you’re probably already thinking “okay, spill it, WTF is going on with the 2010s,” right?
Not so fast, buck-o!
Let’s prolong the agony… and give you a little bit of (important!) context. You see, I didn’t taste every friggin’ barrel of aging 2010 red in the Valley, and to get a firm grip on a vintage, you need to taste a sh*tload more of wines from that vintage than I managed to do that week. In fact, I only hit up three high-end producers during the trip (Chimney Rock in Stag’s Leap; Hourglass’ Blueline estate, where they were aging juice from there and from their mid-Valley estate vineyard; and Cornerstone Cellars, who are aging 2010 wines made from fruit sourced all over the Valley, including St. Helena, Oakville, and Howell Mountain) – so my assessments should be taken with the proverbial grain of vinous salt. One brief assessment does not a vintage chart make.
Having said that… few elements stood out as consistent throughout all of those barrel samples, and so we can wax some preliminary geekiness about what we might expect out of the Valley’s upper-fine-wine-tier in the 2010s (once they get into bottle)…
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Tim Mondavi’s eyes betray almost everything in their expressiveness; probably more than he realizes.
One moment, when recalling some memory or detail of spearheading the development of Opus One, they might be bright, almost dancing, even though his demeanor is serious and workmanlike – as if there’s something fond and comforting about revisiting the time for him. The next, they’re sharp and piercing despite his relaxed posture and polite phrases (in this case, when I mentioned someone in the CA wine industry with whom I suspect Tim doesn’t see eye-to-eye).
Occasionally eyes, words, and demeanor align like stars in a constellation: for instance, when Tim recounts – using a rather damn good Godfather impersonation – his frustration in once having to hold up a large canvas over a series of days in Mondavi’s famed To Kalon vineyard so that his daughter, Chiara, could finish painting the image (titled “Light of the vine”) that would grace the label for his budding high-end red wine project, Continuum.
I spent the better part of five hours picking Tim Mondavi’s brain on a sunny day in late February, when visiting Continuum’s Pritchard Hill estate as a lunch guest; as far as Tim knew, I was coming to get a taste of the 2008 vintage of a wine brand that I’ve already publicly praised as being well-worth seeking out even if it is pricey. But as far as I was concerned, class was in session, the topic was the history of Napa winemaking, and I was the student. I just had to convince Tim – who has been around since the earliest days of the development of Napa’s modern fine wine industry – to start teaching. Not easy – but turns out it was well worth the effort.
Lesson one: the only living things in the Valley with more wine-related history than the Mondavis probably have wood for arms and grapes for children; that history doesn’t guarantee great wine, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt your chances any.
Sunny days on Pritchard Hill, in Napa’s eastern ridge, provide for a glorious view (Oakville and Lake Hennessey are a stone’s throw away, and on a good day you can pick out buildings in downtown San Francisco), so we took to a 4×4 and toured the forty-odd acres of Continuum’s vineyard plantings, on land that once belonged to a former marine biologist. Stopped for a moment at a spot that overlooks the estate’s farmhouse, Tim recalled how his father reacted to the site.
“In 2008, just before my father left for the great vineyard in the sky, we took him up here to see the vineyard, right before we purchased it,” he said, pointing directly to the spot where he helped an ailing Robert Mondavi take in the view. “He was in a wheelchair by then, and he couldn’t talk much. But when he saw this vineyard, his eyes lit up.”
That explains the eyes, right?…
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