Category:Wine competitions

Los Angeles International Wine Competition 2016

Los Angeles InternationalForget the three-hour shuttle ride from the airport to the hotel. Who cares about the overcooked $30 room service cheeseburger? The Wine Curmudgeon judged four flights of riesling at this year’s Los Angeles International Wine Competition, and my panel gave 24 of the 51 wines gold medals.

To say that is unprecedented is to damn with faint praise. My panels don’t give 24 gold medals in two or three competitions combined, let alone in four flights of a two-day event. The wines reminded me why I love wine and what honest winemaking is all about, and that terroir and varietal character are all. And that rieslin, now that we’ve rescued rose, may be the best wine no one drinks.

We judged the wines blind; I’ll post the best of the best when the results are announced on June 1.

The others 150 or so wines weren’t quite as good, but we gave more gold medals than I expected, and only a couple of flights were truly awful. I’m not sure why. The quality of wines I’ve judged this year has been better than in years past, and maybe that’s a trend to enjoy and not worry about. Some of it might have been the competition. Maybe L.A. attracts those kinds of wines in a way that others don’t. In which case, I hope they ask me back in 2017. Besides, we only had to judge 100 wines a day, something other competitions should note.

Plus, much of the wine I’ve judged this year hasn’t been especially commercial; that is, hybrids, odd grapes (diamond, anyone?), and wine made in the U.S. that isn’t California. If you’re making wine that the Winestream Media doesn’t pay attention to, it might be easier to make it the way it should be made, instead of making it so it will score 92 points.

Finally, a tip of the WC’s fedora to the people I judged with, who were even more open-minded about hybrids, odd grapes, and lesser-known appellations than I am. We gave a gold medal to a concord, and I was the only one on the panel who had doubts. Which has never happened to me before; usually, it’s all I can do to get the other judges to take a concord wine seriously.

So thank you, Jim Trezise of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, who is one of the world’s best riesling people; Ann Miller of Missouri’s St. James, who works for a winery that has turned hybrids into quality wine that is also commercial; and Chris Braun, an importer, who should teach a seminar in how to judge wine objectively.

Critics Challenge wine competition 2016

critics challengeThree judges canceled at the last minute for the Critics Challenge 2016 wine competition, so the Wine Curmudgeon had to help make up the difference.

Judging almost 200 wines over a day and a half? No problem. Four flights of chardonnay, more than 30 wines, on Saturday afternoon? Bring ’em on. Almost that many zinfandels and petite sirahs on Sunday morning? Got it covered.

In fact, it was almost like my old newspaper days, when we were short-handed on a football weekend and had to edit what seemed like a never-ending stream of stories on deadline, punctuated by the mashing of keyboards, the cursing of reporters, and the wailing of copy editors. Which makes a certain kind of sense, since Critics Challenge impresario Robert Whitley used to run the sports desk at the San Diego Union-Tribune. Once more unto the breach, dear friends. …

The difference, of course, is that judging wine — even a lot of wine — is infinitely more enjoyable than trying to rework a too-long, impossibly overwritten story about football into something readable (which, as much as I sometimes miss the newspaper business, I don’t miss at all). Leslie Sbrocco, the other judge at my table, and I had some terrific wine to taste. These are just some of the highlights:

Angels & Cowboys rose ($15, 12.8%), one of the best pink wines I’ve ever had in my life — pleasingly tart, amazingly refreshing, and more complex than most roses. At this price, this Sonoma rose is a steal, and Leslie and I gave it a platinum medal without a second thought.

The Villa Bellezza Tavola white ($16, $10%), a hybrid blend from a Wisconsin producer that was an amazing piece of winemaking given how difficult hybrid grapes are to work with. It was sweet but balanced, with a little candied lemon and a nicely long finish, and without the off-putting acidity and bitterness so many hybrids have. It got a gold medal.

•  ZD Wines Founders Reserve pinot noir ($75), a Napa pinot that had nothing in common with the usual high alcohol, over done pinots from that region. This was earthy and herbal, with lots of cherry fruit and was long and complex, well deserving of its platinum medal. It’s the kind of wine that I usually don’t get to taste, and am always glad when I do. I judge this wine regularly at this competition, and it always gets a platinum, which says something about its quality.

Chacewater merlot ($22, 13.9%), a red wine from the less known Lake County region in California. Given how little I think of so much California merlot, this was that much more enjoyable — delicious, balanced, varietally correct and with red plummy fruit. It got a gold.

The fine print: The competition pays a $500 honorarium and travel expenses.

More about the Critics Challenge:
Critics Challenge 2015
Critics Challenge 2014
Critics Challenge 2013

Texsom International Wine Awards 2016

Texsom International Wine AwardsHow much fun is it when one gets to judge regional wine at an important U.S. wine competition, and to do it with people who know just as much about regional wine as the Wine Curmudgeon does?

Lots and lots of fun, which is why I always enjoy judging the Texsom International Wine Awards (formerly The Dallas Morning News Wine Competition). The judges are matched with their specialties, so that I usually get to judge wine from the other 47 states, which I did again this year — Michigan, Arizona, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, and Nevada among them.

And, as noted, the other judges are my panel were top-notch — Quebec’s Remy Charest, who knows as much about obscure Canadian grapes as anyone has a right to know; Madeline Triffon, an MS from Michigan; and Colorado’s Wayne Belding, another master sommelier and one of the best friends regional wine has.

More importantly, the quality of the wine continued its improvement. Some of the whites had their problems, but the reds were among the best I’ve judged in years, and we gave gold and silver medals to match. Particularly impressive were a Rhone-style blend from Arizona and a Bordeaux-style blend from Maryland, both golds. We judged the wines blind, so I don’t know what they were, but I’ll update when the results are announced.

The second day of judging wasn’t quite as much fun, when Remy and I did lots and lots of wine from the Lodi region in California. We held up, though, and much thanks to Paul Wagner of Balzac Communications and Ben Roberts, an MS in Houston who works for the distributor RNDC. They kept me on track when I wanted to run screaming from the room in the middle of judging 23 Lodi zinfandels that mostly tasted the same — lots of sweet fruit, little tannins or acidity to balance the fruit, and a mouth feel closer to dessert wine than table wine.

We also judged two rounds of Italian varietals from Amador County, an under-appreciated region in California, and the wines were mainly spot on. A barbera won gold, and I’ll update this as well.

Critics Challenge 2015

critics challengeThis year, as the Wine Curmudgeon parses wine competitions and tries to understand how they fit into the next generation of the wine business, the Critics Challenge 2015 stands out. It’s one competition that doesn’t treat the judges like college interns, and where each judge isn’t overwhelmed by tasting hundreds of wines.

Plus, the event always attracts top-notch entries. Who knows? Maybe wineries figure there’s an advantage to letting people who judge wine for a living judge it in a competition.

This year was no exception. We did 160 wines over 1 1/2 days, using the event’s unique format to score the wines. Each table of two judges tasted the same wines, gave each a point total corresponding to a silver, gold, or platinum medal, and the wine received the highest of the two medals. Yes, I had to give a score, which is not something I like, but since it’s more about the medal, I have made my peace with it. That each wine is judged by two people adds another level of quality control, and platinum medals are tasted yet again. In addition, the judges write tasting notes for each medal-winning wine.

Besides, given the quality of the wines, who am I to complain? At one point, Michael Franz (one of the leading critics in the country) and I were handing out platinums like they were bronzes at other competitions. Complete results are here, and the highlights included:

* Perhaps the best flight of pinot noir I’ve ever judged, which included three platinums and six golds. The platinums went to ZD Wines, Coomber Family Ranch, and Dutton-Goldfield, and each wine (as well as most of the golds) was fresh and interesting, far removed from the heavy, overwhelming alcohol bombs that are the current critical favorites. The only catch? Each of the wines cost more than $40.

* A platinum for a merlot costing less $15 from Kon Tiki, a Chilean producer, with surprising depth and subtlety for a grocery store merlot. The bad news? It appears to have limited availability. If you can find it, though, buy as much of it as possible.

* A platinum for the nebbilo from Virginia’s Barboursville Vineyard, one of my favorite U.S. producers. Franz and I each gave it a platinum; this is a terroir-driven wine that speaks to the best of winemaking.

* Tremendous value from a couple of flights of $15 and less Chiantis, including platinum for Banfi, Gabbiao, and Castela D’Albola, as well as four golds.

The fine print: The competition pays a $500 honorarium and travel expenses.

How to improve wine competitions

wine competitionsWine competitions have received tremendous amounts of criticism, whether it’s from unreliable results, results that seem odd, and results that the experts don’t like. Or, as the co-author of a study of competition failings told me, “Consumers should disregard results from wine competitions, because it ?s a matter of luck whether a wine gets a gold medal.”

Can wine competitions fix these problems and become more reliable? This is especially relevant given the recession, when wineries reduced the number of competitions they entered. This has led to a shakeout in competitions, and those that don’t adapt to the new conditions, where wineries want more value for their entry fees, won’t make it. I can’t emphasize this enough: Wine competitions are at a crossroads, where their results are increasingly irrelevant to consumers and less important to ever more wineries. The millions of people who buy Cupcake Red Velvet probably don’t even know competitions exist.

Hence the need to make the results more statistically valid, and the Wine Curmudgeon’s five suggestions, based on more than a decade of judging, to do that — after the jump: Continue reading

TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2015

TEXSOM International Wine AwardsThe wine competition business is at a crossroads, with entries still not back to pre-recession levels, with wineries cutting the marketing budgets that pay entry fees, and with the reliability of competition results called into question. Hence my curiosity in judging the the TEXSOM International Wine Awards this week, which organizers want to become the wine competition that addresses those questions.

TEXSOM used to be the Dallas News Morning News competition, perhaps the leading wine competition in the U.S. that wasn’t on the west coast. Its new organizers (who include friends of mine) understand how the landscape has changed, and want to find ways to adjust.

That means giving wineries more to market their product than just a medal — finding better ways to publicize the wines that earn medals, working with a wine publication to publish tasting notes for medal winners, and publicizing the medal winners with its audience, sommeliers around the world. TEXSOM started life as educational organization for sommeliers and restaurant wine employees, and much of its focus remains there.

In addition, this year’s competition included some double-blind judging, apparently in response to the questions raised about whether medals mean anything. This was particularly intriguing given the quality of the judges, many of whom have MS or MW after their name, and almost all of whom are among the country’s wine retail, wine writing, and winemaking elite. (Whether one can include me in that group I’ll leave to the readers of this post.)

Finally, a word about the wines — or, in this case, not much of a word. I didn’t judge the first day of the two-day competition, thanks to our annual Dallas ice storm. Day 2 was 98 wines, almost all from California, and most of those from Paso Robles. We gave more than our share of golds (two cabernet sauvignons and a viognier in particular), and especially silvers, but few of the wines were memorable. But that’s hardly enough of a sample size for a fair judgment.

Judging the 2015 Virginia Governors Cup

2015 Virginia Governors CupThe controversy about whether judges at wine competitions know what they’re doing is never far from my mind when I judge these days. How will the competition I’m working try to fix what seem to be serious problems, including too many wines and not enough judges? The 2015 Virginia Governors Cup took a novel approach — lots of judges, small flights of wine, and standardized score sheets. The process — as well as many of the wines — was impressive. More, after the jump:
Continue reading