Two things stand out after judging the 10th annual version of this competition last weekend: First, that local wine has come a long way when it enters — let alone does well at — a top-notch California event like this. Second, that the challenge’s unique format is not only a tremendous amount of fun, but offers one possible solution for all of the handwringing about inconsistent competition judging and results.
More, after the jump:
How well did local wine do? Swedish Hill ?s $16 dry riesling, from New York ?s Finger Lakes, should have been named best white wine of the competition. I voted for it, and it almost beat a California chardonnay, Baileyana from the Edna Valley, which was a terrific $28 wine. And the Swedish Hill, to my mind, wasn ?t as well made as Wagner ?s $13 dry riesling, also from New York, which didn ?t quality for the best white wine judging.
And I should also mention that Virginia ?s Barboursville Vineyards, which is establishing a reputation as not just a great regional producer, but a top U.S. winery, won seven medals.
The medal process at the Critic ?s Challenge is different from most competitions. First, it doesn ?t give bronzes; the lowest medal is silver, which competition director Robert Whitley says should be given to wines that you ?d serve guests at your house ? a high standard, indeed. Platinum, the highest medal, is similar to a double gold at other events.
Also, the 17 judges were a Who ?s Who of U.S. and foreign wine writers (and that I was included was an incredible compliment). Or, as one of my colleagues noted, ?That ?s the way to do these things ? pick the best, and let them judge. ?
Which we did. Each judge blind tasted some 180 wines in a day and a half (plus another 60 or so in the best wine round), and awarded medals as he or she saw fit. There was no scoring, no discussion, just the measured opinion of each judge. If I thought a wine deserved a medal, it got one.
I wasn ?t sure how this was going to work. Usually, wine competitions in the U.S. are judged by panels, and everyone on the panel collaborates on the medal decision. This can lead to horse trading, in which one judge might agree to give another judge ?s wine a better medal so a wine that the first judge liked can also get a higher medal. Or one judge can be so dominating that the panel mostly follows along and does what he or she suggests.
This process has been criticized for being subjective and unscientific (though I ?m not sure anyone knows how to make wine tasting less subjective). So I was more than pleasantly surprised to see that the one judge picks all method worked so well. Only one of the 60 wines that made the best of competition judging was a grocery store label of the kind that usually does quite well at competitions, and the best wines of the two days were uniformly excellent. Yes, this was too small a sample size to draw any conclusions, but it ?s something worth investigating.
My only complaints were the Swedish Hill and that D ?Arenberg ?s Dead Arm Shiraz didn ?t win the best red award. This $65 Australian wine was worth every penny, and that comes from someone who doesn ?t care for shiraz or spending $65 for a bottle of wine. It was dark and interesting and complex with layers of flavor, and it didn ?t have the off-putting too rich fruit that many of these wines flaunt. Plus, it ?s only going to get better as it ages.
Finally, truth in judging: The competition paid my expenses and an honorarium for participating.