Category:Wine competitions

When you know way too much about cheap wine

cheap wineBring on the cheap wine; who else but the WC can identify it blind in a competition?

Is it possible to know too much about cheap wine? That’s what happened to the Wine Curmudgeon during last month’s judging in the TexSom International Wine Awards.

We did a blind tasting of a sauvignon blanc in a category called “Multiple countries, all other white varieties,” which is about as odd and unusual a category as possible. But I thought I knew what the wine was, since it’s my fate to know more about cheap wine than almost anyone else in the world.

“That must be the Yellow Tail sauvignon blanc,” I said. “They blend New Zealand sauvignon blanc with sauvignon blanc from Australia. It wasn’t bad the last time I had it.”

The other three judges, each of whom was incredibly accomplished and who I liked and enjoyed tasting with, looked at me as if I was babbling baby gibberish. And why not? Yellow Tail is probably not something they drink regularly, and there is no reason why they should. And they probably didn’t expect to be judging with someone who could identify cheap wine the same way they can recognize a bottle of high-end cabernet sauvignon from California’s Santa Cruz Mountains (which they did during our judging).

So when the competition results were announced last week, the sauvignon blanc in the “Multiple countries, all other white varieties” category was, in fact, the Yellow Tail (which got a bronze medal). How many people in the world who don’t work for Yellow Tail would have been able to identify the wine just from the category?

I will leave it for you to decide if that’s a good or a bad thing.

TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2017

TEXSOM wine competitionResults

Where but the TEXSOM wine competition could you find jalapeno wine as well as some of the world’s great reds?

This year’s TEXSOM wine competition featured both the sublime and the silly – some incredible California pinot noir as well a cabernet sauvignon that might have been one of the world’s great wines. But we also tasted a jalapeno wine.

Never a dull minute, is there?

It’s no surprise about the first group. TEXSOM is one of the best wine competitions in the U.S., attracting a record 3,500 entries this year and featuring some of the most qualified judges in the world. And that I get to judge, with my cheap wine background, remains both a pleasure and a mystery.

That makes it the kind of competition that attracts the flight of 12 pinot noirs, which were from the highly-regarded Santa Lucia Highlands. Most were not only classic in their elegance, but reminded me how well-made California pinot noir can be when its winemakers want to make pinot noir and not some bastard marketing child.

I probably shouldn’t write too much about the cabernet, since the results haven’t been released yet. It’s enough to know that it was part of a three-wine flight from California’s Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, whose producers include the legendary Ridge and its Monte Bello cabernet, plus the well-respected Mount Eden Winery. We tasted the wines blind, of course, so I don’t know that either of those were part of the flight, but that the wines were from that area should give you an idea about how complex, subtle, and amazing they were.

Unfortunately, not everything else was that much fun. The first day of the two-day event included almost an entire afternoon of grocery store plonk from Washington state, the kind of wine that makes me wonder why any producer would think a consumer would enjoy it. Call those wines the seamy underside of premiumization; I can’t shake the suspicion that too many were entered not because anyone thought they were worthy of a medal, but because they cost $15 or $20 and consumers are buying $15 or $20 wine.

And the jalapeno wine? It was so spicy that it was undrinkable, and this comes from someone who pickles jalapenos every summer because I like jalapenos. There is no doubt a market for this sort of thing, though I can’t imagine what it would be.

More about the TEXSOM International Wine Awards:
TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2016
TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2015
Dallas Morning News TEXSOM Wine Competition 2014

2017 Virginia Governor’s Cup

2017 Virginia Governor’s CupThe 2017 Virginia Governor’s Cup: Lots of quality and very few lousy wines

Seven things to ponder after judging the 2017 Virginia Governor’s Cup wine competition last week:

1. The quality of the wine was the best it has been since I started judging here almost 10 years ago. As I said to several panel members: “This was mostly like judging a California competition – no stupidly made wines, no obvious flaws, just competent and professional wine.” This is not often the case when judging regional wine, and shows again how far Virginia has come. Equally important: We did 100 wines over the two days, about 20 percent of the entries, so this wasn’t necessarily a small sample size. Are you paying attention, Texas?

2. The viogniers were amazing, as Virginia viognier usually is. I gave two gold medals in a flight of six, and all six were worth buying.

3. I was also impressed with the six roses – one gold, and the rest also worth drinking. This is quite a change from just a couple of years ago, when most regional pink wine was sweet and nothing else.

4. Virginia, like other regional states, is still grappling with the price/value dilemma. How can it make and sell wine and be competitive, given that it doesn’t have the economies of scale that California and Europe does? We didn’t know the prices when we judged the wines, but given that red blends and red varietals are usually the most expensive, most of the ones I tasted probably cost more than they were worth. This is not to say they weren’t well made, but that a similar wine made in a more established part of the world would be a better value.

5. There was a noticeable absence of oak, even in the wines that needed it. Was this because winemakers were – hopefully – embracing the idea of less oak and more balanced wine, or was it because oak is so expensive (as much as $1,000 a barrel) and they were forced to use less of it?

6. I’ve made my peace with giving scores. I still think it’s stupid, but if the competition requires it, I’ll do it. Having said that, I was generous with the best wines, and penalized the wines that weren’t very good. What’s the point of giving an 80-point bronze medal to a wine that I didn’t like?

7. Why do hotels ask you to save water by using the towels more than once, but then replace the towels after you have hung them up so you can re-use them?

8 things I learned during my Colorado wine adventure

Colorado wine
That’s Warren Winiarski of Judgment of Paris fame on the far left, Doug Caskey of the Colorado wine board, Colorado wine writer Dave Buchanan, California wine writer Mike Dunne, and the WC. I don’t know why Doug and I are the only ones with hats.

The eight things I learned during my Colorado wine adventure.

1. The wine quality at the Colorado Governor’s Cup was the best I’ve seen since I judged the first one seven years ago. In fact, the improvement in Colorado wine was hard to believe – there were almost no wines that were so awful that drinking them made you fear for the future of regional wine. The best wines, mostly red blends, cabernet sauvignon, and cabernet franc, were elegant, structured, and well made. The improvement in quality is something my friends in Texas should pay close attention to.

2. Warren Winiarski, who made the winning cabernet sauvignon at the Judgment of Paris, spent two days after the competition visiting Colorado vineyards. Watching him with the winemakers and growers taught me that canopy management isn’t as boring as I thought it was, and I learned a lot to bring back to my students. Also, not everyone is happy when someone with more experience and more knowledge and more skill tells you things you don’t want to hear about how you’re growing grapes and making wine.

3. Colorado’s new grocery store wine law – if it survives the upcoming legal challenges – may be the model used to bring grocery store wine law to the rest of the country. It tries to strike a balance between small retailers, the state’s biggest and powerful independents, and the grocery store chains that will eventually dominate the market.

4. Spotting the wine writers in the hotel lobby is easy. We’re the old white guys reading the newspaper while we eat breakfast.

5. Flying on the state plane (that’s the aircraft in the background in the picture above) made me wish I never had to fly commercially again. Ever.

6. So the less said about American Airlines the better.

7. The acceptance of regional wine by those who don’t taste it regularly is wonderful to see. Mike Dunne of Sacramento, one of the most respected wine writers in the country, and Alder Yarrow of Vinography judged the competition and approached the wines with an openness that too many of my colleagues still don’t have.

8. There’s something about being in a vineyard at 6,500 feet that makes you forget about all the aggravation associated with doing this. Or with life, for that matter.

Photos courtesy of Kyle Schlachter.

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.