This 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.