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Critics Challenge 2018

Critics Challenge 2018Five thoughts after judging the Critics Challenge 2018 wine competition last weekend in San Diego:

Cabernet conundrum: I judged with the much respected Laurie Daniel, and we did a couple of dozen cabernet sauvignons. The results were depressing. It’s not so much that they weren’t especially cabernet-like; I’m more or less used to that. Rather, the wines were noticeably sweet, and Laurie and I had that cotton candy feeling in our mouth when we were done with the cabernet flights. The two flights of rose we tasted were much drier, which is almost impossible to believe. Yes, this was a small sample size, but it’s part of a disturbing trend I’ve tasted over the last year or so.  How has so much California cabernet – which can be among the best in the world – come to this? No wonder I worry about the future of the wine business.

The Bota Box rose mystery: Bota Box’s rose earned a platinum medal, the highest award, doing better than anyone thought possible. That includes me, and I like it. Somehow, I gave the wine the platinum; Daniel gave gold. How is this possible? First, of course, is blind judging, which gives every wine the same chance. Second, the Bota was perfectly chilled, which covered up the bitterness in the back that might give it away in a blind tasting. Third, this was the fourth box of the Bota rose I’ve tasted in the past nine months, and each was different (though this was probably the best). That, to me, is the biggest mystery – the lack of consistency from box to box.

The best wines were the pinot noirs: Even better than the roses, which are almost always excellent at this competition. Several were both delicious and varietally correct. Go figure, given how many times I’ve lamented about the quality of domestic pinot noir.

Princesa cava and the frustration of availability: The Princesa brut nature is a terrific cava, a sparkling wine from Spain with depth and interest. But you can’t buy it unless you live in the handful of western states served by the Bev Mo retail chain. It’s one of Bev Mo’s private labels. So no, availability isn’t getting any better.

The lack of fairly priced wine: One topic of conversation this year among the judges, all wine writers, was the escalating price of wine – how difficult it is to find value these days. Laurie, the former wine critic for the Mercury News in San Jose, was almost as irritated as I was. Yes, she agreed – $25 rose is a bit much.

The results are here.

More about the Critics Challenge:
Critics Challenge 2017
Critics Challenge 2016
Critics Challenge 2015

Critics Challenge 2017

critics challenge 2017Six reasons why I enjoyed judging the Critics Challenge 2017

Notes after judging the 14th annual Critics Challenge in San Diego last weekend, where I tasted about 215 wines over two days.

1. Breakfast at Brian’s 24, even though the disc jockey on the station that was playing was waxing enthusiastic about Shaun Cassidy. Note to young people: When your parents or grandparents complain about your music, say, “Shaun Cassidy.”

2. Judging with some of the best palates in the world, who will give a deserving wine a medal even if it’s a goofy grape no one is supposed to respect. And especially because I get to judge with my pal Linda Murphy, who waded through 35 bottles of grocery store cabernet sauvingnon with me and kept her wits about her when I was muttering crazily under my breath.

3. A flight of California chardonnay that reminded me why California makes the best wine in the world. These wines were not just varietally correct and terroir driven, but the winemakers let the grapes do the work – no baking spice trickery, flavored tannins, or oak for oak’s sake. And, if I’m not mistaken, since we don’t know the results yet, they weren’t very expensive, either.

4. Talking about the business side of wine writing with Joe Roberts of 1 Wine Dude fame, who doesn’t understand why we give away our services – be it writing or judging – for free. Because, as he points out, no one works for free in a real business. And yes, the Critics Challenge pays.

5. Rose! Yes, with an exclamation point, since competition impresario Robert Whitley has always taken rose seriously, even when no one else did. Or, as he told me several years ago, “I want judges who give roses platinum medals.” Which we did again this year, awarding four platinums in our rose flight.

6. The unique scoring system, where there are no bronze medals, and a wine needs to be better than commercially acceptable to get an award.

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

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.

Critics Challenge 2013

Critics Challenge 2013Two 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:

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