Don’t tell Bruce Lee that Drink Local doesn’t deserve a gold medal
Judge enough wine competitions, and you eventually run into the judge whose idea of being open minded is to give a sauvignon blanc a gold medal. Many don’t even bother to taste regional wine — they just mark it off because it’s Drink Local. Or, as a judge at a major U.S. competition once told me: “Only chardonnay, cabernet, and pinot noir get gold medals — just so you’ll know not to waste your time.”
Enter Bruce Lee, who has no time for this kind of foolishness. This blog post is dedicated to every judge I sat with during my career who would benefit from this kind of discussion.
The scene is from one of the first — and still one of the greatest — martial arts movies, 1973’s “Enter the Dragon.” Almost everything that has followed, whether Jackie Chan, the Hong Kong style, or even Disney, starts with “Enter the Dragon.” My apologies to Lee, as well as to everyone else associated with this incredible effort. Who knew John Saxon was a kung fu expert?
A tip o’ the WC’s fedora to KAABA on YouTube, where I found the original scene. And all silliness like this owes a debt to WineParody, whose Robert Parker epic is the standard by which these efforts are judged.
Make sure you turn captions on when you watch the video; you can make the captions bigger or change their color by clicking on the settings gear on the lower right.
The Wine Curmudgeon spends two days in grocery store wine heaven
Imagine a delicious, fresh, cherryish Italian red for about $6. Or a Hungarian riesling, taut and crisp, for about $7. Or a $3 pinot noir – a little tart, but still more than drinkable.
Welcome to the world of European grocery store wine, which puts the junk that passes for supermarket wine in the United States to shame. I spent two days last week in Amsterdam judging the Private Label Manufacturer’s International Salute to Excellence wine competition, where my group tasted 112 wines made for and sold by grocery stores around the world. (Full disclosure: I’m consulting for the PLMA in its quest to convince U.S. retailers to step up their private label wine effort. Because, of course, Winking Owl.)
I couldn’t have been happier. For the most part, the wines – and especially those sold in Europe – were cheap and well made. Many would have made the $10 Hall of Fame, including the Italian red. Which, frankly, was spectacular. It was made in Tuscany with a local version of the sangiovese grape called morellino and was bright and fresh and interesting – all for €5. That’s less than the cost of a bottle of Barefoot, and half the price of a bottle of Cupcake.
In this, almost all of the wines we judged were everything I wish cheap wine in the U.S. would be – mostly varietally correct, mostly tasting like the region it came from, and widely available. Or, as the other judges on my panel, all Europeans, said to me at one time or another, tongue firmly in cheek: “Jeff, we didn’t know you had it so bad in the states.”
Little do they know.
That was the good news. The bad is that there are still too many obstacles to getting that quality of wine in your local Kroger, Aldi, Ralph’s, Safeway, and Wegman’s. Not surprisingly, the U.S. liquor laws and the three-tier system are at the forefront.
One judge, who used to be the buyer for one of Europe’s biggest grocers, said the regulations and restrictions governing U.S. wine sales are indecipherable to most Europeans – even those who are paid to figure them out. It has taken years to understand the system, she said, and it has been a long, tedious process.
In addition, the U.S. lacks Europe’s sophisticated private label supply chain. In Italy, for example, the supermarket buyer can make a couple of phone calls to get the morellino. Here, by contrast, retailers usually have to work through bulk wine brokers, a much costlier and more complicated process.
Still, if what I tasted is any indication, there are dozens of reason for optimism.
More on grocery store wine:
• Aldi wine road trip
• Can grocery store private label wine save cheap wine from itself?
• Wine terms: Private label and store label
The first New Orleans International Wine Awards featured quality red Rhone-style blends and some top chardonnays, plus serious gumbo discussion
Most wine competition judging doesn’t start with a reception at a 200-year-old French Quarter home with a Warhol and a George Rodrigue hanging on the wall. And none that I know of include dinner at one the world’s legendary restaurants (yes, I wore a tie). But the first New Orleans International Wine Awards weren’t quite like any other wine judging.
The four judging panels tasted some 500 wines over two days, and quality was mostly good – that’s not always true for a first-time competition. There were several highlights (I’ll link to the results when they’re available):
• I not only survived the 44 chardonnays we tasted almost first thing on Wednesday morning, but even enjoyed some of them. My panel gave a handful of gold medals, and most of the wines that weren’t golds were well made. That’s not often the case when judging chardonnay, which can easily be the worst part of any wine competition.
• The highlight was easily the red Rhone-style bends, where we gave a double gold and several golds among the 19 wines we tasted. These were not one-note, lumpy, fruit-driven wines, as can often happen, but showed the terroir of a variety of regions. It was one of the best categories I’ve judged in years.
• We did 36 malbecs, merlots, and cabernet francs (an interesting grouping). Again, given how syrupy and over-ripe these varietals can be, quality was surprisingly consistent, and we gave more golds than I expected.
• Two of the three best of competition wines were regional — a rose from the Finger Lakes in New York and a gewurztraminer from the even less well know Lake Erie appellation that straddles Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York.
• One of the bonuses of judging here? Discussing the proper way to make gumbo with several members of the back room staff (the people who bring the wines out for the judges to taste). Regular visitors here know how particular I am about gumbo (no tomatoes!), and it was a pleasure to share techniques with people see see gumbo as the culinary treasure that it is.
• Thanks to Jill Ditmire and Ken Landis, who judged with me. They patiently endured my war stories about working in Houma, La., 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, when I was a young newspaperman, and even more politely listened to my ranting during a particularly tiring stretch of sweet, dull, and lifeless cabernet sauvignons.
This week’s wine news: How do we improve the quality of wine competition judges? Plus more indications that legal weed will hurt wine and consumers’ attitudes toward green wine
• Judging the judges: Jamie Goode at the Wine Anorak asks the question that all of us who judge wine competitions should ask – how can we increase the diversity and quality of the judges? This is a question that has come up increasingly over the past several years, with little consensus about what needs to be done. Interestingly, writes Goode, “It’s not always the famous people or the people with letters after their name who turn out to be the best judges. [I know some MWs who have passed a difficult blind tasting paper, but who are weak, inconsistent judges.]”
• Marijuana vs. wine: Tom Wark talks about a report that offers three reasons why legal marijuana poses a threat to wine sales, something we’ve talked about before here. Writes Wark: “I highly recommend reading this article because it offers a logical and well-sourced argument why the wine industry ought to be worried.” Intriguingly, legal weed can sale its health benefits, which is something I’ve never thought about (probably too many Cheech and Chong bits in my youth). Wine, on the other hand, has always seemed torn about whether wine and health was a good thing.
• Green wine: The Wine Market Council reports that regular wine drinkers like the idea of organic and organically-produced wines, and might even pay more for them. But the study doesn’t address why the market for green wine is almost non-existent, and especially when compared to other organic fruits and vegetables, as well as meat, pork, and chicken. One reason, which the report hints at, is the confusion between terms: organic wine is different from organically-produced wine, while both are different from biodynamic and sustainable.
Colorado Governor’s Cup 2017: Top-flight wines and top-flight judges
1. Why the quality of the judges at this competition is always so good – especially since it’s a regional event and not very big. This year, the judges included Doug Frost, the Godfather of regional wine; Wayne Belding, a fixture at most of the country’s major competitions; Dave Buchanan, who has been writing about Colorado wine almost before there was any; and Andrew Stover, who runs the country’s premier regional wine wholesale company.
2. Why the Rocky Mountain Dart Association was holding an event at the same hotel at the same time. I saw more darts in two days than I’ve seen in my entire life.
3. Why the first day of judging, when we did about 80 wines, was so lackluster given that quality had improved in the past couple of years. Though, oddly, we did give a gold medal to a chardonnay, traditionally the worst regional wine varietal. But the second day, when we picked the 12 best wines in the competition, was completely different. Two wines – a cabernet franc and an albarino sparkling – were stunning. The cab franc was so complex and so terroir driven that I wondered for a minute if it was made with Colorado grapes.
4. How a 17-year old wine from Colorado, the 2000 Terror Creek pinot noir, could have lasted this long. Belding brought a bottle from his cellar for us to taste, and it still smelled like pinot noir, earthy and mushroomy, and still tasted like pinot, with herbs and cherry fruit.
5. How long I’ll be on the screen – or if I will be at all – for the Colorado wine video that was being shot during the competition. I did an interview for it, but given the way these things works, the 10 or 12 minutes that I taped could turn into one head shot and a quote lasting a couple of seconds.
6. If anyone knows how to get the lights in a Springhill Suites room to go on and off with some sort of coordination. I always end up having to hit three or four light switches to get the light in the part of the room where I need it.
Six 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.