Tag Archives: wine judging

Two days judging European grocery store wine

grocery store wine

Imagine those wines costing €5 instead of $15.

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

Silly wine descriptions

New Orleans International Wine Awards 2018

New Orleans International Wine AwardsThe 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.

Winebits 538: Wine competition judges, legal weed, green wine

wine competiton judgesThis 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.

Six things to ponder after judging Colorado Governor’s Cup 2017

Colorado Governor’s Cup 2017Colorado 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.

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.

private label wine

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