Tag Archives: wine judging

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.

grocery store wine

Colorado Governor’s Cup 2015

Colorado Governor's CupMidway through yet another enthusiastic debate during the sweepstakes round of this year’s Colorado Governor’s Cup wine competition, I asked Doug Caskey, who runs the event, “When’s the last time you heard people get this worked up about regional wine?” Doug laughed, and said he wasn’t sure he had ever heard this many people get this excited about this many wines at a regional wine competition.

Which says pretty much everything you need to know about this year’s Governor’s Cup, which annually picks the best wines in Colorado. It’s not so much the quality of the wines, which are much better than they were when I first judged in the state a decade ago. It’s that the judges, most of whom don’t specialize in regional wine but work for restaurants, retailers, and distributors, have a completely different opinion than was common then. They don’t dismiss the wines out of hand, and they understand that Colorado wine isn’t supposed to takes like wine from Napa or Sonoma.

How else to explain Warren Winiarski, one of the greatest winemakers in Napa history, giving double gold medals to several Colorado wines?

The results haven’t been released yet, so I can’t name names (but will post them when they are). But I was especially impressed by:

? Two less-oaked chardonnays, which were crisp, fresh, and fruity. One of the judges went so far as to say one tasted more like Chablis, one of France’s great chardonnay regions, than the Colorado chardonnay he was used to.

? Two syrahs, cause of tremendous arguing about which was the best wine of the competition. Both were delicious, and what made them even more appealing is that they were completely different in style — one more Old World, with that almost bacon fat aroma, and one more New World, with lots of berry fruit.

? An absolutely gorgeous viognier, a grape I don’t usually associate with Colorado, that was on par with the best in Texas and Virginia, and much better than almost every California viognier I’ve ever tasted.

In this, Doug, who heads the Colorado Wine Board; his colleague, Kyle Schlachter; and state enologist Steve Menke have done yeoman work with the state’s wineries. This is always one of my favorite events to judge, and not just because they pay me $200. It’s a pleasure to judge an event where the winemakers want to get better, and where they have.

TEXSOM International Wine Awards 2015

TEXSOM International Wine AwardsThe wine competition business is at a crossroads, with entries still not back to pre-recession levels, with wineries cutting the marketing budgets that pay entry fees, and with the reliability of competition results called into question. Hence my curiosity in judging the the TEXSOM International Wine Awards this week, which organizers want to become the wine competition that addresses those questions.

TEXSOM used to be the Dallas News Morning News competition, perhaps the leading wine competition in the U.S. that wasn’t on the west coast. Its new organizers (who include friends of mine) understand how the landscape has changed, and want to find ways to adjust.

That means giving wineries more to market their product than just a medal — finding better ways to publicize the wines that earn medals, working with a wine publication to publish tasting notes for medal winners, and publicizing the medal winners with its audience, sommeliers around the world. TEXSOM started life as educational organization for sommeliers and restaurant wine employees, and much of its focus remains there.

In addition, this year’s competition included some double-blind judging, apparently in response to the questions raised about whether medals mean anything. This was particularly intriguing given the quality of the judges, many of whom have MS or MW after their name, and almost all of whom are among the country’s wine retail, wine writing, and winemaking elite. (Whether one can include me in that group I’ll leave to the readers of this post.)

Finally, a word about the wines — or, in this case, not much of a word. I didn’t judge the first day of the two-day competition, thanks to our annual Dallas ice storm. Day 2 was 98 wines, almost all from California, and most of those from Paso Robles. We gave more than our share of golds (two cabernet sauvignons and a viognier in particular), and especially silvers, but few of the wines were memorable. But that’s hardly enough of a sample size for a fair judgment.

Judging the 2015 Virginia Governors Cup

2015 Virginia Governors CupThe controversy about whether judges at wine competitions know what they’re doing is never far from my mind when I judge these days. How will the competition I’m working try to fix what seem to be serious problems, including too many wines and not enough judges? The 2015 Virginia Governors Cup took a novel approach — lots of judges, small flights of wine, and standardized score sheets. The process — as well as many of the wines — was impressive. More, after the jump:
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Winebits 349: Wine ingredients, 60 Minutes, wine judging

wine ingredients ? Ewwwwww: The Wine Curmudgeon has long advocated ingredient labeling for wine, despite intense opposition from the industry (including many of my friends, who tell me I’m crazy). Still, as the blog’s travel and resort correspondent recently emailed me: “I was offered a glass of wine from a box, from which I happened to read the fine print. It says ‘ascorbic acid added as a preservative’ and there is something added called Allura Red Dye #40 for ‘color stabilization.’ This must be a killer wine because it has other cool stuff, too: pectins, acetaldehyde, ethyl acetate, esthers, benzoic acid, and keytones. I remember keytones from college ? they ?re a sort of hallucinogen, not unlike mushrooms. The only thing that is a little concerning is a warning that says ‘added catechins and other phenols may combine with aluminum, barium and cadminium creating benzaldehyde ? a known carcinogen.’ But let ?s not worry about that. Man, I can ?t wait to try this stuff.”

? The French Paradox: One reason why I’m here to write this, and you’re here to read it, is because the “60 Minutes” television program ran a story in November 1991 about why the French — who smoked, drank copious amounts of wine, and ate red meat — lived relatively long, healthy lives. The program concluded that the reason was red wine, and the U.S. wine boom — which is still going on — began at almost that moment. The International Food & Wine Society website has a short piece discussing the “60 Minutes” episode, with a clip. Can it really have been 23 years ago? Have wine’s health benefits really done a 180 since then?

? Keep it in context: Dan Berger adds welcome perspective to the debate about wine judging with this article. Unfortunately, given the size of many competitions, judging is about pace almost as much as quality. That means, Berger writes, that “the faster the evaluation, the more often showy wines take the spotlight. As a result, subtlety rarely is rewarded in today ?s wine-tasting world.”

Wine competitions and wine scores

wine scoresThe Wine Curmudgeon’s opinions of wine scores are well known: Get a rope. So what would happen when I had to judge a wine competition that required judges to use scores?

The competition, the Critics Challenge in San Diego, was its usual enjoyable self, featuring wine I usually don’t get to drink as well as some top quality cheap wine. The scores? Meh. More, after the jump (plus some of the best wine I tasted):


Caveats first: The competition pays judges a $500 honorarium and reimburses expenses, and the weather in San Diego is always so much better than it is in Dallas that I’d do it just for the 70-degree temperatures.

But are those good enough reasons to give scores, considering how I feel about them? Probably not. I agreed to judge for two reasons: First, because if you’re going to criticize something, you should do it at least once, and second, because I have tremendous respect for competition impresario Robert Whitley. If Robert wants to do scores, then I’m willing to try it.

Having said that, the scoring process was underwhelming. In years past, we gave wines a silver, gold, or platinum medal; this year, we added scores to those awards. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between a silver medal wine with 87 points and one with 89 points, even though my judging partner, Linda Murphy, did her best to explain it to me. A silver is a silver is a silver, and I don’t understand why two points makes a difference. Or how Linda and I could give the same wine the same medal, but different points. How could one of us like the wine 2.2 percent more than the other (the difference between an 87 silver and an 89 silver)?

Still, there were some terrific wines entered:

? The 2013 Giesen Riesling from New Zealand ($15) was named best in class, an excellent example of the tremendous value available in New Zealand riesling.

? Linda and I agreed that the Yorkville Cellars 2012 Carmenere ($38) was platinum worthy, and it earned best in class honors. Carmenere can be off-putting, unripe and tannic, but this was an intriguing, rich, and earthy effort, with dark fruit and complex finish.

? I’ve been lucky enough to taste sparkling wine from Dr. Konstantin Frank in upstate New York three times since last fall, and each time it has been sensational. The 2007 Chateau Frank Brut ($25) won best of class, and the non-vintage rose ($21) grabbed a silver.

? The 2012 Nottage Hill Chardonnay from Australia’s Hardys ($13) won a platinum, which wasn’t surprising. Aussie chardonnay can often be $10 Hall of Fame quality; the catch, usually, is that the wines vary greatly from vintage to vintage, and what was tasty one year isn’t the next.

? A non-vintage red blend, called Kitchen Sink ($10), won a silver. It’s fruity, but well-made, and I’ve always enjoyed the Kitchen Sink white blend.

Is Texas wine at a crossroads?

Texas wineTexas wine may be approaching a crossroads, something that was evident during the 31st annual Lone Star International wine competition this week. That’s because some of the best wines at the competition weren’t Texas, but included California wines sold by Texas producers. Which is not supposed to be the point of what we’re doing here.

Years ago, when a lot of Texas wine left much to be desired, what happened this week wasn’t unusual. Or, as I told the competition organizer when I first judged Lone Star in 2005, “Give us better wines, and we’ll give you gold medals.”

Given the revolution in Texas wine quality and production over the past decade, I had hoped those days were gone. But the uneven quality of many of the wines I judged, this year and last, has me wondering. Has Texas wine reached a plateau, where quality isn’t going to get any better given the state’s resources and climate? Or is something else going on?

After the jump, my take on what’s happening: Continue reading