This year's competiton, the 28th annual, was held Sunday and Monday. The biggest news, at least from where I was judging, was that the quality of the California wine did not hold up to the quality of the U.S. wine that wasn't from California. Hard to believe, but the other three judges on my panel agreed — the regional wine we tasted was mostly better than the California wine, and we tasted wine from parts of California, like merlots from Napa and cabernet sauvignons from Alexander Valley, that should have been full of gold medals.
But it wasn't. And it wasn't because of the Wine Curmudgeon and his idiosyncratic palate. The others on the panel — Texas winemaker Kim McPherson and wine writers Marguerite Thomas and Laurie Daniel — very often felt the same way. We tasted a lot of California wine that wasn't varietally correct, poorly made or both. Or, as I asked out loud more than once, how can a winemaker screw up wine made with grapes from California, which produces the best grapes in the world?
We did about 100 wines from the rest of the U.S. and about 100 from California, all tasted blind. The standouts included a chambourcin, which probably came from the East Coast; what was likely a $10 sauvignon blanc from California and which got a gold; one of those Alexander Valley cabernets, which did get a gold because it tasted like it was supposed to taste; the best flight of regional merlots I've ever judged, which is saying something; and an orange muscat dessert wine, which McPherson took one sip of and pronounced spot on — also a gold.
Why the difference in quality? I'm guessing, though entries were up 500 or so from last year to 3,300, that many California wineries that do better quality wines still don't want to spend the money to enter. The recession took a toll on wine competition entries; they were one of the first things that wineries cut back on when they were looking for ways to reduce expenses, and the competitions haven't fully recovered. My sense is that the increase in entries came mainly from grocery store producers, and there is a lot of grocery store wine these days that counts on label or cute name, not quality, to attract consumers.
The results will be out in about a month, and I'll follow up this post when that happens. And a tip o' the Curmudgeon's fedora to Carolyn Westberry, Dave Oatman, and Sara Nichols, our table crew — the people who brought the wines out, cleared the empty glasses and handled the paperwork. They were excellent and true professionals; anyone who puts up with me sipping and spitting for two days deserves all the recognition they can get.