Heavy Lifting

Although it would be an absolutely pleasurable pursuit, not to mention a most ambitious exercise, the average wine drinker simply cannot try every label on a retailer’s shelves. Great idea, but by the time the trials were completed, it would no doubt have to start again because vintages change and new releases are a constant in the never-stand-still world of wine.

Educated consumers soon learn to focus. Stay attuned to a region or a grape varietal or even a brand. Find something you like, and then stay with it – or with similar styles. But that can be boring and even denigrates one of the many advantages of enjoying wine. The variety and differences offered between one wine and the other are interesting, even compelling. Sticking to one is really at the detriment of the full pleasure capable of being derived from a glass – or better a bottle – of wine from different places or using different grapes.

Spending a few moments doing minimal research will bring dramatic results to your wine drinking and enjoyment. You can access wine magazines, weekly news magazines, articles about wine online, friends’ recommendations and of course trusted retailers and vendors.

Or you can review an area of solid information where few consumers go – and that is to check out the results of a professional wine competition judging. What you will receive here is not just one person’s opinion but rather the educated and experienced opinions of experts who don’t know which producers’ wines they are tasting because the wines are tasted “blind,” that is, with the labels covered. Glasses of wine are brought to the judges’ tables with only numerical designations, never noting who produced the wine and often not even noting the year or the region, only the grape varietal from which the wine was made.

The judging panels are comprised of winemakers (usually not the ones who made the specific wine to be judged); wine educators; sommeliers; wine journalists (I am invited to six to eight wine judgings each year); and knowledgeable, experienced consumers. Each competition usually reviews 2,000 to 5,000 wines from all over the world, all of which are currently available in restaurants or on retailer’s shelves.  

Professional wine judgings are a valid snapshot of what is going on in the wine world at that moment, and the wines pass over a minimum of four palates. If the wine is deemed particularly special, then maybe as many as 40 judges taste the wine. Again, no judge knows whose wine is being reviewed, so any personal likes or animosities, any past experiences or other human bias never enters into the medal-winning decision process.

That is why I place great stock in judging outcomes: There are more palates on the case, and all the wines are tasted “blind,” eliminating past rationales for why a wine is good or evil. You may be assuming that if winemakers are on the judging panels, then surely they will pick out their own wines to win medals.

I can appreciate your logical thinking on this point, but in my more than 10 years of experience of judging with winemakers, they rarely do. In fact, in the normal course of events, I can’t remember a single winemaker who nailed his own wine. The reason they don’t recognize their own children, I suppose, is that with so many wines, certain distinguishing characteristics of a wine that would ordinarily jump out at you if that were the only glass you were enjoying don’t come to the fore. In fact, when it comes to winemakers, many of them are so focused on the flaws, as minor as they may be, they often miss the grander picture of the symphony in full concert.

On the negative side of accepting the accolades of a wine competition as a reason to purchase, some wines, which exhibit interesting and unique characteristics, are downgraded in scores because they are not “typical.” Typicity in wines is important. A wine that says it is a pinot noir should exhibit certain characteristics of that grape varietal, and it should reflect its vintage and its place of origin. If it does not, that does not make it a bad wine, just not a typical wine. And in a judging, that “specialness” often won’t carry the day or earn medals.

I like to review the results of professional wine judgings because I like the guide they provide. I know that in a controlled judging many knowledgeable professionals have weighed in with their opinions, and maybe even stuck out their necks a little bit to champion a particular wine.

All that being said, I’ve just completed the judging of the Riverside, Calif., International Wine Competition. This small (2,000 wines entered and reviewed) but respected wine competition attracts a stellar line-up of wines and a great cadre of wine judges. OK, I was one of them and have been for many years, so let’s say most but not all of the judges comprise a great cadre.

I want to share with you the highlights of the results of that competition because in the end there were some truly outstanding wines, all of which you will want to enjoy too. 

The Best of the Best, Sweepstakes Award, for Champagne/Sparkling Wine went to a beauty, Gloria Ferrer, Carneros, 1999 vintage. That vintage is not a misprint. Yes, there is still ’99 available, and it is delicious. Seek it out.

Sweepstakes was awarded to – brace yourself – Hazlitt 1852 Vineyards in Finger Lakes, New York for its Dry Gewurtztraminer. Don’t put your nose in the air. This stuff is really good and from an interesting area that is really coming into its own.

Joie Farm in Okanagan Valley, Canada, took Sweepstakes honors for … nope, not the ice wine, but for its Pinot Noir Rose. Incredibly delicate.

Sweepstakes Awards also went to Fenestra Petite Sirah from Livermore, Calif. What a delight this wine is. And also a Sweepstakes went to Kruger Wines, Niagara Peninsula, for an ice wine made from the lovely and aromatic Vidal grape.

A Chairman’s Award went to Frank Family in Napa Valley for a delightful chardonnay, and the same went to Cakebread Cellars for its 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon.

Although those last two may look familiar, I hope you have picked up on the varied regions and the folks you may not have heard of in the other awards. That should give you some curiosity to discover new things from people you have not heard of, coming from regions you aren’t familiar with, using grapes you have never tried.

The full list of winners is contained here; click on 2011 results.

They all may not be available here in New Orleans, but rest assured, they would be here if they could, and/or they are trying to find representation here. As noted in last week’s Happy Hour, our City is well-loved and well-beveraged.

Hope the recommendations cause you to branch out a bit with your palate.

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