I almost always temper my enthusiasm or rhetoric for rating systems, scores, and long-form criticism/comments. It usually comes down to what’s in it for me.

Just because some person drinks a lot of wine, imbibes mass quantities of spirits, or watches a ton of movies, does that make them an expert on my tastes? My tastes tend to lean towards conservative and solid, which some folks refer to as “pedestrian.” Simply because some restaurant wine dude thinks I would or should appreciate a bottle of wine that runs into the three-figures in cost from the list, well, I have to step back, review my credit score, and suggest that maybe something from a little higher up on the list would suffice, meaning cheaper, thank you very much.

Still, there is a place for ratings, and I usually respect the judging system as practiced by many wine competitions. Except when the judges are friends of Aunt Minnie, and they have no purple stains on their clothes, then I question their judgment and their way-too-neat-to-be-good demeanor.

Every year, for more years than I care to recount, I am invited to serve as a judge for the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. I am honored to be asked repeatedly. It means I am doing a decent job in someone’s eyes, or they are completely not paying attention. I hope you don’t mind if I choose to believe the first reason.

Anyway, I think, and so do many others, that this is a most important competition of wines. It is first of all the largest judging of American wines in the world, more than 6,400 entries. I along with 45 of my fellow judges have our work carved out for us over a period of four days. You cannot evaluate that many wines, some multiple times, in that short a period of time while standing outside chatting about the football playoffs, the challenges of immigration reform, or the lack of good restaurants in Cloverdale, California, scene of this competition.

Cloverdale, an agriculturally-centric community in northern Sonoma County, actually makes the perfect setting for a wine judging of this proportion. It’s a pleasant enough town, but almost completely devoid of diversion. The few good bars and the smattering of “okay” restaurants don’t detract from the task at hand. A judging of this breadth could never be held in New Orleans. Even if the judges did show up for the challenge of so many wines and so little time, they would not be in crisp order for Day 2. 

What I think this sort of event brings to the industry and the consumer is that the wines are evaluated by a diverse panel, some from the industry, some from the media, a few from the marketing side, and a couple who are educated consumers. These folks are not, for the most part, snobby wine professionals who find fault with every nuance of aroma, taste and finish. The panels on which I serve are three or five persons who almost always consider the wines from a consumer’s viewpoint. “If I give this wine a Gold Medal, and a housewife from Kansas City picks it up based on that score, is she going to be happy?”

The base consideration is whether the wine fulfills the requirements of its definition. Here is a $30 Merlot from Washington State, and does it represent the best of what a wine like that should be? Then here is a Riesling from the Finger Lakes region of New York. Is it honest and true to its heritage and point of origin?

A lot can go wrong with a wine besides a faulty cork. There are a host of little beasties that can affect a wine, and maybe the winemaker played too major a role in trying to correct past mistakes, such as harvesting too soon or late, allowing the grapes to sit for too long out on the pad waiting for fermentation tank space, too much new oak aging done to mask defective, incomplete fermentation, and the addition of a ridiculous amount of sulfites because the guy in charge of watching the process had to take a break and answer Nature’s Call.

Then again those in charge of making wine can, in themselves, be defective. There are winemakers who cannot or do not try anyone else’s wines. They have a “house palate” that satisfies them but not necessarily others. Or when tasting the wines from other houses, they don’t leave the neighborhood. It’s a big wine world out there and we consumers can buy wines from every part of it. When a winemaker compares his/her wines to others from within an area of just a few miles around the winery, they are missing big pieces of the puzzle.

Here’s a few of the Big Winners from this year’s competition, any of which is worthy of your consideration. 


Best Sparkling Wine in the Competition – Gloria Ferrer, 2010 Blanc de Blanc, Carneros, $42

Best White Wine (tie) – ZD Chardonnay, 2013, California, $38

                                   Dr. Konstantin Frank, 2013, Riesling, Semi-Dry, Finger Lakes, NY, $15

Best Red Wine (tie) – Sonoma Cutrer Pinot Noir, 2012, Russian River, Founders Reserve, $65

                                 Pezzi King Zinfandel, 2012, Estate, Dry Creek, Row 14 Reserve, $50

Best Rosé Wine – Robert Hall, Rosé de Robles, Dry, Paso Robles, 2014, $14

Best Dessert – Debonne Vineyards, Vidal Blanc Ice Wine, 2013, Grand River Valley, Ohio, $30


If you want to know more winners, or to see how your favorite wine(s) fared, check out www.winejudging.com. As you can imagine, with more than 6,400 wines entered into the competition, there are bound to be some interesting and controversial results.


Compare your personal views against those of the panels. There are no wrong answers; only interesting fodder for further discussions and review. Better get to it. You have a lot of tasting to do.