As much as it seems an ego trip (it is not), or an exercise in futility (only sometimes), judging wines in a professional competition atmosphere serves a very real purpose (at least to me).
I am fortunate and honored to be asked to serve on the judging panels of wine competitions from California to Oregon to Michigan to New York, Indiana, Florida and even Portugal. There is an ego-soothing aspect to receiving an invitation. That part cannot be denied.
The reality is something a bit different in that more often than not the judges get judged. “You picked a what as the Best of Show? What the hell were you thinking? Moron.”
I participate in about 10 professional wine competitions a year and I will not insult you by telling you that the work is harder than it looks – it is. But the assignment is not anywhere near Allen Toussaint’s 1971 lament about “Working in the Coal Mine, going on down, down.”
I participate in the world of wine competitions because 1) I write about wines; 2) I like to know what is going on with wines; and 3) I don’t exactly live in a wine producing area where news of the beverage and industry is discussed at every street corner and coffee house.
From the six competitions I have enjoyed so far this year, with three more upcoming before year’s end, I can see some trends. Some trends about wine are welcome. Others a bit troubling.
1) There are many emerging wine-producing regions and we along the Gulf Coast will not play much of a role in their roll-out. Some darn good work is being done in the darndest places. Remote areas of Idaho, Michigan, Oregon, Washington State, Missouri and Virginia are doing amazing work. But when this happens, there is usually not enough wine made to meet demand. The first audience satisfied is the local audience around the winery. The last audience to see the product is the one far away and without population density. Guess which one the Gulf Coast is.
2) Since the re-birth of the American wine industry in the late 1960’s, American winemakers have learned a lot. Today, they really do know what to plant where and what styles should work. Truth is, there is very little, if any, bad wine being made today. There may be a wine you like better than others, but commercially acceptable wine is the norm, not the exception.
3) That being said, I am not a fan of what American wineries are producing and calling “rosé.” True rosè is a special beverage. The influence of the red base grape is held together in its full integrity, but expressed in an elegant, low-alcohol, lighter context. Some, maybe most, of American rosè producers are willing to present the color, but not the qualities. I am seeing a lot of rosè wines that are listed at 14.5 percent and even 14.9 percent alcohol by volume, which is way, way beyond the European expressions of 11.5 percent and 12.4 percent. The latter are the wines you can sit on the porch with for hours, twisting screw cap after screw cap off numerous bottles. The former style is steak-friendly. Not the point of this trendy and timeless wine style.
4) If you think, as I do, that rosè has lost its meaning, you should try some secondary white wine offerings from various American wineries. To be fair, bringing a wine to a mature position takes time. But in tasting viognier, albariño. auxerrois, grenache blanc, and even, in some cases, chardonnay, you’d swear the winemaker had never been out to the nearest airport and visited the home of those wines in France, Italy, or Spain. I find it strange that the winemaker selected a grape that he thought would do well in his location and did not, could not have checked out wines from the places where those grapes shine. Makes about the same sense as a restaurateur from Kansas City putting gumbo on the menu while never tasting the classic dish from the home of great gumbo.
5) I will say, however, that American winemakers are doing some pretty good work with sparkling wines from the damndest places, like Leelanau Peninsula in Michigan, and they are respecting that maybe Thomas Jefferson was right and Virginia can indeed turn out a fine wine. Check out wines made from Norton and Cabernet Franc. Winemakers from America have also come to pay attention to the fact that New York and Washington State are capable of rising to levels very close to Germany and Alsace with Riesling and Gewürztraminer. We all know that Pinot Noir does seem to be a nice fit not just for Burgundy but also for Oregon and coastal California. I am not suggesting that the American expression of these wines is going to knock their European counterparts off those long-earned lofty pedestals. Fine work is being done on this side of the pond and is deserving not just of respect but consideration for consumption.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored (podcast), at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life," hosted by Tim every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcast episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/