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What to Drink: Highlights from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition

We are continually making judgments. At every moment we are evaluating our place in the world and whether matters are going well for us, or not.


Some of us are hard graders. We set the bar up to a level that causes us to reject situations, foods, drinks, friends, performances, often to our detriment. High standards are good. Not having to continually measure is better. Continuous downgrading can lead to lonely nights.


There is the story of a guy who had a talking dog. Sometimes the dog spoke in silly rhymes that made no sense. But the simple fact that the dog spoke at all was pretty remarkable, some folks thought. Others harshly judged the dog for his bad syntax and sentence construction. Talking at all was just not enough.


Anyway, sometimes we are judgmental because others have appointed us so. Those are the best moments. Other people actually allowing us to form opinions and respecting them.. Whoooeee!


Along those lines, I’ve just returned from the largest judging of American wines anywhere. The San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition each year attracts about 6,000 entries. By anyone’s standards, that’s a lot of wine. It requires the judges, me included, to be on our game, be quick and be judgmental.


The event takes place over five days, with judges being assigned to panels, and then reviewing the wines, which are presented in a blind format. All that the judges are told are the grapes involved and the price point. No other information is supplied, like knowing whose wine it is.


It is said that years and years of wine education are about the same as being able to read a label. In this case we are not allowed to do that.


What is being sought are balance, structure, and typicity in the wine. Translated: Does any aspect of the wine stick out in an irritating sense? Does it feel right on the nose and on the palate? Is this a good expression of this grape, in terms of style, and sensuality?


When you are tasting 140-160 wines a day, over a five day period, you have to be defined in your mind what you are looking for. And you have to be fair. If a wine is not something you really like, but it fits the category for grape varietal and price, then maybe it’s worthy of an award other than, “I hope no one ever serves me this.”


You also have to keep a clean palate. Palate cleansers include pure sparkling water, spring water, French bread rolls with a heavy crust, relatively rare roast beef with no pepper, and Graber Olives, a California olive that is very light, very clean and not oily.


The other factor in judging wine in a professional competition (I do about 8 of these a year) are the dynamics of your panel. In keeping an open mind about the wine, you can also apply that to our fellow judges. Everyone has a reason to be there, and everyone has an opinion. Respect for others carries the day.


I wonder if anyone in Washington, D.C. has any idea what I am talking about here.


Some highlights from the recent judging of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition:


* Sparkling Wine Sweepstakes Winner (the Big Award): Korbel Brut de Noir. You could hear a pin drop when this was announced. But I am telling you, it’s very good stuff at about $11 a bottle.


* White Wine Sweepstakes Winner: Keuka Springs Riesling, 2011. From the Finger Lakes region of New York, if you have not tried wines from this region lately, check them out. They are relatively inexpensive, well-made, fruit-driven and quite well-structured. This is a fun one, if you can find it around here, at less than $14.


* Red Wine Sweepstakes Winner (a tie): Terlato, Pinot Noir, Russian River, 2010; and Wilson Winery Petite Sirah, Molly’s Vineyard, 2009. Many pinot noirs at this judging evidenced qualities not usually associated with this delicate, cherry-like grape. In addition, there were signs of fermentation flaws in some wines. Disappointing, and for those of you who are drinking pinot noir because they are “hot,” be careful how you choose one. Seems winemakers are in a big hurry to get product to market. It’s showing.

As for the Petite Sirah, I am not a big fan of this grape, except for this one. And maybe more. I’m curious now. Quite a pretty wine, but not the big bold tannin bomb with which I had prior run-ins.


The main point of these two big winners is that they are both from Sonoma County. Quite a coup for that area. And if you have not been paying attention to the “other valley,” maybe there are some things west of the Mayacamas Range that would please you, at a reasonable price.


* Dessert Sweepstakes Winner: Castello di Amarosa, Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Mendocino County, 2011. What a beauty! Hints of fresh apple and peach. Leaning to the sweet side, of course, but super flavors and aromas that go on forever. Soft, velvety on the palate. About $35.


* I have no idea what is going on with Merlot. I thought when winemakers settled back down to making quality Merlot after the movie Sideways slammed these wines, then we would go down a better road. Now the original knock against these wines, that they are flabby, has given way to other knocks, not velvety and full of tannins. It’s appearing that we are now getting Merlot that is being made like Cabernet, and that is not the point of this fine grape.


* American Sauvignon Blanc cannot figure out what it wants to be. Should it be the elegant Sancerre-style from the Loire Valley in France, or should it follow the path of New Zealand with plenty of herbs and spices? Whatever it is, right now, as a group, it is not interesting.


If you would like to see more results from this competition, and it is an important one, head on over to winejudging.com. Every one of the wines entered, and in particular the medal winners, is noted there.


If you have a question about any wine that may have been a part of this competition, or if you have a question on any wine, note it below. I'll do my best to answer it.


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