Please designate three (3) wines you favor in evaluating and three (3) wines least desirable
What would you choose?
Which type of wine I like to drink most was not always the deciding factor. When judging, you're not drinking, you're sampling, up to 150 wines a day. Under those conditions, it's easier to sample lower alcohol, lower tannin, dry wines.
Like every other judge, I also have my own agendas. Do I want to write a story about a certain category? If so, this is a great time to find gems I wouldn't otherwise encounter.
Here were my choices, and the reasoning behind them.
Categories I want to taste:
Pinot Noir: Personal preference plays a role here; I love Pinot Noir. I also think it varies a lot from year to year, and I don't want my knowledge of California's best to get outdated. Plus, Pinot Noir is low in tannin and lower in alcohol than most reds.
Sauvignon Blanc: In my experience, this is the easiest category to taste; my palate stays fresh for twice as many wines, perhaps because of the acidity (though my dentist might cast a dissenting vote). It helps that I'm a big fan of Sauv Blanc.
Sparkling wine: These are also low in alcohol and thus easier to taste than most wines, but that's not why I chose this category. I just love bubbly, so asking me to taste 100 of them is like asking Tiger Woods to audition groupies.
Categories I don't want to taste:
Cabernet Sauvignon: This might seem like a strange choice, given that Cabernet is, overall, probably what California does best. To me, though, there's no harder wine to taste in big groups -- and there will be hundreds to taste in this competition. Cabernet Sauvignon is so tannic and so alcoholic that I start struggling after as few as 30 wines, and it makes me feel guilty. I would hate to miss out on some gem at wine number 73 because I had lost my palate already. I didn't list this one without some regret at all the great wines I'll miss, but my mouth will feel a lot better without them.
Merlot: This was the easiest wine for me to choose to reject. I've done a couple of major stories on California Merlot and I believe I know where all the good ones come from -- Rockpile, the hillsides and mountains of Napa Valley, a few mountains in Sonoma County, and nowhere else (sorry). There are hundreds of other Merlots out there, but few I find interesting. I like having a bottle of Merlot now and then, but please, not 100 of them.
Zinfandel: This was the hardest wine for me to reject because I really like tasting Zin. There's great Zin grown in many places, and I love the way Zin's flavor changes with its terroir, from the black pepper of Russian River Valley to the big black fruit of Napa to the red fruits of Amador County. But the wines are high in alcohol, which wears me down. And there are just so many of them. I considered rejecting Petite Sirah, which I don't like tasting anywhere near as much as Zin. But the Petite Sirah category is so much smaller that I could take a deep breath and blast through all the wines in a couple of hours. Zinfandel might be two days, and that's overkill.
I don't know what I'll end up being assigned to taste. But I'll bet that because I didn't reject Chardonnay, I'll get at least some. About 20% of all California wines are Chardonnays; somebody has to taste all those wines. I considered rejecting Chard just because I fear getting nothing but Chardonnay for days if everybody else rejects it. But I rather like tasting Chardonnay, when at least some of them are good; there's a lot of interesting variation between lean unoaked wines and butter bombs.
I ran this question by a few of my wine-loving friends today and they mostly concurred with my choices. One said he'd like to taste Pinot Gris, which I agree is an easy category, but from California I generally like Sauvignon Blanc better. Another said she'd like to taste Rhone reds, which is a good choice.
One friend suggested she would like to taste only wines over $50. I don't know if that's an option, and if it is, I don't know if I would take it. The sessions would probably be more pleasurable, but I would learn a lot less about the state of everyday wine in California.
However it turns out, one thing is for sure -- by the end of the competition, I'll be ready for a nice bottle of junmai ginjo sake.