Today my panel of 5 judges at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition was assigned two categories: Chardonnays under $10, and Pinot Noir from $20 to $25.
The Chards turned out to be less dreadful than we thought, but the Pinots were disappointing. What was most interesting, though, was how the Best in Class wines were decided.
You probably imagine wine judges tasting and ultimately agreeing that a few wines are standouts. In fact, the Chardonnay winner at first had only one advocate -- me. And the Pinot winner never had more than two advocates (I wasn't one, I hated that wine.)
Here's how it happened. We were scheduled to taste 67 Chardonnays under $10 to start the competition. I liked the very first wine of the day a lot -- I thought it had nice toastiness, good lemon fruit, and was well-balanced. It was everything I want in a $20 Chardonnay, even better at under $10.
But when it came time to vote, I said Gold, two judges said Bronze, and two others said No Medal.
I argued for it (saying essentially what I wrote above) and got one other judge to go up to Silver, which would have given it a Silver.
At this point, I threatened to use my silver bullet -- a rather bogus new idea in which a single judge can make his vote count twice. Each judge is allowed one silver bullet per day. But it was pointed out to me that I still couldn't take the wine to a gold medal. So I held my bullet.
The wines came in flights of 10. After we had tasted 40, some of the other tasters realized they had been too harsh on the first flight, which is a hazard -- you have no perspective yet. So we all agreed to retaste the wines we liked from the first 10.
On the retaste, again I threatened to use my silver bullet. The passion of my argument, or who knows, maybe I look like Charles Manson with the new goatee, convinced two more judges to agree to give Chardonnay No. 1 a gold, though grudgingly. This made it one of six gold medals in the group.
We tasted this group blind and voted by acclamation for them. The upshot is, retasted without the stigma of being wine No. 1 -- about which we had been arguing for some time -- this Chardonnay won Best in Class. I'm sure the winery that made it will be bragging about (and marketing) the award. If they ever read this, they'll know who to thank. However, I won't learn the identity of my Chardonnay protege until Friday.
As for the winning Pinot, to me it was bretty and nasty, and I gave it no medal. Two judges agreed with me. But two other judges liked it a lot, and gave it Gold. One of them spent his silver bullet to give it a Gold overall -- ironic, in that three of us hated it.
We gave only 4 golds out of 51 Pinot Noirs from $20 to $25, and none of them were unanimous. The category was disappointing. My theory is that while there are some good corporate Pinots under $20, and good small-producer Pinots over $30, we were in a pricing dead zone.
When it came time to vote on Best in Class, we again had the sharp divide: two judges chose Bretty Pinot as their favorite; the other three of us split our votes. One judge ended up having the deciding vote between Bretty Pinot and a fruity Pinot, and she picked Bretty Pinot. I think I've never disagreed more with a panel verdict at a wine competition.
But hey, I got to see the Chard I liked awarded, so the day wasn't all bad. Wine competitions are a lot like politics, a series of compromises that may or may not be for the greater good.