Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Some cheap Chardonnay maker owes me a lot

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.


Jack Everitt said...

Please don't try to make The Case for how ridiculous these "awards" are. Um, yeah, don't.

Jon Bjork said...

Great summary of what goes on behind the scenes in these awards, Blake! Nice to see there was actually time to go back for a repour. Seems like the competitions I've judged are about beating the clock trying to power through flight after flight.

Cara said...

I really enjoyed reading this post about judging. Sorry you did end up with 40 Chardonnays to taste. As I learned from reading Eric Arnold's account of wine competition judging in New Zealand, the judges are tasting a heap of wines on one day, and it's not in any context of food or setting that most casual drinkers find themselves in.

Ultimately, I'm glad you fought for that Chardonnay you liked, and I hope if the winemaker reads this post after he is awarded, he sends you a few cases. The Bretty Pinot sounds awful.

I don't think I'll ever be a wine judge, but I do think as a consumer who sees these wins all over marketing campaigns, I need to take the wins with a grain of salt. Thank you for being honest about your tasting experience.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks for the comments. Gold medals are flawed for the reasons I point out -- but I don't think they're worthless either, since the alternative is the opinion of one person, and that's a whole other topic. However, it is worth knowing that there are gold medal wines that some judges totally hated, and as a consumer you don't know which judges you would agree with until you open the bottle.

Anonymous said...

You fought for what you believed right. The winery or winemaker does not owe you. They did their job well by producing good wine. You did your job by judging the quality of wine for consumers to be better informed. I hope you were joking when you said the winery should thank you.

Anonymous said...

Nothing is perfect. The judges and all the people involved do a great service to us wine drinkers. Any suggestions for a better system?

W. Blake Gray said...

Wow, anonymous, I guess you don't dole out "thank you" easily ... comparatively, I hurl 'em around like dinner mints. I even thank cashiers for taking my money. I think thanking people makes the world a nicer place. So along those lines, thank you for visiting and commenting!