Which is a better wine: an excellent cheap Riesling, or a good tete de cuvee Champagne?
I struggled with that question in casting my vote for Best in Show at last weekend's Critics Challenge wine competition in San Diego.
This was the first time I was invited to Critics Challenge, which has a relatively small number of judges (17 this year) who are among the leading wine writers in the country in the non-Parker division.
The format is interesting: I shared a table with Dallas Morning News wine columnist Rebecca Murphy, and we tasted together, but we didn't have to agree on anything. If either of us gave the wine a gold medal, it got a gold.
Moreover, we were required to write comments that will not be anonymous, so you have to be accountable for the medals you hand out. Since we're all in the business of recommending wines anyway, this is no problem, but I found the writing to be more challenging than the evaluation. Rebecca read aloud notes on a wine she liked, a lyrical sentence where the wine reminded her of hills and fields and farmers working with their hands; I forget the details but it was beautiful. All I could muster was "Lemon fruit. Nice finish." I suck.
The first three tasting sessions of about 60 wines each involved your normal wine-competition decisions: Gold, silver or no medal? We could also give a wine a Platinum, which entered it in the sweepstakes. Perhaps I feared being mocked for my loves -- Buffy/Spike syndrome -- or perhaps Rebecca and I just didn't get great categories, but for whatever reason I was miserly with the platinum.
I awarded only 1 platinum in just over 180 wines, and it turned out to be a Livermore Valley wine, Crooked Vine Del Arroyo Vineyard Livermore Valley Syrah 2007 ($30). I wish I could tell you that I noticed the Livermore terroir and have a soft spot for the region, but in fact I just loved its savory complexity. My notes, which I don't recall, probably said something descriptively poetic like "Nice wine. I like it a whole lot." Can't wait to see that on a shelf talker.
Fortunately for the wineries that paid $80 per wine to enter, most of the writers were far more generous with the platinum than I was, so we had 52 wines in the sweepstakes round on Sunday. And that's where the philosophical debates got interesting.
First, we had to choose among 5 bubblies for best sparkling wine. We did not know the prices, but we did have category descriptions. One was maybe the best Prosecco I've ever had; another was a very good, but not transcendent, tete de cuvee Champagne. The former probably cost about $15; the latter might cost about $200.
The Prosecco was the better value, but ultimately I decided the Champagne was the better wine. I had to revisit this exact type of decision later.
We learned the Prosecco was Cantine Maschio Prosecco Treviso Brut ($13). I can't find evidence of this wine on the winery's website, so I suppose that it entered the wine in hopes of getting a medal which would help it market a new product. If somebody from Banfi reads this and wants to tell my readers where to buy it, I'd be delighted to pass that along with my strong if inarticulate recommendation.
Only 10 white wines got platinums, and I narrowed my choices to two Rieslings and two Sauvignon Blancs. The voting was by acclamation: I could have voted for all four. But I think that's refusing to make a decision. I kept tasting until ultimately I went with my favorite of the Sauvignon Blancs.
It didn't win, but it's awesome (that's a technical term), and it's a big company's wine: Cupcake Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2009 ($14). You can buy this online.
It lost to my second-favorite Riesling: turns out my favorite Riesling was another big company's wine, and also from the same part of the world: Villa Maria Cellar Selection Marlborough Riesling 2009. Great minerality, bright apricot fruit and a long finish; you can order it from here for just $17.
There's a lesson in this. I love ordering natural wines from small producers, but when the wine comes in a glass with no label, I'm always reminded that the big boys know what they're doing.
The red sweepstakes I found difficult: 36 wines were entered, most of them excellent by definition, and in very different styles. I was trying to narrow my choice to one but ran out of time and voted for three:
Sawyer Cellars Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($48)
Pizzulli Family Winery Santa Barbara County Nebbiolo 2007 ($37)
Rock Wall Wine Co. Sonoma County Zinfandel 2008 ($25)
Unlike the mass-produced whites, these were all small producers. Two of them I have met and really like personally: Sawyer is one of the nicest places to visit in Napa Valley, and Rock Wall is what Kent Rosenblum is doing with his time now that he has sold his eponymous winery; his daughter Shauna is the winemaker. I don't know the Pizzullis, but I had no idea the Nebbiolo was from California; kudos to them for succeeding with the real heartbreak grape.
Incidentally, Rock Wall -- like Rosenblum used to -- specializes in single-vineyard wines, but the one that bowled me over was a county blend. In fact, none of my very favorite sweepstakes wines was a single-vineyard wine. Blending is underrated.
None of these wines won, though; a Petite Sirah did, but it didn't move me. I wasn't knocked out by the best pink or the best sweet wine either, so my choice for best of show came down to two: My second favorite Riesling, which tasted like a very well-made cheap wine, or my favorite bubbly, the tete de cuvee Champagne.
Here, I really struggled. Competition director Robert Whitley urged me to vote for the best wine regardless of price. There are two very good reasons for this: first, that's what you're supposed to do, and second, if you never give the $200 wines best-of-show, the wineries will stop entering them.
I knew the bubbly must cost more than 10 times what the Riesling cost. But I also knew I should disregard that. Nonetheless, I reasoned thus: while it wasn't my favorite Riesling, if I was correct that it was cheap, it was a great cheap Riesling, while I thought the bubbly was only a very good tete de cuvee. Had it been entered as only Champagne, I might have reasoned differently. I voted for the Riesling -- which was probably only about my 9th favorite wine in the sweepstakes. But the other 8 had been eliminated.
Enough voters agreed with me to win Best in Show for Chateau St. Michelle Columbia Valley Dry Riesling ($9). I'm glad for this award. For $9, this is one hell of a wine: bright apricot fruit with some lime notes, and while it's not exactly dry, it's not cloyingly sweet either.
The bubbly was Perrier-Jouet Fleur de Champagne 2002 ($140). I have to confess that if you offered me one or the other, and I wasn't paying for it, I'd pick the Perrier-Jouet; it's a delicious wine, toasty and complex, yet lively.
This is how democracy works: a series of compromises, followed by free wine and recriminations. If only I had the subtlety to describe my emotions. But this post is like a silver medal winning Chardonnay: "Big body, good length, abrupt finish."