Sunset Wine Competition.
First: Should a great wine get a gold medal if it doesn't taste like you'd expect it to?
Second: Should I reward a very typical varietal wine with a silver or gold medal, even if I don't like it?
Both of these arguments lasted more than five minutes, and while we reached agreement on the first, we never did on the second.
I sat on a 3-person panel at Sunset's new-and-not-improved competition* with two Master Sommeliers. The idea was to mix up types of judges, because winemakers look for flaws, sommeliers look for typicity, and who knows what writers look for?
* The magazine used to do only Best in Class by price category for wines nominated by a critic or sommelier: in 2010 there were just 8 awards. Now any winery can pay to enter and 50% of the wines get medals, like kids get for finishing two laps in the pool. There are 72 pages of medal winners. We are all champions! On the bright side, the magazine took in a lot of money -- publishing isn't what it used to be -- and I got a little cash too.
The first wine in question, I know now, was DeLille Cellars Columbia Valley Chaleur Estate Blanc 2010 ($36). At the time, all we knew was that it was 77% Sauvignon Blanc and 23% Semillon, and was in the Sauvignon Blanc category.
All three of us agreed that it was a great, gold-medal-worthy wine, one of the best we tasted in two days. Clearly barrel-aged, it was complex and exciting, with kumquat fruit, good acidity and a long finish. But one of my panel mates refused to give it a gold because she said it didn't taste like Sauvignon Blanc.
This argument went on for a while. We learned the wine didn't say "Sauvignon Blanc" on the front label, and as far as we could tell the winery didn't apply to put it in that category. Still my colleague wouldn't budge.
Finally we were able to get the wine moved into the white Bordeaux blend category, where it won not just a gold, but Best in Class. I'm glad we compromised and everyone was happy except Buty Winery, which would have won best in class for that category if we hadn't moved the DeLille (Note to self: drink more white Bordeaux blends from Columbia Valley.)
But I'm still unhappy with my panel-mate's original position, which was that if the wine stayed in the Sauvignon Blanc category, she would give it few enough points to prevent it from getting a gold medal. To me, this is taking typicity too far. We all loved the wine -- isn't that enough? You tell me.
A little later, we got a Sauvignon Blanc that was so herbaceous that I found it unpleasurable. There was no doubt about what it was, even from a distance. But I wouldn't personally drink it.
Naturally, my panel-mate wanted to go gold, or at least silver, because of its typicity. I wouldn't go higher than bronze. The wine -- Trecini Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2010 ($13) -- got enough points to get a compromise silver. It's cheap enough that you can try it for yourself and tell me whose side you're on. (If it doesn't float your boat, try our Best in Class, the Kingston Family Vineyards Cariblanco Casablanca Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($16) from Chile. My notes are "ripe and tropical with good integration of herbaceousness.")
Compromises like these are commonplace at wine competitions, and are one of the reasons I enjoy judging with other professionals. It's always good to hear what other people think about specific wines.
I wonder about how important typicity is to consumers, and what decision readers would make about two wines like that: an atypical but delicious wine, and a very typical but not pleasurable wine. I'd love your thoughts in the comments.