Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Great wines tasted blind: my golds from Critics Challenge

Jordan Vineyard & Winery is pure gold in my book. Aussie Shiraz may have never left, but for me it's back in a big way and better overall than California Syrah. I found a $5 Italian red and a $14 Australian white that I liked better than almost everything else. And spending $30 to $50 on Pinot Noir doesn't guarantee you a good or even acceptable wine.

These are a few things I learned when the more than 150 wines I tasted blind at Critics Challenge in San Diego last weekend were unveiled.

Critics Challenge is a hybrid of a personal tasting and a wine competition. The way it's structured, I don't have to convince anyone else to give a wine a medal, and neither do any of the other 14 judges. At the same time, I can't hide behind anonymity if I give Charles Shaw a Gold, because I have to give quotable tasting notes with every wine I medal.

How it works is this: 14 critics -- the cream of the wine critic profession (non-Parker class), you can look at the roster here -- sit at 7 tables. Each pair is poured the same wines, and we can discuss them or not, as I learned when I spent an afternoon tasting with Rapid Robert Whitley. But the discussion is just for fun, because if either of us gives the wine a medal, it gets the medal, even if the other taster thought it tasted like pickle juice. If both tasters medal a wine, it gets the higher medal.

We're told the general category of the wine, i.e. Blended Red Bordeaux Varietals, and sometimes (but not always) the price range. We can ask questions; when a wine was a little brown I asked for the vintage. I never wanted to know the region -- I'd rather judge them completely on their own merits -- but sometimes the other taster would ask, and I'd deal with the knowledge. Sometimes I asked for the price category, because I believe no consumer judges a $50 wine and a $10 wine by exactly the same standards, so I don't think I should either.

Whitley, who runs the competition, says wineries don't want bronze medals, and having been at competitions where a bronze means one judge tolerated it but others thought it was rancid, I can see why. We can give silvers or golds, and if we think a wine is a candidate for the best white, pink, red or sticky of the entire competition, we can give it a platinum and put it in the sweepstakes.

I don't think this is medal inflation; platinum has a different meaning than just "top medal." So I am stingy with platinums, but without looking it up, I believe I am an average awarder of golds and silvers. For me, a silver medal is a wine I would drink; a gold medal is something I think any fan of that type of wine should enjoy.

I only have my notes from two of my three tasting sessions, but I want to share them; if my tasting notes from the third session can be pried from the computer I'll post them later. I won't bother listing all of the silvers. These are the gold medals I awarded, with the original tasting notes. Commentary added for this blog post is in italics.

My gold medals:

Lafond Winery Santa Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2009 ($27)
Nice clean cranberry fruit with good acidity.

Napa Cellars Napa Valley Pinot Noir 2009 ($26)
A juicy, cherry-fruity wine with a serious side. Notes of tobacco in the aroma and good structure give it gravitas, but mainly it's fun and quaffable.

Ora Montepulcino d'Abruzzo DOC ($5) !
Outstanding value. Nice red fruit, good structure, excellent acidity and an interesting aroma. You could drink this every day.
This might be my find of the entire competition. I really liked this wine; I gave it a gold before I knew just how cheap it was.

Acorn Winery Alegria Vineyards Russian River Valley Dolcetto 2008 ($30)
A good blend of ripeness and food-friendliness. It's pleasantly fruity and would go well with barbecued meat.
If you want to tell me you can find Italian Dolcettos just as good for less than $30, I won't argue with you. But it's tasty.

Feudi Di San Gregorio Rubrato Aglianico Irpinia IGT 2008 ($16)
A wine that keeps on unfolding, with dried plums and cherries and some cherry tobacco. The mouthfeel is appealing; good acidity and tannins, giving it some textural grip.

J. Lohr Winery "Cuvee POM" Paso Robles 2007 ($50)
Bordeaux blend. Ripe fruit and good balance; a wine that might disappear from the glass quickly.

La Rusticana D'Orsa "Cinque" Santa Cruz Mountains 2008 ($45)
For people who like their Bordeaux blends old style. It's daring enough to lead with fresh herbs, unfashionable these days, but it's actually ripe enough, with nice red plum fruit and well-managed tannins.

R&B Cellars "Lyric of the Vine" Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($50)
Cherry fruit with good structure. A well-balanced wine.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 ($52)
Pretty cherry and raspberry fruit. Elegant.
Jordan only makes two wines, this and a Chardonnay. Coincidentally my table got both, but I don't think it's coincidence at all that I gave both gold medals, because Jordan is meticulous about making great wine.

Jacob's Creek Reserve Barossa Shiraz 2007 ($14)
Red plum and pomegranate fruit with savory notes. Tasty.

Wyndham Estate George Wyndham Founders Reserve Langhorne Creek Shiraz 2007 ($18)
Cherry fruit, good structure. A ripe wine, but not overripe.

Wolf Blass President's Selection South Australia Shiraz 2008 ($18)
Ripe cherry fruit that makes you smack your lips.
Three big Australian companies, three affordable Shirazes, three fine wines, all worthy gold medalists. The same price category of wines labeled as Syrah -- almost all were from California -- was the worst group I had all weekend. Time to bring Aussie Shiraz back into the fine wine conversation. 

Robert Oatley Vineyards Cumbandry Vineyard Mudgee Gewurztraminer 2010 ($25)
Lovely lychee flavor with pretty rose petal notes.
I liked this well enough, but I gave Robert Oatley Mudgee Rosé of Sangiovese 2010 ($15) a platinum in the session from which my notes are missing and it took best overall rosé. Don't have the notes on it, but it was an elegant dry rosé, light pink in color, with great balance. Given my choices for overall best wine of the competition, I cast my vote for it, and I wasn't alone. Out of about 1400 wines, losing only to a great Mumm Rosé Champagne is something for Mr. Oatley to proud of, and yet another data point that Australian wine needs re-evaluation in this country.

Tangent Paragon Vineyard Edna Valley Albarino 2009 ($17)
A focused wine with lime fruit and a food-friendly profile.
I thought it was from Rias Baixas. Edna Valley is underappreciated as a cool-climate site.

Zonte's Footstep Sea Mist Langhorne Creek Verdelho 2010 ($14)
A thirst-quenching wine with mango fruit and a steely mouthfeel.
One of three platinum medals I awarded; it lost a run-off for best white wine of the competition to an off-dry Riesling. That category always wins with critics, so I feel validated in saying this was the best dry white of the competition. Do I need to bang the drum for Australia again?

Husch Vineyards La Ribera Vineyards Mendocino Chenin Blanc 2010 ($11)
A delightful wine with ripe peach flavor and pretty floral notes.
And a great value. Who says California doesn't make great $11 wine?

Sherwood House Vineyards Estate Grown North Fork of Long Island Chardonnay 2008 ($30)
A wine that unfolds langorously, with layers of lemon fruit and toast. Long finish.
I also went platinum on this and was surprised to learn it was from Long Island; it also did well in the sweepstakes voting. I'll bet not many Manhattanites realize a Chardonnay this good is this close to home.

Frank Family Vineyards Carneros Chardonnay 2009 ($32)
An intense wine with vibrant lemon fruit.

Jordan Vineyard & Winery Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2009 ($29)
A balanced Chardonnay with attractive lemon fruit and a svelte body.
Jordan winemaker Rob Davis gave me this great interview about his Giants fanship during the playoffs last year. So if I was raving about these wines after drinking them with him, you could dismiss it. I'm glad I tasted his wines blind; they really are all that.

Clos Du Bois "Calcaire" Russian River Valley Chardonnay 2008 ($25)
Ripe and lemony, with toast in the background and good balance. Nice.
Here's a big-company wine I would probably have never tried if I knew what it was. A good reason to taste blind.

White Hall Vineyards Monticello Viognier 2009 ($17)
Pretty apple fruit with a hint of the apple blossom flower.
Virginia Viognier, take a bow.

Red Soles Winery Miracles Ranch Paso Robles Viognier 2010 ($26)
Elegant, pretty wine with apple and some stone fruit.


  1. That Oatley rose is pretty darn tasty.

  2. I just sent your blog post to Rob. I'm sure he'll be pumped. He needs some good news after what happened to Buster Posey last week.

    Journey of Jordan: a wine and food video blog

  3. Great comments from the Critics Challenge! Glad you were a fan of the Oatley wines Thanks a bunch, I will share with the folks in Oz. Cheers till next time Blake!