Whenever I tell someone I’m traveling to judge a wine competition their response is inevitably, “oh how lucky you are to get to taste all those wines.” And I think, “Yeah right.” Funny how the very thought of tasting over a hundred wines in a day sounds like big fun to most people but in reality it’s about as much fun as chasing parked cars. There are certainly good times to be had if you get placed on the right panel with people who are colleagues and friends and the group works well together. Mind you, judging on the wrong panel with stubborn or dysfunctional people can be like being banned to an outpost at the edge of the universe. Regardless, the task at hand involves working through dozens of flights of wines, many of which are not only far from medal-worthy, but either flawed or imminently regrettable.
Such was the case last weekend in Dallas where I helped judge the Dallas Morning News Competition at the Four Seasons Las Colinas Resort, a gorgeous property. Fortunately, the wine competition gods smiled on me this time and I was able to chair a great panel consisting of friends and fellow MS’ Wayne Belding and Laura Williamson. My former editor at Fine Cooking Magazine and dear friend Amy Albert rounded out the team.
Our mission on day one was to work through 115 wines from Sonoma County. We started with a flight of Pinots (several very good ones) then Merlots (also several good wines), before moving on to flights of Cabernet, Zinfandel, Syrah and finally Cab blends. It was somewhere between Barstow and the end of the Cabernets that our team became concerned for our olfactory health. Many of the wines seemed to have the vinous hygiene of a high school 4-H Club. We dubbed one remarkably bretty and tannic Cabernet the “angry cow.” And it more than delivered. After lunch day one concluded with two flights of Chardonnays, all pretty good, none stellar, and many almost exactly alike. Visions of Hello Kitty, Britney Spears and an endless landscape of microwave popcorn danced in my head.
What makes a good wine–a medal wine, you might ask? Easy answer: it should be clean and well-made; it should smell and taste like the grape variety it’s made from; and above all it should be balanced, appealing and drinkable. Score one in each of those columns and your wine gets a medal. Really do a good job and the wine will get a gold medal or silver at least. Trust me, when we came across one of these top wines the quality was obvious to everyone on the team—like a blinding light being turned on in a dark space.
Day two dawned bright and sunny despite the copious amount of Negronis and Fernet Branca consumed by some of the judges the night before. It was Riesling day, something our team had talked about all along. After tasting through an initial flight of Greek wines (some excellent reds) our task of the day was to work through the better part of 90 Rieslings from Europe, Australia and the U.S. We were, needless to say, dangerously excited. The first flight of German wines yielded two outstanding entries that garnered top honors. From there a very good flight of Alsace Rieslings followed by two flights of Australian Rieslings from Clare and Eden Valley. The latter turned out to be the best grouping of the two days. Several gold medals here with more than a few silver medals. Although Aussie Riesling is well known among the sommelier community it’s not exactly a household name. It’s one of the most concentrated, intense and mineral-driven white wines made anywhere and definitely one of the paradigms for the Riesling grape. Monikers such as “liquid light saber” or “liquid piano wire” come to mind. Needless to say, the wines are also remarkably ageworthy.
We took a break after the Aussie wines and then dug into multiple flights of California, Washington and America appellation Rieslings. It was here that everything pretty much went south. Although there were a few good wines here and there what followed was a primer in the misuse of SO2 and acidulation. Aside from the sulfur and baby aspirin texture of some of the wines, many others were oxidized and still others were simply flawed with sulfide or mercaptan issues. It was here, faithful reader, where we earned our keep, where the rubber met the road. Oddly enough, some of the wines actually did smell like rubber–but that’s another story. In the end we handed in our paperwork, took a team photo and finished up with lunch. It was a great two days and I thought our team did an excellent job of working together to find the best wines presented. And it was almost too much fun.