The wine judging at the California State Fair in early June began with
an introduction, a glass of wine and a little bit of pressure. One by one, the
72 judges introduced themselves, then tried to identify the wine they were
Among the judges was Matthew Lewis, an engaging and respected Sacramento sommelier who was judging at the competition for the first time. There was plenty at stake. A gold medal or "best in show" can catapult a fledgling winery to a new level of exposure and prosperity. For more established wineries, State Fair accolades can add to their prestige -- and ring up the cash register.
But for Lewis, who worked at Slocum House, Firehouse and Enotria, before launching WineCentric, a wine event and education company, his biggest concern was whether the judging process would actually work. In other words, would the State Fair system -- three days of sipping, spitting and scribbling notes about wine -- actually identify the best wines in California?
After the first day, Lewis wasn't so sure. But as he got to know and respect his fellow judges, he began to see the process more clearly. Talking, listening and revising opinions wasn't a bad thing -- it was the best way to settle disagreements and address potential oversights.
Lewis agreed to recount his experiences during the judging with The Bee to help wine consumers understand the process and to reassure them that the judges not only take their job seriously, but that the system, so seemingly hurried and chaotic, actually works.
His account coincides with the public debut of many of the wines. In late August, California's Grape & Gourmet event introduced consumers to many of the State Fair medal winners. And retailers like Save Mart and Nugget Markets are now prominently displaying the winners on their store shelves.
"Perhaps it's not a perfect system, but given the goals they are trying to achieve, there isn't a better way to go about it," he said of the judging. "It's the fairest and most honest way to do it."
For that initial blind tasting, in which all judges had the same white wine, Lewis said it was a sauvignon blanc, likely from New Zealand or Chile. Turns out, it was a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley of France. While most got the style correct, only a handful zeroed in on the Loire Valley.
That first glass, turns out, was the easy part; the palate cleanser. The judges were put into groups of four. Then came the wines -- lots and lots of them (overall, more than 2,600 wines were entered in 100 different categories). Each glass had a number that corresponded to one on their score sheets. Lewis' panel tackled barbera first.
Lewis is a passionate and meticulous wine expert, but he quickly learned he was doing too much -- and spending too much time on individual wines -- during the judging.
"I started tasting as I was taught to taste, and as I taste in my blind tasting groups," he said. "I check for viscosity. I bring it up to my nose. I'm taking detailed notes. Then I look around and say, 'Oh my God. They're going to ring my neck because I'm going to keep them here all day.' I mean, these people have lives. We probably tasted through 80 wines that day."
Mike Dunne, The Bee's former restaurant critic and current wine columnist, and Rick Kushman, former TV columnist and features writer at The Bee, presided over
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