News Column

Judging Wines From the Inside

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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 given.

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 the competition and arranged to have each four-person group balanced with a winemaker, a wine writer or educator, a wine professional such as a sommelier and a citizen wine enthusiast.

"You have all these people who think about wine differently. We want them to talk," said Kushman, co-author of the best-selling book "The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America's #1 Brand" (Evolve Publishing, $12, 272 pages) "We want them to think about what (scores) they are giving because, ultimately, this is a guide for consumers."

Talking, it turns out, would play a major role with one special wine Lewis' group encountered.

At first, Lewis found the notion of talking and comparing and compromising akin to "horse trading." If he rated a wine, say, as a bronze medal and others gave it a gold, he would listen to their arguments and, if convinced, would agree to raise his score. A wine that earned gold from each of the four judges would get a double-gold designation and automatically qualify for "best of show" judging.

Lewis' panel dealt with several styles in the first two days. One's palate, he said, can get overwhelmed after so much tasting. Not everything was great -- or even decent -- according to Lewis' handwritten notes. For every wine that inspired comments such as "good, reasonable, simple, clear," there would be a wine that was "cheesy, fat, flabby, overly oaked."

"I believe a wine needs to have true varietal character and needs to have topicity (that the wine should smell and taste like its specific style) for that varietal," he said. "I don't care if it's a pleasant wine. If it tastes like sauvignon blanc and it's a pinot grigio, it should not win best in show."

As the tasting and talking continued through the first two days of judging, Lewis began to realize that most of the wines he liked were getting praised by other and most of ones he loathed had been dismissed by the rest of his panel. The more they tasted and talked, the more they bonded.

One wine stood out -- a gewurztraminer he felt was a magnificent example of that style. A second gewurztraminer had already made a positive impression for "having the proper acidity to back up the sweetness."

For the even better example in this style, Lewis was convinced he could identify the winery (turns out, he was right). Three of the four judges gave it gold. The fourth, a winemaker, awarded it a bronze. He wasn't a fan of the style in general and it wasn't a wine he would normally drink.

Lewis said, "But he was willing to listen to our arguments and I chose to advocate for this wine because I was so certain it was a great, great wine. He told us, 'I hear how passionate you guys about this wine. Let's give it gold and send it forward into best of show.'"

That little bit of compromising went a long way.

On Day 3, Lewis was selected to be part of the panel of 25 judges for "best of show." In this round, there would be no talking or dealing. If you loved the wine, you raised your hand.

"So here comes the dessert flight. I pick up the first wine and say, 'Welcome back, friend.' There was no mistaking this wine. I was very happy and proud that when it came to a show of hands, every hand was raised in the room," Lewis said.

"I was like, 'Wow, the process works.'"

The gewurztraminer Lewis helped shepherd all the way to the top award in "Dessert Wine" was from Navarro Vineyards of Anderson Valley and coastal Mendocino County.

Baffled after the end of Day 1 and mildly encouraged after Day 2, Lewis left the contest convinced the gold medal winners were all very good wines. One winery he had never heard of -- South Coast Winery -- wound up winning the "Golden State Winery of the Year." The Temecula-based winery makes syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot, among other styles.

"California should take great pride in its wineries," Lewis said. "No other state can possibly claim what we have and no other state has as many world-class wines. What is a State Fair if not one big homage to our state? It's one big tooting of your own horn."



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