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08.17.2010

Judging Lake County Wine

LCWALogo.jpgI'm up in the heart of California's Lake County, in the Guenoc Valley, in the process of tasting somewhere around 150 different Lake County wines over the next 36 hours. I'm a judge at the second annual People's Choice Wine Awards here in Lake County.

This event is fairly unique as wine competitions go. A panel of judges picks a group of top wines in several categories, and then about a month later, they are showcased blind at an event for the public, and the top wine in each category is selected by popular vote.

I'm participating as a judge for a couple of reasons. The first, and most important, is that while I've tasted a good deal of Lake County wine, my experience with the region is far from comprehensive. This exercise will give me a broad benchmark for understanding what's going on in Lake County and the quality of the wines being made.

I'm also participating to support what I think is a very interesting and progressive wine competition, as such things go. As you know, I'm no fan of the medal system when it comes to wine competitions, especially those from the state fairs. This wine competition sensibly does away with all that, and then lets consumers be the final judges in a big blind tasting. I think that's a great approach, and one that more wine competitions should take.

I look forward to sharing my thoughts on the wines (here's a sneak preview: why aren't more people making Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier up here !?), and I am tweeting as we go through, so check out my twitter feed if you're interesting in following along.

Comments (10)

BaroloDude wrote:
08.17.10 at 3:42 PM

Tough gig but somebody's got to do it!
Thanks for dropping on that grenade for the rest of us.
I look forward to learning through your experience!

Blake Gray wrote:
08.17.10 at 4:05 PM

Hey Alder, I don't get this: if it's the people's choice, why are there experienced judges? I see why you would want to do it -- I've never had a big Lake County tasting either -- but the setup seems hypocritical to me.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
08.17.10 at 5:10 PM

Blake,

The idea is that the judges narrow the field of hundreds to dozens, which is what must occur for "the people" to reasonably be able to judge in a comprehensive fashion. By reducing the field of wines to 30 or 40, then when a bunch of consumers show up to a tasting, they can taste everything. And since every wine they taste has been selected by judges as a top wine, they don't have any inhibitions about deciding which ones they like the best. No fear of loving a wine that the "critics" hate, which unfortunately is a product of our wine culture.

08.17.10 at 7:28 PM

Have a great time Alder. I remember how beautiful the area was when I used to live in the Langtry house. I have plenty of ghost stories to share. Make sure you're driving the appropriate vehicle for Tephra Ridge and if you're invited to harbin hot springs, remember - those girls are extra friendly for a reason $$$$

Chris Lopez wrote:
08.18.10 at 12:29 AM

Alder, when I first began reading this entry my first reaction was *gasp*! This does, however, seem to be a bit of an improvement on the traditional state fair judging farce. I still see many flaws in the system (as I understand it at least). If I can refer you to an entry from my favorite wine blog... =)
http://www.vinography.com/archives/2007/06/stop_the_state_fair_madness.html

To paraphrase the bullet points from the article -
1) Judges are not professionals, just people in the industry or at worst just people who "enjoy" wine.
2) The categories are too specific, thus making it very easy to win.
3) There are many times too few entries in each category and the institution gives out medals anyway.
4) We do not have any sense of what other wines the winners were competing with and therefore no point of reference. The competition is not a representative sample.
5) Wineries cherry pick and/or deliberately alter the wine in entered bottles to show better then the real product available on the shelves.

Based on these well put and thought out points of the flaws in a traditional wine competition it seems that the change in the judging style doesn't really address any of these. Scores are only as good as their source. I know what Robert Parker's or Steven Tanzer's scores mean because he has a track record that I am familiar with. It is only in this context that they mean anything at all to me. for this reason I hate it when a publication or shelf talker credits the score to them when the tasting was actually done by someone else working under their name. I have absolutely no idea what the judges palates are like or their previous experience (aside from you of course) and I am even less familiar with the the palates of "the people." Any system is only as strong as it's weakest link and it seems that this has many of them.

Aside from the judging procedure goes this competition seems to partially address bullets 2 and 3 by being put on by the winery association of a particular region. Possibly even bullet point 4 a tiny bit as well (although I have had some awesome wine from wineries that were not part of a their region's winery association) but none of these has anything to do with the judging style.

I am happy for you (and a bit jealous!) that you are participating as a judge but a bit disappointed in you for losing sight of your previous convictions. Please, change my mind!

Alder Yarrow wrote:
08.18.10 at 8:14 AM

Chris,

A-ha! Glad someone has been paying attention.

Here's the deal.

1. Every judge in this competition is a wine professional at some level -- a wine writer, sommelier, or buyer.

2. The competition is nearly comprehensive, which is to say, it covers nearly all the wines made in Lake County, or with Lake County fruit (that put the lake county AVA on their label) that have production levels above 500 cases. So while in some cases there are only a few of a given type of wine (e.g. just four Muscat Canelli bottlings), picking a top wine from that category is no less definitive, given our focus only on Lake County. So not only is the competition a representative sample, it is an almost complete sample. There are a few wines made by non-Lake County-based wineries that bear the Lake County designation that were not submitted to the competition, but we're talking about a handful.

3. No medals are given out. As judges, we pick our (2-4) favorites (based on the average score that we each individually give the wine), and then pass them along to the public to taste. This is an important point. The public actually gets to taste these wines. The public then chooses their single favorite wine in the course of a large public tasting, and that wine has the pleasure of bragging about it. The competition is less about the "awards" and more about putting on a fun wine tasting event for the public where the wines they are tasting have been vetted by professionals.

I cannot be certain that wineries haven't submitted special, doctored samples to this competition, other than my confidence in the professionalism of the folks that are running the competition.

This is a very different kind of competition from most out there, and that's why I'm here.

Having said all that, making a buying decision based on the results of this competition (especially if you don't attend the public tasting to try the wines for yourself) isn't nearly as informed a decision as careful tasting by yourself, or the evaluation by a reliable single critic whose palate you have calibrated to your own.

Roy Tennant wrote:
08.18.10 at 10:12 AM

I live in Sonoma Valley, and run a web site that highlights the wineries in the Valley. But I have to say that Gregory Graham in Lake County is one of my all-time favorite wineries. I seem to love every wine he makes, but the Zinfandel is my absolute favorite. Don't miss Gregory Graham in your trip through Lake County wines!

Arnaud H wrote:
08.18.10 at 10:18 AM

It's great having you up here, Alder. There is great wine being made here. We have a winning combination of elevation, clean air, soil and people. Some of us will also be at the California Family Winemakers event in Fort Mason Sunday and Monday.

rogerwine wrote:
08.23.10 at 8:38 AM

Ahh great, very democratic, the blind leading the blind

09.09.10 at 8:42 PM

One of the highlights of my visit to California is the chance to sample and buy Lake County wines. I'm so happy that I have people that can identify with this pleasure. Will be there soon again.

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