My journey as a judge at the world largest American wines competition
It is the largest competition of American wines in the world: the 2018 edition generated nearly 7000 (yes, seven thousand!) entries from 35 states. I was honoured to be one of the judges of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and I am here to tell you all about it. So, take a sit, maybe even a sip (if you are holding your glass of wine and relaxing), and check this out.
A BIT OF HISTORY
The SFCWC was founded in 1983, it started as the Cloverdale Citrus Fair Wine Competition, held in the homonymous city in Sonoma County. In the 1990s the competition rapidly grew to include over 100 wineries and, in the following editions, participation was extended to other appellations and wine regions. In 2000 the San Francisco Chronicle became main sponsor and it took the Competition up to another level, becoming nationwide and gaining reputation. Despite now it is the largest for American wines in the world, it is till held at the Cloverdale Citrus Fairground, proudly and rightfully true to its roots!
67 renowned wine experts from across the country and from all industries, including trade, media, education and hospitality, come together to evaluate the 7K wines admitted to the competition.
I was the only native European palate of the entire group of judges. To be invited as a judge is an honour and privilege and it has been for me an incredible learning opportunity.
Meeting experienced wine professionals, having the chance to debate with them and to taste so many example of American wines has been an enlightening experience to me and I will tell you why in a bit. First, let me explain you how does the mechanism of the competition work.
The full list of the 18th edition judges can be found here: http://winejudging.com/judges/
Judges are grouped into panels of three. Each 3-judge panel gets assigned to a wine category. I was so lucky to be on the same panel of my friend and super expert colleague wine journalist Chris Sawyer and with Greg Burns, experienced wine maker in Lodi . We have been assigned to Grenache Blanc, Chardonnay 14.00-15.99 $ , Pinot Noir 32.00-35.99 $, Merlot 23.00-26.99 $, Zinfandel 32.00-35.99 $, Syrah above 41.00 $. About 10 wines at the time were brought to us for the blind tasting, to asses their qualities. Once all judges have tasted all the ten wines of the flight, a moderator starts the debate to select the best wines and assign them medals.
2 out of the 3 judges of each panel have to had assigned the same medal for a wine to be awarded with that medal. For a Gold medal to be awarded for example, at least 2 of the 3 judges at the table have to have assessed the wine as deserving to be a ‘Gold’. If all the 3 judges assign a Gold, that wine will be awarded as a Double Gold and will be tasted again at the end of the category session, when the judges are called to award the best of category.
Because of the quality of the judges, and because there has to be a consensus for medals to be awarded, needless to say that the awarded wines are truly outstanding.
The best wine of each category is admitted to the final “Sweeptakes” competition to assign the absolute ‘best red, white, sparkling, rose’, dessert wine’ award.
I tasted 342 wines from all over the United States in 3 days. As I was mentioning in the introduction, it has been one of the most exciting learning experience for my palate. I was the only European among the judges and I feel very honoured to have been invited to taste American wines and to bring my perspective and point of view to the debate.
Overall the quality of the wines I tasted was really high. Two categories impressed me particularly: the Chardonnays and the Pinot Noirs.
THE REVENGE OF THE “CHEAP” CHARDONNAYS
I confess that when I saw my name on the Chardonnay 14-15.99 USD range price category, I wasn’t so excited about it. What should I expect from the cheap Chardonnays, if not some big, bold, fruity bombs wines produced to be pleasant for the mass, for people who don’t understand wines and don’t want to invest money in buying more expensive wines? I was ready for a painful morning, but I had to take all my bad thoughts right back.
I was so impressed by the quality and the complexity of the Chardonnays! Overall the style was clean, neat, elegant, simple. Quite the opposite of the oaky, buttery, heavy character I was expecting. Also my colleagues, Chris and Greg, were amazed by this new wave: we recalled some Burgundy reminiscence in some of the samples, a more minimal and delicate style.
Of the 61 wines on competition in this category, we assigned 9 Double Gold and 12 Gold medals, meaning that we judged outstanding one third of the “cheap” Chardonnays. Isn’t this a revelation?
The best of class was A to Z Wineworks (https://www.atozwineworks.com ) Chardonnay 2016 from Oregon, 15.00 USD retail, with a nice, mineral finish and hints of aromatic herbs, white flowers, apples, acacia. Lovely.
LIST OF WINNERS CHARDONNAY 14.00-15.99 USD: http://winejudging.com/medal-winners/2018-medal-winners/2018-210/
LESS CONCENTRATION AND MORE PERFUMES FOR PINOTS
The second category that has been an Epiphany is 32-35.99 $ price range Pinot Noirs. The 76 wines we tasted, gave me a quite broad overview of what is going on in the US with this incredible grape, one of my favorite, which I find very similar in behaviour to Nebbiolo. Pinot Noir is a real “sponge”: it absorb everything from the outside and reveal it in the glass. It is a terroir carrier, a Pinot Noir tells you a lot about where it has been grown and produced. And the wine maker, in my opinion, has to encourage this, not to overwhelm the grape with aggressive techniques. I was pleased to find out that, overall, the effort of the US wine makers reflects this philosophy. There is a lot of respect of the grape, of its primary aromas and a less invasive use of oak. Selby winery (https://selbywinery.com ) , Russian River Valley, Pinot Noir, 2016, 33.00 USD retail, won the best of class. It is a spectacular wine: with talc and powder sugar hints, so delicate purple flowers, as lavender, cassis, pink pepper and a bright finish of red currant and pomegranate. I could smell it for hours! So intriguing.
LIST OF WINNERS PINOT NOIR 32.00-35.99 USD: http://winejudging.com/medal-winners/2018-medal-winners/2018-405/
AND FINALLY SOME ITALIAN PRIDE
The best of class of each category have been judged together by panels of 9-10 judges to determine the absolute winners. I hoped that one of the incredible wines I tasted could have been voted best of the best (the Sweeptakes categories of best red, white, sparkling, rose, dessert wine), but unfortunately this didn’t happen.
However, I am glad to understand that two wines made of Italian native varieties won the Sweepstakes competition. Best White wine 2018 is a Vermentino produced by Brick Barn Wine Estate (http://www.brickbarnwineestate.com ), in the AVA Santa Ynez Valley, 40.00 USD retail. This is quite unusual if you think how huge is the number of Chardonnay, Sauvignon or Pinot Gris samples in the competition and how little are the chances for the few tens of Vermentino wines entries to stand out. I am very curious to try it!
Last, but not least, also the Rose’ category gave me a news to be proud of! The best US Rose’ wine is made of Sangiovese grapes, Barnard Griffin (WA) http://barnardgriffin.com 2017 Columbia Valley, 14.00 USD retail. As the Italian Wine Girl, I am really interested in understanding how the native Italian grapes behave in such different terrors and conditions, so I can’t wait to try this super awarded American wines with an Italian heart!
There are not enough words to express my gratitude to Bob and Scott Fraser , who welcomed me in the judges family and to all their staff: the organization, the logistic and the managing effort behind one of the biggest wine competition in the world is unbelievable. Everything was so efficient and professional! Thank you! See you next year!
HERE ALL THE 2018 MEDAL WINNERS: http://winejudging.com/medal-winners/