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Thursday, 14 June 2012 20:57

Going Wine Tasting without Swallowing

by Dan Clarke

 

Judging wines beats breaking rocks on a chain gang. Or so I would imagine. But it is work and, done right, it requires a fair degree of concentration.

Friday night I was poolside at the home of friends in Sacramento. Somewhere between the grilled lamb appetizers and the filet mignon we were comparing John's Cabernet Sauvignon with a red wine blend. The topic of what each of us had planned for the weekend came up. The following morning I'd be driving up to Plymouth, I said. There I'd be joining 25 or 30 others in judging wines for the Amador County Fair, an activity I'd been doing one Saturday in June for most of the last 20 years or so. Annette congratulated me on my good fortune, saying “It must be lots of fun drinking wine up there with your friends.” I thought a clarification might be in order. “No. What we are doing right now is drinking wine with friends. This is fun and relaxing,” I said. “What we'll be doing tomorrow is sipping wines and judging wines for a competition.” Yes, it will be tasting wines, but it's not quite the same “going wine tasting” of most folks experience.

Amador Glasses Rose SMALLOur first flight is waiting.The Judging

Entering the Horticulture Building at the Amador County Fairgrounds, I recognize many who'll be judging today. It's good to see “Pooch” Pucilowksi, chief judge for the California State Fair Wine Competition. Mike Dunne, who served many years as food and wine editor for the Sacramento Bee and now blogs in his semi-retirement, says hello. Mike's wife Martha, a possessor of a very good palate, is also going to judge. Ted Rieger of Vineyard and Winery magazine has come up for the event. Gerald Cresci, a Lodi grapegrower is here, as is Maynard Johnston, a pediatrician and former home winemaker.

Dick and Jenny Minnis have been in charge of this competition for the last several years and they do a good job. Just before we move to our tasting tables, Dick convenes the judges and explains what is expected of us today. His meeting is brief and is a little like a home plate umpire going over the ground rules with both managers before a baseball game.

Most of the other panels are comprised of five judges, but On Panel G there are just three of us. On my right I recognized Roger Stockton. He and his wife Colleen live in Carson City, Nevada and have written about wine for years. The man on my left is Todd Hafner. We've not met before, though he did judge last year. A geologist by profession, Todd, is also a home winemaker and it's soon apparent that he is very knowledgeable.

Our Role

The Boys of Panel G speculate on what their role will be this morning. We know that the competition organizers would like to see plenty of medals, preferably gold ones. And there's no doubt that the wineries would like to be rewarded. Medals are important. Gold medals and scores in the 90s guarantee sales and we judges would like to see all the entrants prosper. On the other hand, scoring too generously can reward inferior wines and provide no impetus for their makers to do better. Also, if the word gets out that everybody's wine is deemed wonderful the competition will lose credibility. We decide to just “call 'em as we see 'em.”

Any wine made from grapes grown in the 26th Agricultural District—basically the Sierra Foothills—is eligible to enter this competition, regardless of where the winery itself is located.

There are 38 classes of wine to be judged today for the 2012 contest. These categories are loosely organized by predominant grape variety, but there are other definitions, too. Like “Dessert Wines” and various definitions of “Rose”. Zinfandel is a variety made by most of the wineries and it is presented in two separate categories; wines under 14.5% alcohol and those over 14.5%.

Each panel will be given several of the categories to judge. There's no way one group would have time to evaluate all of the wines that have entered. Our assignment today is to judge two white Zinfandel wines, three definitions of rosé, and groups of Petite Sirah and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Amador Judges SMALLReflection follows a bit of concentration.Nine glasses are placed in front of each judge. Volunteers pour numbered samples, filling each glass about one-quarter full. Typically, lighter wines are tasted prior to heavier ones and drier wines before sweeter. In judging these wines, we check their appearance and color. We swirl and sniff. We take sips and slosh them around in our mouths. And then we spit that wine into cups which ultimately are poured into larger buckets on the floor next to our stations. It's not an elegant process.

We are provided scoring sheets which suggest “the Davis 20 point system.” For some years, this has been a baseline for evaluating wines. Number values are assigned to a variety of aspects of the analysis. Appearance gets two points (or less), for instance, as does color. Astringency also is worth (up to) two points and so is acidity. Larger values are possible for other observations such as aroma/bouquet (4 points) and overall quality (3 points). As usual, I begin by dutifully playing this numbers game. Soon I abandon it, in favor of my own system in which I just put plus and minus signs in some of these categories. I believe that judging wine is more art than science—and that it is more accurate for this approach.

Judges in Sync

We begin with Class 35--the White Zins--and get off to a nice start when all three of us rate the first wine tasted worthy of a gold medal. When there is unanimity such as this, the award is known as a “Double Gold.” The other wine was not as good, but worthy of a silver medal. Since our “Double Gold” (a 2011 Sierra Foothill Appellation from the Calaveras County winery Milliaire) was one of only two wines in the category, it also is defined as “Best in Class.”

We push on to Class 36 (Rose Table Wines), Class 37 (Varietal Rose) and Class 38 (Varietal Rose Blends). We find another Double Gold in the Varietal Rose class, which turns out to be the Bray Vineyards Barbera Rosato from the Shenandoah Valley of Amador County.

Twenty-three Petite Sirah entries in Class 21 follow, which we address in three flights of eight, eight and seven. My score sheet shows we awarded no medals to six of these, silvers and bronzes to all of the rest but one. We're unanimous that one wine deserves a gold, hence it becomes another Double Gold and the Best of this Class. A day later when the results are posted we realize that, once again, Bray Vineyards has produced an outstanding wine, their 2008 Shenandoah Valley Petite Sirah.

A Disappointing Category

We break for lunch, then return to deal with our final task, the judging of 13 Cabernet Sauvignon entries.

“What standards do we apply for each category?” was a question I asked my panelmates before we began. In California it is possible to grow almost any variety of winegrape in almost every part of the state. However, that doesn't mean that it will come to its fullest expression in every location. Take Pinot Noir, for instance. In 27 years of writing about wine I remember only one Pinot Noir from anywhere in the Foothills that I thought was any good (made by Umbert Urch from El Dorado grapes, as I recall). Maybe there are--or will be--other good ones out there. I hope so and will continue to look for them. But so what if Gold Country doesn't do as well with this variety as Burgundy, the Willamette Valley or the Santa Lucia Highlands? These otherwise worthy regions grow little, if any, Zinfandel or Barbera, and the Sierra Foothills produces some of the best in these varieties.

Amador Red Wine Glasses SMALLFortunately, we didn't use the best linen.While many wineries in the area grow Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety is not one the region hangs its hat on. We decide to eschew a patronizing, softer analysis for Gold Country Cabs and look for medal winners by applying overall California standards.

We are generally disappointed with the 13 entries in this category can't award a gold medal. Four of the submissions get no medal at all. Seven qualify for a bronze and two merit silver. We choose one of the silvers as the Best of this Class. It turns out to be a 2009 J. Foster Mitchell Shenandoah Valley Reserve.

And the Winners

Our panel's work having concluded, our gold medal choices will be tasted again with those from all the other panels.

A day later when the judges receive the official results, I am mildly surprised to find that the final panel has chosen the Helwig Vineyards & Winery's 2011 Rose of Shenandoah, as Best Rose. We had given it a Gold medal, but weren't unanimous, as in the case of our Double Gold choice.

Ultimately, the Vino Noceto 2009 Sangiovese Misto was named Best Amador Italian, Best Red Wine and Grand Award Winner (Best of Show). The winery produces a Sangiovese “Normale” at $18, but the “Misto” is their attempt to follow Chianti tradition. It's comprised of 87% Sangiovese, 3% Canaiolo, and a total of 10% of the two white grapes, Malvasia and Trebbiano. The wine retails for $28 and is produced in very limited quantities.

The Best White Wine was Amador Foothill Winery's 2011 Sauvignon Blanc. Best Amador Rhone was awarded to the 2011 Roussane of Sobon Wine Company and Best Desert Wine was the 2009 Black Muscat from Shenandoah Vineyards.

 

Visitors to the Gold Country can find links to the websites of all the wineries, as well as links to many lodging and dining options at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

Frog Jumping Champ SMALL photo courtesy of Calaveras CountyFrog Jumping Champ.    photo courtesy of Calaveras County

It's difficult anymore to find a corner of Earth where we are separated from our electronic devices. Even at  30,000 feet, two little syllables - Wi-Fi - keeps travelers plugged in. But California's Gold Country, the state's northeast/central region connected by meandering Highway 49, offers some steller spots where visitors can disconnect from technology for a digital detox.

Whether unplugging is a choice or a geographic happenstance, California's Gold Country offers everyone the chance to unplug and recharge. Here are twelve places to drop the call:

Rock Climb and Hike, Amador County: Remember what it feels like to be alive by hanging from a cliff by your knuckles 1,000 feet above a pristine mountain lake. http://www.touramador.com.

Cave and Mine Adventures, Calaveras County: Change your perspective zip lining over forests or crawling into the depths of the Earth, 165 feet into Moaning Cavern and through amphitheater-like rooms covered in stalactites. Sometimes visitors can hear the cavern actually moaning. Thankfully there is no cell reception. http://www.caveandmineadventures.com/

Kennedy Meadows Resort and Pack Station, Tuolumne County: Spend days reading books with real pages, petting horses in the stables, trout fishing in the Stanislaus River, or dancing to old country music from the Saloon's juke box—who needs iTunes? For Teddy Roosevelt-like adventure, see Southern Yosemite National Park on horseback. http://www.kennedymeadows.com/

Susan's Place Restaurant, Sutter Creek (Amador County): Nosh on artisanal cheeseboards and homegrown mustards while sipping local wines on a brick patio enjoying the trellised landscape. The sign on the door, "please turn your cell phones off", sets the mood. http://www.susansplace.com/index.htm

Cascade down rivers, El Dorado County: Nobody can effectively shoot the rapids while texting. http://www.visit-eldorado.com/river-rafting.php

Concerts in Ironstone Vineyard, Murphys (Amador County): This year choose a concert by Reba McIntire, John Fogherty, Tony Bennett, Jeff Foxworthy and others while wining and dining at the vineyard. Even if your ring tone is "I left my heart..." it is taboo to leave your phone on. http://www.ironstonevineyards.com

In the footsteps of Ansel Adams, Yosemite National Park: This half-day photography class allows photographers to capture the same images Ansel Adams made famous through his classic black and white images. (OK, there may be a digital device involved.) Step back in time with an overnight stay in the historic Wawona Hotel, a mid-19th century wooden lodge in Yosemite National Park. http://www.yosemitepark.com

Take a soak at Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort, Highway 140/Midpines: Buy a day pass for access to a 10-person stainless steel hot tub, cold-rain shower, cedar hot-rock sauna and a seven-jet show in the Health Spa. www.yosemitebug.com

American River Bike Trail, Folsom (to Sacramento): City cyclists will enjoy a break from competing with autos on the longest continuous paved cycling path in the United States. With 32 miles of trails, there are plenty of options for riders of all levels. http://www.visitfolsom.com/cycling/

Christmas Tree Vineyard Lodge, Forest Hill (El Dorado County): Escape the news at this rustic six-room bed and breakfast abode because rooms are TV, radio and telephone-free. http://www.christmastreevineyardlodge.com

Off Road, Placer County:See this beautiful area on ATV's and motorcycles down mountain trails and through parks. www.visitplacer.com/northern-california-off-road.aspx

Jumping Frog Jubilee, Calaveras County:Immortalized by Mark Twain, this annual event in May attracts young and old, individuals and teams (and their bug-eyed competitors) for the Jumping Frog Jubilee at the Calaveras County Fair.  Visitors aren't off the grid here but might have their hands full. http://www.frogtown.org

The northeast/central California region known as the Gold Country, where gold was discovered in 1849, is an area made up of 12 counties and dozens of historic towns dotting Highway 49. It has been named one of the top ten U.S. travel destinations to see in 2012 by Lonely Planet. For more information call toll free (U.S.) 800-225-3764 or 916-985-2698, or visit www.calgold.org.

 

(TravMedia.com contributed to this article)

 

Editor's note: Links to the websites of hundreds of lodging and dining options in Gold Country can be found at Taste California Travel's Resource Directory.

 

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