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Trials and Tribulations
An Affair To Remember—In Santa Cruz

By Stephen Eliot

I am not a big fan of large wine “competitions” and generally decline invitations to participate when asked to sit and sort through one-hundred or more wines in a day with the aim of awarding medals. It is not that I am hamstrung by the idea that judging wines is an entirely subjective and thus invalid exercise, but nobody, and I mean nobody, can competently taste their ways through so many wines at one time despite what this or that “professional” might claim.

Think about it. Ninety high-acid Sauvignon Blancs before lunch. Fifty overtly tannic Petite Sirah by mid-afternoon, and twenty Mourvèdres to help the tasters sleep at night. Oh, and then the typically big and lusty evening meal at which we all bring a memorable bottle to share.

Yes, I will admit that it is fun to get together with friends in the industry, especially for those lovely dinners that are the reward for our work, but in spite of the “fun”, I have always felt a bit guilty because my participation was perforce an endorsement of the aims and methodology of the event. Criticisms abound of such tastings, some that invoke statistical “science” to disprove their worth, but, for me, it is simply that too many wines and too many tasters have never struck me as a formula for the success of critical evaluation.

Now, rather obviously, I believe that wines can be evaluated and ranked in some sort of heirarchical framework. It is, after all, what we do here at CGCW. But, methodology matters, and when I and my fellow tasters at the big competitions have tired to the point of dreading the next lengthy flight of wines to be judged, and believe me we do, it is entirely reasonable to call methodology into question. I am painfully aware that I am not earning my keep when just wanting to be finished is the foremost thing on my mind.

Still, I will occasionally put my misgivings aside and, with a mind as open as I can make it, accept as I did late last week an invitation to taste and offer my two-cents worth of opinions at such an event. And, sometimes I am surprised.

I was asked to judge wines from member wineries of the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association and, upon arriving for a breakfast gathering at Cabrillo College prior to tasting, was informed by my hosts that the event was not intended to be a competition but rather an evaluative professional tasting, and that we were not there to hand out awards. What the folks in charge really wanted was our opinions on the wines, pure and simple.

Although we were asked to “score” the wines on a twenty-point scale, what was desired most was lengthy comments and notes on the wines that would later be shared with their makers. No medals. No colored ribbons. No fanfares and ceremonious unveiling of winners and losers. What is more, the three panels of six judges each were presented with a very manageable number of wines, I counted around fifty for the day at my table, and we were allowed plenty of time to sip, spit and talk among ourselves without the need for coming to the compromised consensus that such judgings almost always require.

The talk at the table was informed and useful and wholly free of the advocacy and defense that I have come to expect at “competitions,” and the cordiality carried right on into dinner later that night. I don’t know that I would claim that this was a “perfect” model for such an event, but I left feeling that the day was eminently worthwhile. I hope that it will prove to be as useful for its organizers as it was genuinely enjoyable for those of us asked to partake, and I, for one, would be more than happy to join in again next year.


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