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Confessions of A Wine Judge

By Stephen Eliot

I spent a couple of days this past week doing duty as a judge in Sacramento for the California State Wine Competition. Over the years, I have pretty much shied away from such large contests for any number of reasons ranging from my distaste for the unsubtle urgings of event organizers for a high medal count to the inevitable tongue-numbing fatigue and blurred acumen that comes from tasting far too many wines at a sitting. I was pleased in this instance that my concerns were not realized and was doubly pleased in being assigned to a panel of talented judges with whom it was easy to reach comfortable consensus. I must admit that I actually had fun, and all of those involved in putting on a first-rate, very professional event are to be congratulated.

Now, by nature, each and every judge comes with his or her own sets of models, preconceived notions of what makes a wine good, bad or indifferent. While a healthy measure of confidence is necessarily required of one who would judge professionally, confidence is not antithetical to awareness that personal bias exists, and, in fact, I am much heartened when I hear someone at the judge’s table admitting the latter.

As it turns out, my pick for “Best Blog” of the last week was from one of my fellow Sate Fair judges, though not one on my panel, and, in it, Alfonso Cevola addresses the ethos of tasting from a personal perspective in a piece that he titles “In Praise of Funk”. 1

“A couple of things right up front. While I learned to drink wine growing up in California, my palate has migrated towards Italian (and European) wines. That said, I am not against California wines. Far from it. But I believe I do pass wine through the filters of my preconceptions.

It is notable to taste with California winemakers, young and seasoned, and compare the route our palates have taken. I can still feel what it is like to experience a classic California wine. What I am not sure about is if I should reward a wine made from indigenous Italian grapes (Sangiovese, Barbera, etc.) for tasting more like they come from Italy (my default position) or if the new world expression should take precedence. Ultimately I have decided, in the short-term, to take the wine on as is and first make sure it tastes delicious to me. And then we go from there.

From there, he segues into a brief discourse about how such factors as volatile acidity, brettanomyces , oak, sulphur and TCA have variously become to be attractive, tolerable or downright abhorrent as his tastes in wine evolve, but the notion that deliciousness is the starting point is a lesson well remembered, and bravo, Mr. Cevola, for recognizing and accepting those changing “filters of preconception”.

Delicious does, in fact, come in a good many guises.



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Hearty Burgundy
by Stephen Glass
Posted on:7/1/2014 5:16:37 PM

As an undergraduate some 55 years ago,I too was a drinker of Gallo's Heart Burgundy.  In my later more vinously informed years, I remembered it as having been an unusually full-bodied quaff.  One day, doing some unrelated wine search, I discovered that the Hearty Burgundy of those days had a substantial Petite Sirah component.  Ah ... that explains it.  Must have been cheap to include P. Sirah in those days.  Alas, no more.

No Subject
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:7/1/2014 5:40:03 PM

My understanding is that Hearty Burgundy was, in large measure, built around the field blends in Sonoma and Mendocino before those grapes became so in demand that jug wines no longer included them.

A typical field blend would include Zin, PS, Carignane with smidges of things like Alicante Bouschet, Grenache, Black Malvoisie (now known as Cinsaulta) but truly in bits as opposed to the rather larger standings of grapes whose names rarely if ever appeared on a wine label back in the fifties and sixties.

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