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February 28, 2008

Who Makes a Good Wine Judge?

Immersed as I am in the first (Monterey) of the three big wine competitions I run, I've been thinking lately about what makes a good wine judge.

Ultimately, it comes down to you. You are the judge that really counts.

Imagine, if you will, that you are entertaining a large crowd over dinner, and that everyone around the table enjoys a glass of wine, or two, with a meal. You open several different wines and spread them around.

Conversation breaks out, plates are passed, bottles are passed and, at the end of the night, a few bottles have been drained and a few appear to be relatively untouched. Whether you realized it at the time, or not, your wine selection had been judged. The winners? The empty bottles, of course.

It is no different at a commercial wine competition. I instruct the judges to find the empty bottles; the bottles that will prove most satisfying at the end of the day.

The only thing that separates you, a wine enthusiast, from a professional wine judge is training and practice. The prospect of tasting 100 or more wines in a single day would prove daunting for most. Wine judges are primarily professionals in the wine business, including winemakers, vintners, sommeliers, and sales and marketing folks, and they have made a career of tasting multiple wines in an analytical setting.

They generally taste each wine 'blind' so that no one is influenced by label recognition or price, and historically the percentage of medals awarded falls within a narrow window that varies little from one wine competition to the next. Proving, I suppose, that evaluations are relatively consistent from competition to competition.

Most competitions choose their medal-winners by a panel vote, a structure I utilize for the Monterey and San Diego wine competitions (but not the unique Critics Challenge, which bases its awards on the individual assessments of renowned wine critics).

I like at least one member of each panel to be either a winemaker or a 'super' taster, such as a highly regarded sommelier or wine merchant. This person is primarily on the lookout for flaws that should either disqualify a wine or mute its achievement.

The other judges are looking for aesthetically pleasing qualities that merit recognition in the form of either a bronze, silver or gold medal. When it works the way it is supposed to, a good judging panel reaches a consensus that weeds out flawed wines and rewards wines that will deliver the goods to the ultimate benefactor of wine competitions - the consumer.

It is often said that a winemaker is looking for what's wrong with a wine, while the rest of us are focused on what we like. Between those two perspectives, good results will flow.

Of course, when you peruse the medal-winners, only you can decide which wines you will purchase. You are the ultimate judge. In the end, the only judge that matters.

Results of the Monterey Wine Competition (March 1-2) following the judging may be found at SalinasValleyFair.com. The San Diego International Wine Competition (April 19-20) results will be posted at SDIWC.com shortly after the judging, and Critics Challenge (May 24-25) winners can be found at CriticsChallenge.com.

PHOTO: Judges Marguerite Thomas, Robert Whitley and Mary Ewing-Mulligan consult during a recent Critics Challenge.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:12 AM

February 26, 2008

Whitley On Wine Radio: Apstein and Gubler

You can listen to Dr. Apstein's argument about improving Riesling labels to remove confusion over the sweetness level here.

Michael was my guest for the second half of Friday's Whitley On Wine radio show, and we were generally in agreement that Riesling's huge comeback in popularity has been a stunning development, but that it could be making even greater strides if consumers had a better idea what they might be getting should they purchase the wine.

This is particularly true with so-called "dry" Rieslings from Alsace, which often range from bone dry to noticeably sweet.

In the first half of the show I was joined by winemaker Matthias Gubler of Vina Robles winery in Paso Robles. Matthias' family farmed a Pinot Noir vineyard while he was growing up in Switzerland, but he's been making a name for himself in wine with bold red Rhone and red Bordeaux blends from grapes grown in California's booming Central Coast.

The image at the top of this blog is Vina Robles' impressive new visitors' center, which opened last yeat.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:39 AM

February 20, 2008

Judges Announced for 2008 Critics Challenge

We are now in the midst of the wine competition season, so on any given wine-shopping spree you are likely to come across numerous wines that are being touted as medal winners.

You may wonder what to make of it all, but I believe you can reasonably conclude that most every gold-medal wine will have some exceptional qualities, and that a medal of any kind is an assurance that the wine at least offers a modicum of drinking pleasure.

But it would be naive to conclude that all wine competitions were created equal. Wine judges have varying levels of skill and experience, and that may impact the votes they cast.

Which brings me to the Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, where I am Director and co-Chief Judge along with Wine Review Online columnist Mary Ewing-Mulligan, a Master of Wine, brilliant taster, and diligent gatekeeper.

The Critics Challenge is a unique wine competition, bringing together as it does an array of accomplished wine journalists to evaluate each submission.

What makes this competition unique and special is the aspect of accountability. In most other wine competitions, judges are grouped into tasting panels and the awards are a consensus of the group. Nothing wrong with that, and two of the three wine competitions I oversee (San Diego International Wine Competition and the Monterey International Wine Competition) utilize the panel structure.

Critics Challenge, however, lists the name of the awarding judge, along with an excerpt from the judge's tasting notes, in the official results posted on the Critics Challenge website.

It is this accountability that clearly sets the Critics Challenge apart, and gives you, the consumer, an added edge when considering which wines to purchase from the overwhelming number of selections available in today's marketplace.

This year's Critics Challenge will be conducted over the Memorial Day weekend. It is the fifth Critics Challenge thus far, and the field of judges has just been announced. Visit CriticsChallenge.com in late May for all of this year's winners and the judges' comments.

2008 Crtics Challenge Judges

Michael Apstein, columnist Wine Review Online and frequent contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle.

Gerald Boyd, columnist Wine Review Online and frequent contributor to multiple national wine publications, and former Editor of The Wine Spectator.

Stephen Brook, regular contributor to Decanter Magazine and The Times of London, and author of numerous wine books, including "Bordeaux: People, Power and Politics."

Patrick Comiskey, regular contributor to the Los Angeles Times and Senior Editor of Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Michael Franz, Editor Wine Review Online, a regular contributor to France Magazine, and former wine columnist for The Washington Post.

Paul Lukacs, Wine Editor Saveur Magazine, wine columnist for The Washington Times, columnist for Wine Review Online, and author of two award-winning books, "The Great Wines of America" and "American Vintage: The Rise of American Wine."

Ed McCarthy, author of Champagne for Dummies, and co-author with wife Mary Ewing-Mulligan of Wine for Dummies and numerous other wine books, as well as a columnist for Wine Review Online and Nation's Restaurant News.

Elin McCoy, wine columnist for Bloomberg News, author of an award-winning book on wine critic Robert Parker, "The Emperor of Wine", columnist for Wine Review Online, and former wine editor of Food & Wine Magazine.

Linda Murphy, West Coast contributor for Decanter Magazine and California wine reviewer for JancisRobinson.com, columnist for Wine Review Online, and contributor to the San Francisco Chronicle wine section, for which she served as Editor for a number of years.

Rebecca Murphy, Director and Founder of the Dallas Morning News Wine Competition and wine columnist for the Dallas Morning News.

Nick Passmore, wine columnist for Business Week and numerous national wine and lifestyle publications.

Jamal Rayyis, Editor of Food & Wine Magazine's annual Wine Buying Guide.

Leslie Sbrocco, award-winning author, Emmy Award-winning television personality, and columnist for Wine Review Online.

Marguerite Thomas, regular contributor to The Los Angeles Times International Syndicate, Travel Editor of The Wine News and a columnist for Wine Review Online.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:40 PM

February 15, 2008

Whitley on Wine Radio: The Mount Veeder Winery Team

We're mountain wines on Whitley on Wine, the radio show with guests Janet Myers and Matt Ashby, the winemaker and vineyard director, respectively, at the Napa Valley's Mount Veeder Winery.

You can listen here. Janet, who also makes the wines at Franciscan (Matt is the vineyard guy there, too), describes the differences between the bold, somewhat rustic mountain Cabernet Sauvignons from the steep hillsides of Mount Veeder and the smoother, more refined Cabs from the valley floor.

Matt discusses the challenges of farming those hillside vineyards, including dealing with the elements of nature, such as deer, birds, wild boar and mountain lions.

This dynamic duo took up the entire hour, providing entertaining and infomative anecdotes and insights. It's an interview you don't want to miss.

It's also worth noting that last week's conversation with Jeff Bundschu on the 150 years of Sonoma's hostoric Gundlach Bundschu winery has now been posted to the archive and can be accessed here.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 1:45 PM

February 14, 2008

Expert Panel Selects Top 100 Affordable Bordeaux

With the euro soaring against the dollar and dedicated Francophiles fretting over the steep price of their favorite wines, a three-person panel of experts, including Wine Review Online's very own Leslie Sbrocco, has come up with a list of the top 100 affordable Bordeaux in today's market.

These are wines priced under $30 per bottle, with many well under that price benchmark, and it includes scads of selections from the heralded 2005 vintage. Red, white, rose and dessert Bordeaux are on the list, which you can find here.

Joining Leslie in this year's "affordable" tasting were Master Sommelier Roger Dagorn of Manhattan's Chanterelle restaurant, and Barbara Hermann, the fine wine buyer at Binny's Beverage Depot.

You may not recognize many of the Chateau on the list, but for your convenience importers are named, which should help you find at least some of these wines. When you visit your favorite wine merchant, knowing the importer will help the merchant locate the wine and place an order.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:27 PM

February 12, 2008

WRO Reviews Now Available by Text Message!

One of my closest friends is a serial wine shopper. No matter what's on his plate over the course of a busy day, he manages to find time to sneak over to Costco for a peek at its ever-revolving selection of wines.

How do I know? Well, first my phone rings. "Hello Robert, this is Larry," and so the conversation begins. "They've got blah blah blah at such-and-such a price. What do you think?"

I think Larry should sign up to have Wine Review Online reviews sent to his mobile phone by text message! This is an exciting new service in partnership with Palo Alto-based Review2Buy Inc.

This is a free service (standard text message rates apply) and it's easy to use. Simply text "Go" to 738439. You'll receive a confirmation reply. Press reply and send "Yes" to 738439, and you're all set to put the service to work for you the next time you're browsing for wine.

To access a Wine Review Online review, text the name of the wine (be specific) to 738439 and within seconds the review will be delivered to your phone. For a full tutorial, visit Review2Buy.com, and don't forget to click on the wine icon.

The service was a sensation when it made its debut recently at DEMO '08 in Palm Desert, California, and enjoyed big media expsoure in Business Week (here), the San Jose Mercury News (here) and (here), and U.S. Today and many other publications (here).

So Larry, next time don't call me. Text 738439, and if we've reviewed it, you've got it at your fingertips!

And there's an added perk for those who follow the medal-winners at major wine competitions. Silver, Gold and Platinum medal-winners from this year's Critics Challenge International Wine Competition, and Silver and Gold winners from the San Diego International Wine Competition will be posted on the WRO Reviews pages and delivered to your mobile phone by using this same service!

EDITOR'S NOTE: For those of you who can't remember numbers, 738439 spells out REVIEW on a normal mobile phone keypad.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 9:03 AM

February 8, 2008

Whitley on Wine Radio: Jeff Bundschu

It would be safe to say the Bundschu family was in on the beginning of California wine. They've seen it all since the first Bundschu tended a vine in the village of Sonoma in 1858.

Jeff Bundschu, CEO of Gundlach-Bundschu (who's Gundlach?) and the sixth generation of Bundschu folk involved in Sonoma County wine, will be my guest today on Whitley on Wine, 2 p.m. PT & 5 p.m. ET. I plan to grill Jeff on the entire 150 years, so I'm giving him the entire hour! Gundlach-Bundschu has often been called the "Wild Bunch" because of the winery crew's fun-loving approach to serious wine. Should be an entertaining show.

You can listen live of podcast by visiting SignOnRadio.com, the radio arm of the San Diego Union-Tribune's SignOnSanDiego.com website. And you can visit the archives and listen to other winemaker and wine industry interviews.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 11:49 AM

February 6, 2008

Mail Bag: Customers Share Wine Service Woes

I clearly struck a nerve when I wrote recently about ordering one wine while dining out and being served another. Seems many of our readers are touchy about sloppy restaurant wine service, too, and everyone has a horror story to share.

I don't mean to beat up on the restaurant business. There are, after all, many excellent restaurants that get it, placing just as much effort, thought and training on wine service as they do the preparation and service of food.

We accept the cost of dining out because we appreciate the service and ambiance as much as the food and wine. Poor service can and does ruin an otherwise exceptional culinary experience.

It's important in my view to remind restaurateurs that customers are paying attention and they care. I've had an outpouring of letters from readers on this subject, and though I've already shared a couple of them, there is obviously more that needs to be said. So the readers speak:

Reader Roger Roberts writes:

'I am certainly not as knowledgeable as you, but understand the faux pas by the restaurant and all involved.  When one is a novice, and this kind of 'stuff' is foisted off on the customer, the customer frequently does not know any better.  I had a sommelier attempt to deliver a different vintage of a Patz & Hall Pinot several years ago, and while I might not be proficient enough to distinguish the difference if doing a blind tasting, I ordered what was on the wine list (because I read about it in Wine Spectator) and they tried to bring a different Patz & Hall vintage.  They in fact did not have the vintage offered on the wine list.

'I am guessing you are going to say no, but I would appreciate knowing the name of the WS award of excellence restaurant, so I can also avoid the place.  I am ignorant enough to be taken advantage of, and would rather not wonder which one can't be trusted to deliver honestly on their wine knowledge and service.'

Dear Roger, I will respond on the name of the restaurant privately. My goal is not to injure anyone's business, but rather to call attention to the larger issue of poor wine service and maybe, just maybe, encourage more restaurateurs to take the matter seriously and implement training programs to correct deficiencies.

Reader Lee Galloway writes:

'I had a very similar experience some time ago that I have never
forgotten. I had ordered a Raymond Napa Chardonnay from the menu (this shows you how long ago this was; it was when Raymond produced two Chardonnays: a Napa and a California). What came to the table was the Raymond California Chardonnay. When I tried to explain to the server that I had ordered the Napa, not the California, his condescending response was "Well, Napa Valley is in California!"
thinking that I stupidly did not realize this profundity.
Exasperatingly, I simply ordered another wine.'

Dear Lee:

Indeed, all Napa Valley wines are made from grapes grown in California. But not all California wines are made from Napa Valley grapes. And I wonder how much time it would take, really, for a restaurant wine consultant to teach this simple truth to any competent wait staff?

Reader LeRoy Wright writes:

'Couldn't agree more with your 'Trust, but verify' column. I hope you told those stupes that you were a wine expert, having written a wine column for the newspapers for years (not that I always agree with you).  It's bad enough that those dummies brought you the wrong wine, but argue about it? No, no, no. In addition to learning something about wine, they could have learned something about common courtesy.'

Dear LeRoy:

Nope, didn't tell 'em who I am. Unless I already know a restaurant's owner or chef, I dine out pretty much incognito because I'm not looking for special treatment. I do expect to get what I pay for and am not shy about speaking up when something doesn't come out right. Isn't that the larger point, after all? But you're right about one thing: Arguing with a customer, especially when the customer is apparently somewhat knowledgeable, would seem to be against every rule in the restaurant service manual!

Posted by Robert Whitley at 2:24 PM