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How Sweet It Was for the Winners of Wine Contest

July 11, 1986|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN

Now you can have your sweet wine and drink it, too.

That would seem to be one message to be gleaned from the results of the Orange County Commercial Wine Competition, the largest such competition in the world and one of the most prestigious, according to John Hardman, president of the Orange County Wine Society, which staged the event.

In a departure from tradition, three of the four gold medal wines unanimously nominated by the four- and five-judge panel--called "four-star" golds--were wines with high sugar levels. And among the nearly 900 other medals awarded from the field of 2,734, even a wine cooler garnered a gold.

"Maybe the judges talk dry and drink sweet," Hardman offered as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek explanation for the disproportionate acclaim accorded the sweeter wines.

More than 70 judges, all California winery owners or wine makers, participated in the "double-blind" tastings: Neither stewards nor judges were told which individual wines were being judged. (Nor did they confer.) Most of the winning wines will be displayed and available for sampling in the Wine Garden of the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa today through July 20.

The four-star winners were: Joseph Phelps Vineyard's 1985 Late Harvest Scheurebe, Napa Valley ($15); Chateau St. Jean's 1984 Select Late Harvest Gewurztraminer, Alexander Valley, Belle Terre Vineyard ($14 the half-bottle); Ernest and Julio Gallo Winery's Livingston Cream Sherry ($2.50), and, the one dry wine in the bunch, Trentadue Winery's 1984 Petite Sirah, Alexander Valley ($6.50).

Wine coolers were judged for the first time. California Cooler-Citrus took top honors in a field of 16.

Hardman shared some observations.

"There are a heck of lot of Chardonnays out there," Hardman said. "Our computer program stops at 450. We had to enter a bunch by hand." There were 468 Chardonnays entered. In the high-priced category--100 entries retailing for more than $12--only four gold medals were awarded.

Judging Raises Standards

"The judges are being tough," he continued. "In any competition, whether you're judging wine or food or automobiles, you select the most outstanding. It forces the quality up. In this case, it also tells the wine makers what they're doing wrong. The indications are that a lot of the high-priced wines are being released too early."

Of the wineries, Chateau St. Jean of Kenwood tied with Christian Brothers of St. Helena for the most gold medals--six--but was awarded none in one of the classes for which it is best known, high-priced Chardonnay. Fetzer Vineyards of Redwood Valley got the most medals overall, 16. Andrew Quady of Madera entered four wines, all sweet--two Ports and two dessert wines, "Essencia" and "Elysium"--and wo0n gold medals with all four.

Several of the most highly respected wineries, such as Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Clos du Val and Cakebread Cellars, all of Napa, came away with no gold medals at all. In the most expensive sparkling wine classes, the usual heavy hitters were conspicuously absent from the roster of gold medals.

The number of white zinfandel and other "blush" and "blanc" wines--white wines made from red grapes--skyrocketed.

Orange County Fair Wine Steering Committee chairman and syndicated wine columnist Jerry Mead helped weed out the bargains.

"Although I have not tasted the wine, a gold medal at Orange County and a gold at the El Dorado Western Wine Competition in Reno against wines of all prices has me convinced that the Mendocino Estate Winery Zinfandel, at $3.50 a bottle, must be an impressive wine," Mead said.

Gallo Sherry Lauded

"I have personally blind-tasted the Gallo Livingston Sherry, at $2.50 a bottle, against Spanish Sherries selling for four times as much, and it does very, very well. It usually gets half the first-place votes."

Mead pointed out that the four-star gold medals, of which the Gallo Sherry was a winner, indicate a standout in a particular class, but they do not compete against other class winners and, therefore, are not the same as sweepstakes or best-in-show winners at other competitions. He also commented on the judging of the competition's newest class.

"The wine coolers were fun," Mead said. "Our stated goal is to inform consumers of excellence, and they're certainly very big with consumers, so we'll continue to judge them.

"It was an unusual experience for the judges. None had previously judged wine coolers, and the standards obviously had to be a little different. They worked it out as they went along. The criteria ended up being, first, did it taste good? second, did it taste like the flavor listed on the bottle? (the judges were given that but no other information) and third, did the flavor taste natural or artificial?"

The competition includes every varietal (a wine bearing the name of the grape variety from which it is made) produced in California, as well as all fortified wines (ports and sherries), sparkling wines and cork-finished generic wines (wines without varietal designation). The 45 classes were broken down into subcategories by price and residual sugar content.

A booklet listing all winners is sold at the fair or is available by sending $4 to: Orange County Wine Society, 1986 Wine Awards Booklet, P.O. Box 11059, Costa Mesa, CA 92627.

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