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Playing 'What's My Wine?' : Confessions of a Tasting-Panel Veteran


In August, I joined 40 judges addressing more than 2,000 wines at the fairgrounds in Pomona for the Los Angeles County Fair competition. The fair is the world's largest, but the wine competition makes no boasts about its size--only about its integrity under the watchful and demanding eye of attorney and wine writer Nathan Chroman. I began my career in serious wine judging right here, in the late '40s.

It's the season for fairs, and the results of wine judgings at the Orange County Fair and the California State Fair have been compiled into handbooks listing the recipients of gold, silver and bronze awards. The Orange County Fair even gave awards to wine coolers: a gold went to California Cooler (Citrus), and silvers to Bartles & Jaymes and California Cooler (Tropical). The Orange County tastings are billed as "the world's largest wine competition," with 2,734 entries receiving 902 medal awards. The State Fair is promoted as the most "thorough" and "complex" approach to its 2,128 entries (up 35% from last year), with 66 test-qualified judges giving 632 awards.

The State Fair also gives "double gold" awards, which means that the fortunate recipient had the unanimous vote of the judging panel. This year, the State Fair gave 10 double-golds out of 57 gold awards.

A University of California publication on wine tasting warns of the perils involved in judgings. For example, if panelists can observe one another, one expert might influence less-skilled tasters with his facial or gurgling reactions. A face like a Kabuki mask, indicating horror at the nose or taste, or even eyes rolled heavenward, might prompt a novice to ask, "Which wine was that?" And, of course, conversation is forbidden. At the Los Angeles County Fair, every judge is secreted in a curtained enclosure similar to those at a typical voting precinct. Discussion of contending wines for reconsideration is permitted in a caucus session, with the chairman of each panel determining the wines to be re-tasted for award recognition.

According to Chroman, the quality of a wine judging is indicated by the panel's ability to repeat its award choices. At Pomona, the top wines considered for awards are renumbered before being served again. And it's not difficult to find those better wines a second time. As the late Louis M. Martini told me, "Memory is a wine taster's best asset."

That dynamic Napa Valley wine maker once told me something else of strategic consideration. "You know," he said, "the wet laboratory of your mouth is not always in the same state. You make your coffee every morning, using the same pot, the same water, the same coffee, on the same stove. Most of the time it tastes good, but sometimes it tastes awful. The difference is in the chemistry of your mouth, not the coffee." That's why experienced wine tasters always recheck the first wines from any judged group, after the palate has become fairly operational.

Of course, all these highly touted wine judgings are blind tastings; that is, wines are submitted to tasters in numbered glasses, poured offstage. In May, Frank Prial of the New York Times wrote of a daylong tasting and seminar that he conducted in Manhattan on wines from the Pinot noir grape. In the morning session, leading wines from Burgundy, California and Oregon were tasted openly. Everyone knew the identities of the wines and discussed them freely. "Accepted wisdom at the moment," Prial wrote, "holds that most French Burgundies are superior to American Pinot Noirs, and that some, if not most, Oregon Pinot Noirs are superior to California Pinot Noirs." And that was the way the morning evaluation rated the wines. But, ah, the afternoon session. When no one knew which wine was which, the results were very different. The three wines that were assumed to be French, and the best, turned out to be from California: 1981 Frick Santa Cruz Pinot Noir, Buena Vista 1983 Carneros Pinot Noir, and 1981 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Pinot Noir-Reserve. They not only thought that these were French, but very good French at that. Shades of the famous Spurrier tasting in Paris in 1976, when French tasters gave awards to California wines.

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