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The Days of Wine and Prize Winners : 40 Judges Taste and Tell at the 48th Annual L.A. County Fair

August 20, 1987|NATHAN CHROMAN | Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

More than 2,000 wines were judged last week at the 48th annual Los Angeles County Fair Wine Judging, which has been evaluating California's wines each year since 1935, except for four years during World War II. The fair's objective is to review the best the state has to offer from credentialed high-priced Cabernets and Chardonnays to low-cost popular wine coolers and even a highly aromatic garlic wine or two.

Forty wine judges, representing a wide cross section of professions from all parts of the world gather each morning at 7:30 a.m. to judge products from more than 300 California wineries and negociants. The four-day event allows for slow, deliberate, intensive wine comparisons. Judges are grouped in panels of four, who initially give their personal evaluations followed by a group consensus for award determination. If a class is large, sometimes as many as 100 wines, a panel might spend one or two days evaluating the wines, and if the discussions are especially heated, four days for a class evaluation is a likely possibility.

The key to the long-term success of the judging is the reliance on a blend of academically trained palates with those of dedicated amateurs, the latter representing a kind of consumer's point of view. Since wine tasting is not yet a perfected science, experienced consumers can be as effective as the academicians. It provides a blend of tastes which may well be the best.

Across the nation, wine judgings have proliferated, often resulting in a morass of confusion for consumers seeking judging credibility. Whether academic or consumer staffed, the principal thrust of a competition is credibility. Because of my chairmanship since 1967 of the L.A. fair judging, I am prejudiced. Since that time, I have observed the growth of judgings to the extent that many of today's vintners are reluctant to release a wine unless it has won an award, not caring, of course, from which judging it has come, or indeed how the judging was administered.

Analyze the Awards

Consumers are well advised to analyze the awards of competitions by tasting and comparing award-winning wines, chiefly from judgings deemed major, and then following through by requesting detailed information on the contest's administration, including the names and experience of the judges as well as the tenure of the competition. Most consumers will not bother to do that, and I don't blame them because an award should have meritorious meaning without one having to evaluate the competition at which it was made.

A major portion of the problem lies with the vintners, who regard judgings as a kind of crap-shoot, believing that by entering their entire wine line, some award is likely to result. They are banking on the fatigue of a judge's palate to the point where mistakes are made and even a poor-quality wine, perhaps with high alcohol, can sneak through to capture a medal. That is why Los Angeles' judges are allowed a full four days for a class, with the admonition to withdraw if palate fatigue is sustained. They also are urged to communicate their ideas about style and quality because one judge may champion one mode while the others may consider it offbeat.

Palate burnout is probably the most serious credibility obstacle facing wine competitions today. Entrants could help by avoiding crap-shoot maneuvers and engaging in a pre-judging selection of their own to create greater consumer trust of all competitions. After all, a fair's primary objective, irrespective of what is judged, is to attract the best. Vintners only complicate the issue by attempting to throw in every bottle in the house.

Another consumer note is that whereas new wineries love competitions, those with longstanding reputations often forgo them, believing there is everything to lose and nothing to gain. Other wineries with shorter track records feel exactly the opposite. For wine lovers unfamiliar with newly established wineries with little or no presence in the marketplace, the judgings can be a godsend. That is why many have gained instant recognition to the chagrin of the "oldies," who are still trading on awards achieved decades ago. No doubt, some of the best of today's wine discoveries are a direct result of competitions.

Cellar Aging

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