SAN FRANCISCO — Dog shows always intrigue me, especially the finale where a St. Bernard is matched against a Bedlington terrier in a grand gambol-off to determine the best of show.
The St. Bernard lovers always gripe if the Bedlington wins, figuring the judges simply liked the cute, lamb-like Bedlingtons better than bigger dogs.
In fact, the best of show award pleases few people, and those who find the result flawed usually argue that trying to select a "winner" among a group of dissimilar entrants is futile and serves only to garner more notice for the event. Sour grapes, so to speak.
Yet people like to talk about The Winner, so best-of-show awards continue.
Such as the sweepstakes award at a wine competition. Yet the same sort of hackles can be raised here too. Cabernet Sauvignon lovers are aghast when a Chenin Blanc wins the top award, and talk begins about the absurdity of trying to compare a red wine with a white wine.
No Sweepstakes Award Winner
That's why the San Francisco National Wine Competition did away with the sweepstakes award this year. Instead, coordinator Wilfred Wong asked judges to select "best of class" wines in categories warranting them. He said sweepstakes awards can be a bit like throwing darts blindfolded, and the new San Francisco system avoids that.
The San Francisco Fair wine competition concluded last week, awarding 10 double gold medals, 27 gold medals and giving out 29% awards to the 1,702 entrants.
By comparison, a week before, at the Farmer's Fair of Riverside County, of some 1,601 wines entered, 52 got gold medals and 31% of the wines took home either a gold, silver or bronze. And at the Orange County Fair wine competition, which concluded last week, about 2,540 wines were entered, with 239 getting gold medals, and almost 35% of all wines getting a medal.
At San Francisco, there was no sweepstakes wine, but at Riverside, the judges evaluated 13 sweepstakes nominees drawn from 12 categories to determine an overall winner. After two ballots, the sweepstakes award went to 1985 Kendall-Jackson Cabernet Sauvignon from Lake County ($7.50), a stylish but fairly oaky wine. It nudged out another Kendall-Jackson wine, a 1987 Muscat Canelli ($8).
Interestingly, however, after the competition ended, a number of the judges said the voting on the final round was skewed and they felt that other wines were worthier than the Kendall-Jackson Cabernet.
I cast one of the 28 sweepstakes-round ballots for the Muscat, but earlier, in the first round of voting, I voted for the 1986 Clos du Val Semillon ($8.50), one of the most handsome wines of this variety I have ever tasted.
Another judge said he felt the best wine was the 1984 Marlstone, a superb proprietary red wine made predominantly from Cabernet by Clos du Bois Winery ($19.50). It is the best Marlstone I've ever tasted.
Still another judge said he preferred the Mumm Cuvee Napa sparkling wine ($15.50), and yet another said the best wine was clearly the 1987 Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc ($6.50), arguing, "You wouldn't vote for a Chenin Blanc because it's not a prestige variety."
I informed that judge that I love Chenin Blanc and supported one that did get a sweepstakes award last year, at the Mendocino County Fair wine competition. That wine, 1986 Simi, won the top award in part because judges discussed the fact that Chenin Blanc is so rarely given the top award.
That is one reason Wong discarded the sweepstakes award at the San Francisco event this year--that "orphan" varieties often get overlooked.
"The judges feel that a sweepstakes award is unfair to the lesser varietals like Chenin Blanc," Wong said. "But the biggest problem is that most of the judges feel it's apples and oranges," trying to compare different wine types.
Instead of seeking a single overall winning wine, Wong asked panel members to select "best of class" wines in selected classes.
Among the big winners at San Francisco was Viansa Winery in Sonoma, the new operation owned by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani. The winery won a gold medal for its 1986 Sauvignon Blanc ($8.75) and a double gold for its 1986 Chardonnay ($12.75).
Other wines to win double gold medals that are not household names include Quarry Lake Vintners of Washington for a 1986 Chardonnay ($8); Paul Thomas Winery of Washington for a 1986 Chardonnay Private Reserve ($18); Amity Vineyards of Oregon for its 1986 Chardonnay ($15), and Madrona Vineyards of El Dorado County for a 1985 Chardonnay ($9). Madrona also won a gold for this wine at Riverside.
Gold medal winners at San Francisco that impressed me included 1987 Jory Chardonnay from Santa Clara County ($16.50); 1985 Girard Chardonnay ($13.50); 1986 Byron Vineyard Pinot Noir ($12), and 1987 Husch Sauvignon Blanc ($7.00).
For the record, the Kendall-Jackson Muscat is a delight: 4.8% residual sugar but high acid to balance it. I also loved the slightly sweeter 1987 St. Francis Muscat (7.3% sugar, $7). Both are superb sipping wines that would work well with fruit salad at brunch.