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California's Best : Highlights of the Internationally Respected L.A. County Fair Tasting


In 1935, only two years after the repeal of Prohibition, California wine judging began at the Los Angeles County Fair in Pomona. Since then, the L.A. County Fair Wine Judging has achieved international stature and respect. The event is dedicated to improving the quality and reputation of California wines through competition, and almost 2,000 wines come before more than 40 judges.

"This judgment is not a crapshoot," Chairman Nathan Chroman told the judges one August morning this year. In his 20 years at the helm, Chroman has worked relentlessly to perfect this judging from every aspect. Unlike many other tastings, this one takes four full days, giving judges ample time to evaluate the wine. I was assigned to the seemingly limitless categories of sparkling wines for two days, and then to Riesling categories, including those incredible nectars produced from late-harvested, select clusters of grapes, often Botrytis -affected with that "noble rot."

Champagnes are not easy to judge, but in retrospect, I must say that California sparkling wines have made spectacular advances in quality and production techniques. The Rieslings were stellar, and it was a Riesling that emerged as the winner of the competition's Sweepstakes Award.

The judges nominated nine wines, and their virtually unanimous award went to a wine that one of my panels submitted: Joseph Phelps Vineyards 1985 Johannisberg Riesling Special Select Late Harvest (375 milliliter, $25). German wine authority Peter M. F. Sichel proclaimed this golden wonder-wine entry a "consummate Late Harvest Riesling."

It is available in half-bottles and will last for years with proper storage. Wine master Bruce Neyers told me that the shriveled clusters of the Phelps 1985 harvest had been "heavily Botrytised " and had been picked registering an amazing 36% sugar. Tediously long, slow fermentation brought forth this immensely fragrant, lyrically smooth wine redolent of apricots and pineapple. The wine, with its tongue-wrapping richness has 24% residual sugar and 7.2% alcohol. Balancing acidity keeps it from being cloyingly sweet, although it is almost as intense as a liqueur.

The Phelps win underscores a deepening of the California wine industry. Once, not too many years ago, it was believed that California did not have grapes affected with "noble rot." But this year, five wines had been entered in the category of Special Select Late Harvest wines of 18%-plus residual sugar. As a group of wines, these were splendid. We gave three gold medals and a silver. And one of those "golds" became the Los Angeles County Fair 1988 Sweepstakes Winner.

A complete list of winners was published Sept. 15, the opening day of the fair. It is available for $3 by mail from the Wine Judging Department, L. A. County Fair, P.O. Box 2250, Pomona, Calif. 91769.

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