The wine judge at the Los Angeles County Fair lifted a glass of Chardonnay and briefly trained his gaze on it.
"First I look," Peter Sichel said. "Then I smell."
He spoke in a library-level whisper so he wouldn't break the aura of silence formed by 39 other judges who were individually sequestered in tiny cubicles, curtained on three sides for privacy and with just enough space for a table, a chair and a sawdust-lined bucket in which to spit wine.
With the aroma of Chardonnay enveloping him, Sichel examined the golden liquid in one of the 11 glasses from the tight semicircle on a small table.
"See these bubbles? The wine maker bottled this with carbon dioxide to keep it fresh. But they used too much. Otherwise you wouldn't see the bubbles. It's not a negative unless it dominates the taste."
Sichel, chairman of the board of Blue Nun wines and a frequent judge at the fair in Pomona, reached for a chunk of Cheddar cheese, then for a seedless red grape and for a splash of mineral water to clear the palate. Dressed in khakis, knit shirt and tennis shoes, he moved on to the next wineglass, resuming the concentration of his endeavor, one as pleasing for the palate as for the mind.
"Look how much darker this wine is from that wine. It usually means the wine is a little old. Slightly oxidized. A little oxidation isn't a bad thing. But this might be over the hill."
Glass by glass, sip by sip and sniff by sniff, 40 wine experts from around the world gathered four days recently at the Pomona fairgrounds to determine the best of 1,600 California wines from 340 wineries.
The winners of the contest--begun not long after Prohibition ended in 1933 and now considered among the nation's most prestigious--will be displayed when the fair opens Sept. 14.
With wine contests proliferating and scores of wines being declared gold medal winners, Nathan Chroman, the county fair's wine-judging chairman, defended the validity of such competition.
"It helps vintners see if they're doing well and consumers to know what wine to buy. No judging I know of is done with this much deliberation," he said. "When you have this kind of judging done in a rather clinical atmosphere, you're bound to get more accurate results."
Chroman, a Beverly Hills attorney and nationally known free-lance wine writer, has run the contest since 1967. Each year, he said, he assembles experts whose palates range from "technical to passionate."
Among this year's judges, who spent four days scrutinizing the wines, were a Los Angeles pathologist, a Parisian chef, an Australian wine maker, a Pasadena banker and a University of California professor of enology (wine making).
From his vantage point last week in the middle of a cavernous fairgrounds restaurant that had been transformed into a judging area, Chroman surveyed the scene.
Wine stewards shuttled around, their trays pinging as glasses knocked against one another. Each and every glass bore an entry number, marked with black grease pencil at the base of the stem. The stewards methodically placed glass-after-glass groupings, called flights, before the judges in white curtained booths.
A staff of 20 scurried to uncork hundreds of entries, hidden from the judges' view by black curtains. Besides the sound of corks popping, there was the occasional shattering noise, the result of a dishwasher dropping a glass.
Chroman nodded in the direction of four judges circled around a table. "That's where the philosophy of the wine, the style of the wine is articulated.'
What makes a good judge? A good judge, Chroman said, is consistent day after day. A good judge, he said, is not a wine snob but someone who can sample, with equal aplomb and openness, chocolate wines to grape Cabernets, garlic wines and champagnes.
"And a good judge knows when he is no longer competent because of palate fatigue."
Palate fatigue, however, was not the problem in the unfortunate case of a judge who one year either did not know the importance or simply ignored the need to spit out wine, he said.
"He was imbibing instead of spitting," Chroman said. "He was sloshing around. I didn't ask him back the next year. But we have people who can spit with the best of them. They can take on a lot of wines."
Indeed, the Chardonnay panel began one morning at 7:45. Five hours and 60 entries later, they neared the end of a day's work. Yet they were only halfway through the category of "Chardonnay, partially barrel-fermented."
Sichel is a fifth-generation wine maker who lives in New York and is part-owner of a Bordeaux chateau. He served as elder statesman of the Chardonnay panel.
"I consider this my summer camp," he said during a break in deliberations. "I love finding out what has happened in the last year in California. You see what other people are doing and you get ideas. It's what we call a busman's holiday."