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Prize Wine: Be Your Own Judge


Buying wine, whether as a gift for someone or for yourself, can be nerve-wracking. You walk into a wine shop and approach the wall of wine, and the labels turn into a blur. You read the shelf-talkers, those little cardboard signs with their wonderful phrases ("distinguished and languid"). Your eyes glaze over.

One of the shelf signs says the wine got a gold medal at a wine competition. Wow, you think, that has to be good. Oops--that's strike one.

Just two decades ago, there were only a tiny handful of wine competitions in the United States, and winning a gold medal was worth advertising. Today there are literally dozens of wine competitions. Some are good, some are not so good; some are small, regional events (like the one that judges only the wines of Alameda County), some national (Los Angeles County Fair), some worldwide (San Francisco International).

With so many events, wine lovers should not look at wines that have won a single gold medal, but at wines that have received multiple medals.


If, for instance, you are seeking an excellent and widely appealing Cabernet Sauvignon, you could look at those from 1991 Benziger Winery ($12.50); 1990 Villa Mt. Eden "Grand Reserve" ($15); 1990 Chateau St. Jean "Cinq Cepages" ($18); 1990 Kendall-Jackson Winery "Grand Reserve" ($30); 1991 Gary Farrell Wines ($18), and 1991 Silverado Vineyards ($17). Each of these wines won at least seven medals in the 10 largest U.S. wine competitions, showing consistency with a wide range of panels.

On the other hand, are these six wines any better than 1989 Heitz Cellar "Trailside Vineyard" Cabernet ($35)? The Heitz wine won only three medals, but each was a gold medal, and the wine was entered in only those three competitions!

And, of course, a competition is only as good as its judges.

Most use panels of four or five persons of varying degrees of skill to evaluate wines without sight of the label. In larger groupings (such as those with 150 Chardonnays to evaluate), the panels often do a pre-tasting, screening wines for potential medal winners. Wines with no chance for a medal are discarded.


This retain/eliminate round can go quickly, since a stinky aroma can disqualify a wine without the need to be tasted. But that doesn't mean such a round can be easy. At one competition a decade ago, my panel was asked to judge 252 Chardonnays in one day, an exhausting task.

In the medal-evaluation rounds of a wine competition, the judges have flights of six to 12 wines, served side by side. Among the problems that can occur: The first wine of a flight seems to score slightly better than the others because the judges have fresher palates; lighter-styled wines judged after far weightier ones seem to pale by comparison; fatigue late in a flight can reduce the scores of the last wines.

The worst problem at competitions is that most wines are made to be served with food, and usually food is not served. And with such an essential element missing, can the results be as valid as when the wines are judged at the dinner table?

Moreover, it's difficult to get good judges to judge. One West Los Angeles wine buyer who has as good a palate as anyone I know judged one competition in 1985 and was so exhausted after two days he vowed never to judge one again. "No amount of money. . . ." he said. And the best wine judge I know, Napa Valley wine author Bob Thompson, decided this year to do no more wine competitions.


"It's getting harder and harder for me to do the job properly," says Thompson. "I can still get good results, but it takes a lot more effort than it used to, and I don't want to be Willie Mays finishing up with the Mets."

So we are left with the wine competitions as a guide. Here are the top American medal-winning wines compiled from the various 1994 wine competitions in each wine category. Each of the following wines won at least six medals in 1994.

Chardonnay: 1992 Villa Mt. Eden "Grand Reserve" ($14); 1992 Cambria Winery, "Katherine's Vineyard" ($16); 1992 Kendall-Jackson Winery "Camelot Vineyard" ($16); 1991 Korbel Winery ($10); 1992 Kendall-Jackson "Grand Reserve" ($22); 1992 Murphy-Goode Winery ($12.50); 1992 Belvedere Winery "Preferred Stock" ($18).

Red Meritage (Cabernet blends): 1990 Clos du Bois "Marlstone" ($20); 1991 Concannon Vineyard "Assemblage" ($15); 1991 Estancia Vineyards "Meritage" ($14); 1989 Benziger "A Tribute" ($27); 1991 Geyser Peak Vineyards "Reserve Alexandre" ($25); 1990 Guenoc Winery "Langtry" ($35); 1990 Mazzocco Vineyards "Matrix" ($28).

Pinot Noir: 1992 Gary Farrell Wines "Allen Vineyard" ($32); 1992 Villa Mt. Eden "Grand Reserve" ($14); 1992 Handley Cellars ($13.50); 1992 Gary Farrell, Russian River Valley ($17); 1991 Husch Vineyards ($14); 1992 Napa Ridge ($8); 1991 J. Stonestreet ($30); 1992 Gloria Ferrer ($15).

Sauvignon Blanc: 1993 Canyon Road Cellars ($6); 1993 Geyser Peak ($7.50); 1993 Corbett Canyon Vineyards "Coastal Classic" ($5); 1992 Grgich Hills Cellars ($13).

Zinfandel: 1992 DeLoach Vineyards ($12); 1992 McIlroy Vineyards ($13.50); 1992 Gary Farrell ($15); 1991 Rodney Strong Vineyards "River West" ($14); 1992 A. Rafanelli Vineyards ($12).

Other red wines: 1992 Eberle Vineyards Barbera (five golds) ($18); 1991 Rabbit Ridge Vineyards Carignane (four golds) ($8); 1991 Guenoc Petite Sirah (four golds) ($13).

Other white wines: 1993 Geyser Peak Gewurztraminer (4 golds) ($6); 1993 Gainey Vineyard Johannisberg Riesling (four golds) ($8.50); 1992 Lakewood Winery Semillon (one gold) ($12).

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