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To Sip and Spit With the Pros

A novice wine judge has a heady experience putting his taste to the test for the county fair. Too late, he learns the meaning of DNPIM.

August 31, 2004|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

My teeth are stained an inky black. My tongue is hot and dry. My head is foggy.

No matter how much I spit out, it's impossible not to get a buzz going when sampling 50 wines. It's 10 a.m. on the final day of the Los Angeles County Fair's Wines of the World Competition. I have already ruled on dozens of white vintages this May morning, and now there are at least 20 glasses of red wine before me. Syrah, Merlot -- they all start to taste the same.

I am one of 90 judges about to anoint the best Cabernet Sauvignon of the contest. As the vote nears, I am unable to pick between Cab No. 21 and No. 22.

What does my mouth say? Are there hints of raspberry? Or rather black currant? Perhaps a touch of tobacco? Though I write for a living, my brain struggles to connect words to what swirls between my lips.

How about the aroma? Woody? Earthy? Resinous?

I reach for No. 22 one more time and my elbow knocks over a nearby glass. Dark red juice cascades off the table, spreading across my shirt, my khaki slacks, my notebook.

Groans emanate from the nearby judges as they too get splattered. All I can do is dispense napkins for blotting and apologize for my inability to manage two dozen glasses of wine in such a small workspace.

I feel like Thomas Kinkade at the Louvre.

Contests like this one have become a mainstay of America's burgeoning wine business. Winemaking now goes on in all 50 states. Nearly every region holds a competition. Altogether there will be about 30 national wine competitions this year. With 3,792 entries from six continents, the L.A. Fair's Wines of the World is surpassed in size only by the San Francisco International Wine Competition.

There is little mystery as to why wineries big and small go to the expense of entry fees, product cost and shipping to participate in events like this: A gold medal can lift sales. When Geyser Peak Winery's California Sauvignon Blanc won the "best of class" award last year, its Southern California sales tripled to 750 cases the following month.

The L.A. Fair helps market its winners. It will sell the wines in its wine pavilion when the fair starts Sept. 10. It also provides vintners with stickers to put on the winning vintages. And it is asking Southern California restaurants and retailers to make special pitches for the wines.

Wine competitions started as a way for fairs to promote a region's agricultural products. Now they are a ubiquitous part of the food and wine scene.

So, what qualifies me to be such an arbitrator of taste? Not much. I have always kept a case or two of wine around the house, but could hardly be labeled a connoisseur. The fact is, I ended up as a judge for a very simple reason: I cover the California agriculture business for The Times and have written several articles on the wine industry. That apparently was enough to qualify me in the eyes of the L.A. County Fair.

Initially it looked like a lark -- two nights at the Pomona Sheraton on The Times' expense account and all the wine I could drink.

But as Bob Small, dean of Cal Poly Pomona's hospitality management school and contest chief, escorts me to my judging station at the fairgrounds, it's clear that I am in way over my head. The resumes of the judges on my panel confirm this.

To my right is Peter Marks, who is one of only 20 individuals living in the U.S. certified as a Master of Wine. Among other tests, Masters of Wine must be able to blindly sample groups of wines and identify the grape variety, its vintage and the country of origin.

On my left is Steve Pepe, a retired labor attorney who now operates the boutique winery Clos Pepe Vineyards in the Santa Rita Hills near Santa Ynez, Calif.

Rounding out the panel is Ann Littlefield of New Vine Logistics, a shipping company that helps wineries navigate the complex interstate sales and distribution rules. Littlefield will judge 10 competitions this year.

Luminaries and industry royalty sit at almost every other table. There's Heidi Barrett, winemaker for the $1,500-a-bottle Screaming Eagle cult Cabernet; Traci Dutton, the sommelier who oversees the Culinary Institute of America's 30,000-bottle cellar at the famous Greystone center in St. Helena, Calif., and Robin Lail, whose great-granduncle Gustav Niebaum founded Inglenook Vineyards in 1879.

Impressive as their credentials are, most of the judges defy my image of wine snobs. In fact, some of them are more like party animals, tasting 100 wines in the morning, tossing back two beers at lunch and sampling 50 more wines in the afternoon. They drink wine with dinner, and retire to the bar for beer and margaritas.

That's not to say they're immune to alcohol. I walked into the lobby of the Sheraton one evening to find 14 judges jumping on a king-size bed set up by the hotel to pitch its room upgrades. In the bar, a post-midnight food fight broke out with limes left over from the evening's margaritas.

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