Goal Is to Demystify the Judging Process : 300 American Wines Vie for National Restaurant Assn. Honors in Chicago

Chroman is a free-lance wine writer and author who also practices law in Beverly Hills

Three hundred American wines from 15 states competed for honors recently at the National Restaurant Assn. second annual Wine Classic in Chicago.

Wine types were limited to Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Zinfandel and Zinfandel Blanc Blush.

Ted Balestreri, immediate past president of the NRA, in a determined bid to make the nation's restaurateurs more aware of the grape, required the judging to be held in an open setting. Judges evaluated, swirled and sipped before thousands of visitors. Onlooking restaurateurs swirled and sipped, too, as part of Balestreri's goal of demystifying the judging process. Next year a wine pavilion will be placed on the floor at the annual restaurant event, which draws more than 100,000 attendees.

Up to Three Evaluations

During the judging, chaired by David Armanasco of Monterey, Calif., each wine was evaluated at least once and in some cases as many as three times before panels determined winning wines. The first test was a simple pass/fail to determine further consideration. If rejected, the wine was not tested again. The retained wines were retasted and winners were honored with bronze, silver or gold medals, and one in each category was named best of show. Best of show honors were awarded to Buena Vista, Sauvignon Blanc, 1985; Mark West Vineyards, Zinfandel, 1983; Wagner Vineyards, Seyval Blanc, 1984, and McDowell Valley Vineyards for Zinfandel Blush (Grand Cru), 1985.

A Sauvignon Blanc tasting could not come at a better time as it is rising in popularity and challenging Chardonnay for favor while enjoying a resurgence of its post-Prohibition reputation as California's most consistent white wine. Buena Vista's 1985 is characteristic of the so-called modern Sauvignon Blanc style, which is assertively fruity, soft and round with grassy, tropical fruit flavors. It is an excellent sipping wine that works well for table use, provided it does not have to compete with highly sauced and spiced dishes. Fresh fruit and lovely crispness merged into a soft style is a common goal of many Sauvignon Blanc producers, who want to create Sauvignon Blancs that are ready to drink upon release.

Buena Vista's grapes are 100% Sauvignon Blanc from Lake County Vineyards, east of Sonoma County, more celebrated for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. At 12% alcohol, the wine, which is not oak aged, is generous and easy to enjoy.

Other Sauvignon Blanc winners are gold medalists Glen Ellen, 1985; Konocti, Fume Blanc, 1985; J. Rochioli, 1985; St. Vrain, 1985, and Monticello, 1983. Silver medalists are Hoque Cellars, 1985; Concannon, 1984; Chateau Benoit, 1985; Parducci, 1984; Ste. Genevieve, Fume, 1985; Kendall-Jackson, Celar Lake, 1985; Matanzas Creek, 1985; Amador Foothill Winery, Fume, 1985, and DeLoach, 1984.

Blush Wines Popular

Blush wines are America's most popular wines today, evidencing an age-old American tendency to enjoy sweeter styles served cold. Several decades ago when rose wines ruled the roost, more often than not they were well made. A current problem today is that many blush wines are hurriedly and poorly made to supply a soaring demand. As a consequence, these offer little more than a sweet strawberry soft drink taste without distinction or character.

The NRA's Zinfandel Blush category included wines that were bone dry as well as those that were slightly sweet. Even snobbish wine lovers who look down on blush wines will find the McDowell Valley Vineyard, 1985, appealing, even complex. Here is fresh fruitiness in nose and taste with considerable length and depth, and a supple softness combined with delicacy and acidity. It is a clean, lovely drinking wine that is unquestionably one of the best of its type.

Although the wine contains 2.8% residual sugar, very typical of current blush wines, it offers a refreshingly tart taste that belies its inherent sweetness. Made from 79% Zinfandel, 17% Chenin Blanc and Sylvaner and finished with 4% Petite Sirah, the wine offers a lively opulence not generally found in blush wines. McDowell has surely created a winning style.

Other blush winners are gold medalist Grand Cru, 1985, followed by silver medalists DeLoach, 1985 and Monterey Vineyards, 1985, and bronze medalists R.H. Philipps, 1985, Mirassou Vineyards, 1985, and J. Lohr Winery, 1985.

The Zinfandel red class, won by Mark West, 1983, showed fine briar-like and berry-like aromas, combined with long, concentrated, intense flavors. In good balance, it showed excellent style and is even appealing for consumption now. Gold medalist Gundlach Bundschu, 1983, displayed an assertive strawberry aroma in a lighter, fruity Beaujolais style. The wine is fresh and pleasant and should be enjoyed now.

Silver medalists are Caymus, 1983; Buehler, 1983; Kendall-Jackson, 1984; DeLoach, 1982, and Congress Springs, 1983. Bronze medalists are Fetzer (Special), 1983; Davis Bynum, 1982, Estrella River, 1980; Phelps, 1980; Sattui, 1982; Rolling Hills, 1983, and Roudon-Smith, 1982.

Not content solely with traditional American-French types and in an effort to give the judging a broader nationwide posture, Seyval Blanc, a hybrid white wine grown effectively along the Eastern seaboard, was included. Formerly known as Seyve Villard, 5276, it is a dry white that is clean and fresh and gradually developing greater complexity.

Hybrids generally are a cross between two different vine varieties, usually one from traditional, classic Vitis vinifera vine species and one from native American, developed for the purpose of making a vine that is resistant to American vine diseases and Eastern climate excesses.

Not well known in the West, Seyval Blanc's importance is growing both as a dry table wine and as a sparkler. The goal is to eliminate a so-called Eastern foxy taste, and with most of the NRA entries, this has been achieved, representing a vineyard and laboratory triumph after four decades.

The winning Wagner wine from New York's Finger Lakes exhibited an excellent, clean fruity nose and extraordinarily good flavor in depth. It represented an austere, neutral style that is best enjoyed at the table. In some ways the style is better suited for serving with food than some of California's overly fruited whites, which tend to decimate food flavors.

Appropriate Name

The name Wagner on a winning Seyval Blanc is indeed appropriate. Although not related to winery proprietor Stanley Wagner, celebrated American viticulturist, Philip Wagner is the first to introduce French hybrids commercially to the United States at Boordy Vineyards in Maryland in 1945.

Other Seyval Banc winners are gold medalists Woodbury Vineyard, 1985; Woolersheim, 1983, followed by silver medalists Meier's Wine Cellars, 1985, and Lynfred, 1984; and bronze medalists, Glenora Wine Cellars, 1984; Good Harbor, 1984; Firelands Wine, 1985, and Shenandoah Vineyards, 1984.

Because of Balestreri's efforts at the Wine Classic, restaurant owners are beginning to see the need for better, less expensive wine lists and greater involvement in wine selection. Many have requested they be allowed to serve as judges. Restaurateurs serving as judges this year were John Grisanti of Grisanti's, Memphis, Tenn.; Richard Alberini, Alberini Restaurant, Niles, Ohio; James Nicas, Castle Restaurant, Leicester, Mass.; Bill Pigatti, Del Rio Restaurant, Highwood, Ill., and Mitchell Doolin, the Chardonnay Bar, Chicago.

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