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Playing ‘What’s My Wine?’ : Confessions of a Tasting-Panel Veteran

In August, I joined 40 judges addressing more than 2,000 wines at the fairgrounds in Pomona for the Los Angeles County Fair competition. The fair is the world’s largest, but the wine competition makes no boasts about its size--only about its integrity under the watchful and demanding eye of attorney and wine writer Nathan Chroman. I began my career in serious wine judging right here, in the late ‘40s.

It’s the season for fairs, and the results of wine judgings at the Orange County Fair and the California State Fair have been compiled into handbooks listing the recipients of gold, silver and bronze awards. The Orange County Fair even gave awards to wine coolers: a gold went to California Cooler (Citrus), and silvers to Bartles & Jaymes and California Cooler (Tropical). The Orange County tastings are billed as “the world’s largest wine competition,” with 2,734 entries receiving 902 medal awards. The State Fair is promoted as the most “thorough” and “complex” approach to its 2,128 entries (up 35% from last year), with 66 test-qualified judges giving 632 awards.

The State Fair also gives “double gold” awards, which means that the fortunate recipient had the unanimous vote of the judging panel. This year, the State Fair gave 10 double-golds out of 57 gold awards.

A University of California publication on wine tasting warns of the perils involved in judgings. For example, if panelists can observe one another, one expert might influence less-skilled tasters with his facial or gurgling reactions. A face like a Kabuki mask, indicating horror at the nose or taste, or even eyes rolled heavenward, might prompt a novice to ask, “Which wine was that?” And, of course, conversation is forbidden. At the Los Angeles County Fair, every judge is secreted in a curtained enclosure similar to those at a typical voting precinct. Discussion of contending wines for reconsideration is permitted in a caucus session, with the chairman of each panel determining the wines to be re-tasted for award recognition.

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According to Chroman, the quality of a wine judging is indicated by the panel’s ability to repeat its award choices. At Pomona, the top wines considered for awards are renumbered before being served again. And it’s not difficult to find those better wines a second time. As the late Louis M. Martini told me, “Memory is a wine taster’s best asset.”

That dynamic Napa Valley wine maker once told me something else of strategic consideration. “You know,” he said, “the wet laboratory of your mouth is not always in the same state. You make your coffee every morning, using the same pot, the same water, the same coffee, on the same stove. Most of the time it tastes good, but sometimes it tastes awful. The difference is in the chemistry of your mouth, not the coffee.” That’s why experienced wine tasters always recheck the first wines from any judged group, after the palate has become fairly operational.

Of course, all these highly touted wine judgings are blind tastings; that is, wines are submitted to tasters in numbered glasses, poured offstage. In May, Frank Prial of the New York Times wrote of a daylong tasting and seminar that he conducted in Manhattan on wines from the Pinot noir grape. In the morning session, leading wines from Burgundy, California and Oregon were tasted openly. Everyone knew the identities of the wines and discussed them freely. “Accepted wisdom at the moment,” Prial wrote, “holds that most French Burgundies are superior to American Pinot Noirs, and that some, if not most, Oregon Pinot Noirs are superior to California Pinot Noirs.” And that was the way the morning evaluation rated the wines. But, ah, the afternoon session. When no one knew which wine was which, the results were very different. The three wines that were assumed to be French, and the best, turned out to be from California: 1981 Frick Santa Cruz Pinot Noir, Buena Vista 1983 Carneros Pinot Noir, and 1981 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley Pinot Noir-Reserve. They not only thought that these were French, but very good French at that. Shades of the famous Spurrier tasting in Paris in 1976, when French tasters gave awards to California wines.

At the recent Kapalua Wine Symposium, an open tasting of Oregon Pinot Noirs, presided over by wine educator Gerald Boyd, found the audience divided on the merits of the Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir and that of Knudsen Erath, both from the Willamette Valley. Some prefer the latter’s thick, jammy Pinot Noir of the Santa Cruz-Ken Burnap school, others the former’s traditional translucence. All of this recalled a discussion of Pinot Noir that I had in the spring with Steve Doerner, the biochemistry-trained wine maker at Calera Wine Co., famed for its production of this regal grape variety. We wound our way through the intensities of the “secondary chemistry” of the wine, beyond sugar / acid ratios, to the importance of terpenes and flavonoids, the aromatic materials mostly localized in the skins of the grapes and responsible for much of the important esters of bouquet.

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As we savored the elegance of the Calera-Jensen 1983 California Pinot Noir ($23), we reviewed the familiar arguments about Pinot Noir, the different clones of the variety, its fermentation problems, recalling how Martin Ray declared that “doing the least to the wine produces the greatest results.” Josh Jensen and Doerner are dedicated to that philosophy at Calera, where the juice is never pumped but instead flows by gravity from fermenters into oak cooperage for storage. Just swirl the bowl of your glass of Calera Pinot Noir, sit back, sniff, and know the regal complexity of a fine wine.

To those who don’t appreciate wine, wine-tasting lore is balderdash. But time and truth is on the side of the wine lovers. Half a millennium before Christ, Aeschylus wrote: “Bronze is the mirror of the form; wine, of the heart.” That means something only to the true wine lover, who can respond to the grape with verbal description. At the Kapalua Wine Symposium, an audience of 200 heard Jacques Morel of Parfums Christian Dior describe humanity’s link with perfumes through the ages. Could we find the toasted coffee in Domaine Chandon Napa Valley Brut? The heart of the rose in Blanc de Noir? One swallow of wine may contain as many as 300 different natural compounds in graceful harmony. Detecting the most identifiable becomes an intriguing exercise for the senses. For the mind, articulate expression is perhaps even more difficult.

Many years ago, in a winery on the shores of Lago di Garda in Northern Italy, I innocently discovered a simple route to the heart of a wine’s bouquet by watching the eminent poet-enologist Dr. Lamberto Paronetto. Wine is a volatile liquid that releases its fragrance with agitation; that’s why wine tasters swirl the glass before sniffing the bowl. Paronetto did more. Holding the stem of the glass like a pencil, he swirled the wine in small circles, then placed his hand over the bowl. Still swirling, he lifted it to his nostrils, withdrew his hand and sniffed deeply. I imitated him, and wow! He had magnified the invisible. Try it with your next glass of wine. I call it “Doing the Paronetto,” honoring that wonderful wine maker.


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