The two massage therapists at yesterday's El Dorado County Fair wine competition were a nice touch, reaffirming that wine judging indeed can be strenuous. Over the years, I've seen the concentration, bending, tilting, sniffing and spitting of diligent and repititious wine evaluation trigger all sorts of physical ailments, from sore necks to inflamed sinuses. Though a few of the 23 judges yesterday left early for reasons unexplained, most were in fine shape after nearly eight hours in the barny Main Building at the Placerville fairgrounds, so the massages that many took advantage of must have done some good.
I wasn't one of them, however. I'm one of the slower judges on the circuit. My fellow panel members, Sonora attorney and former winemaker Richard Matranga, and Lodi grape grower Martin Maxwell, invariably finished each flight well before I did, then convened outside to compare notes or dart over to the therapists for a quick rubdown. I played catch-up all day.
At El Dorado, as at most wine competitions, this is the drill: Judges are divided into a series of panels generally ranging from three to five persons each. Wines are divided into classes, such as "red Rhone blends" or "2003 zinfandels." That's all we'll generally know of them, never their individual identities. Each panel will be assigned several classes, and each of the larger classes will be divided into flights, usually of 10 to 12 wines. Yesterday's judging drew 585 wines, most from the Sierra foothills, though one of the novel oddities of the Placerville competition is that it is open to any winery in the state that produces no more than 20,000 cases a year, a way to help recognize smaller operations.
Our panel judged 84 wines, from viogniers to petite sirahs. Our biggest group consisted of 33 zinfandels. (This helps explain why each judge also was given his or her own brand new toothbrush and tube of toothpaste, in hopes we would rid ourselves of our dark ghoulish grins before guests arrived for the reception and barbecue after the competition.)
Each judge has his own method for evaluating wines. Here's mine: I first check the color and smell of each wine in a flight, jotting notes on brightness, clarity, intensity and so forth. Then I taste each wine, provided the smell is inviting, which it usually is. On this second pass I'll assign a preliminary bronze, silver or gold rating, or maybe a short horizontal line that means "no award." I'll then retaste all silver and gold candidates before assigning a final grade.
In some competitions, panelists then discuss their findings among themselves and arrive at a consensus for each wine. At El Dorado, however, each judge turns in his or her sheet with the individual scores and a computer does all the averaging and tabulating. Judges at El Dorado nonetheless often convene and swap impressions before turning in their scoresheets. This could prompt a retasting of a wine or two and an upgrading or downgrading of a particular entry. For me, such discussions are reason enough to join a competition. Judges vary in their ability to detect various elements that form a well-made wine. Some are more sensitive than others to such factors as sulphur, alcohol or fermentation issues, and the subsequent exchange of views can be educational, particularly when impressions of a particular wine are far apart, which happens with maybe only one or two wines every couple of flights.
The El Dorado competition ends with one of the longer sweepstakes rounds of any judging in the country. It basically takes the entire afternoon. That's because El Dorado puts every gold-medal wine up for sweepstakes consideration, whereas many competitions only nominate best-of-class wines. This year, 57 gold-medal wines vied for the top honor at El Dorado, including 13 zinfandels and 11 syrahs, the two dominant varietals in the foothills.
After voting and voting some more, we got to the final round of the day, featuring the nine wines to accumulate the most points, ranging from a delightful riesling to a luscious muscat canelli. So which wine finally won best-of-show? It was the Macchia Winery 2004 "Bodacious" California Petite Sirah, a rich, round and lush example of the varietal that actually came from our panel. In the sweepstakes round, however, it wasn't my first choice for the top honor. It was a little too warm for my taste, and I later found it contains a hefty 15.5 percent alcohol. I rather liked the surprise sweepstakes candidate, the Obscurity Cellars 2004 Sierra Foothills St. Amant Vineyard Tempranillo, a beefy, balanced and exceptionally complex interpretation of a varietal that seems to be fast gaining an enthusiastic following in California. One other wine had tied for sweepstakes before the final deciding vote, and that was the Jeff Runquest Wines 2004 Paso Robles Syrah, a wine whose bright smell, solid structure and earthy flavors pretty much define what wine geeks mean when they talk of "terroir," or the sum impact of a site's climate, soil and the like on the final product.