August 15, 2006
Sweet Job: Judging Wines in New York

I've a boat to catch soon, if I hope to eat dinner, which will be served aboard some sort of paddlewheel craft on Canaidaigua Lake, so this will be brief. The panel I'm on at the 2006 New York Wine & Food Classic just finished tasting 11 flights of wine totaling 113 wines. They ranged from sparkling wines in the first flight to meads in the final flight. Mead, that's a wine made with honey, but it also might include raspberries, cranberries, pears and other fruits, as these did. We also tasted cabernet sauvignons, cabernet francs, pinot noirs, chardonnays and rieslings, among others. They're all made in New York. That gives you some indication of how diversified the wine trade is here. And I haven't even mentioned varieties of grapes and styles of wine rarely seen in California, like labrusca, catawba, concord and seyval; some are native American grapes, some are hybrids developed in France or the United States, but they just don't get west of, well, Missouri.

A high proportion of the wines we tasted were sweet. This is something of a revelation. Americans love to say they disdain sweet wines; they love to say they drink "dry" wines - wines without residual sugar. But certainly someone must be buying all these sweet wines or winemakers wouldn't continue to make them. Most of the sparkling wines we tasted were sweet, many of the rieslings were sweet, almost all the roses were sweet, and certainly all the meads were sweet. Is it an Eastern thing, or might Californians be just as drawn to these wines if they had an easy opportunity to buy them?

This may be the most cohesive panel I've ever been on. Wine after wine we tended to agree on whether it should get gold, silver, bronze or no medal. Oh, we had our differences, and some spirited debates, but in the end we tended to agree more than disagree. I'm sitting with Jerry Pellegrino, executive chef and owner of the restaurant Corks in Baltimore; Lorraine Hems, an instructor of wine appreciation at the Rochester Institute of Technology in nearby Rochester; and Linda Bramble, who as an instructor in wine appreciation at Brock University's Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute in Ontario - the Ontario in Canada, not California - developed a course for professional sommeliers.

We'll resume in the morning, where our principal task will be to narrow the field of gold-medal wines to one candidate worthy of the Governor's Cup, the competition's highest honor. New York Gov. George Pataki is to be here to present that trophy. That's the kind of emphasis and hope New Yorkers are putting in their wine trade, regardless of whether the wines are dry or sweet.

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