November 11, 2006
Houston, We Have Absolutely No Problem

The first day of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo International Wine Competition just ended. When I mention to people that I’ll be in Houston to judge wine, they almost invariably ask one of two questions, and sometimes both:

They make wine in Texas? Yes, they do. Texas wines make up just a fraction of the wines we are judging, however. At the most, 5 percent, I’d guess. California wines probably account for around 80 percent of the entries.

How can you judge wine with all those cattle and horses around? Ahhh, Texans not only are friendly and generous, they’re smart, though we all probably can think of an exception or two. No, the wine competition is now, when the Reliant Center is vacant but for hip-hop concerts and motorcycle exhibits. The livestock and rodeo won’t be until next spring. They have the wine competition now so organizers will have time to tool the saddles, stitch the chaps, forge the spurs and cast the belt buckles that will be awarded the champion wines. For the judges, that means we don’t have to deal with any barnyardy smells except for the French wines in the competition.

The five-person panel on which I sat judged 120 wines, 67 of which were chardonnay. We don’t know the vintages, appellations or producers of any of them. Judges given chardonnay habitually complain about their assignment, but we didn’t really have much to grouse about. As a group, the wines showed why chardonnay is the country’s most popular wine: It’s made in so many styles that just about everyone is apt to find one to his or her liking. We thought so much of 34 of them that we’ll retaste them tomorrow in the medal round, and most likely will get some sort of medal. The lesson I’m taking from the chardonnay class is that winemakers seem to be tempering their use of oak with the varietal, producing chardonnays of more balance and more refreshing fruit.

We also judged 41 “Rhone-style red blends,” and this was the most exciting and encouraging class of the day. Americans are notoriously reluctant to embrace blended wines, having been brought up on varietals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay. Americans look to be loosening up, however, to judge by the rise in proprietary blends in the marketplace. I don’t know what’s behind this new acceptance of blended wines, but it could be a sign that Americans are becoming more confident in their own tastes, and are willing to seek out wines they truly appreciate for their flavor and mystery rather than wines expected to fit a fixed frame of reference. We won’t know the identities of medal-winning wines until a week or so after the competition, but I’m especially eager to learn who produced several of the Rhone-style reds.

We had a pretty cohesive panel, and when differences of opinion on a particular wine were expressed the exchange was cordial and enlightening. Everyone else on the panel is from Houston. They were panel chairman Guy Stout, director of beverage education for Glazer’s, one of the country’s larger wine distributors, concentrated primarily in the Midwest and South; Rich Ogle, a retired environmental consultant who now teaches technical writing at the University of Houston; Robert Paine, a former wine distributor who now is an insurance broker when he isn’t collecting wines to add to his cellar; and Robert Gilroy, who sells Kendall-Jackson wines in Louisiana and Texas.

Our last class was petite sirah, wines so inky and tannic I don’t know whether I will be able to scrub all the stains from my teeth before I return to the office Monday, so I’d better get to brushing right now.

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