For our panel, the second day of the 2008 California State Fair commercial wine competition was a lot like the first day: We tasted almost nothing but zinfandel, and again found them difficult and uneven. We ended up handing out a few gold medals, but I wish we'd found more that we could agree were worthy of merit. After most judges posed for a group photo, we convened at 8:56 a.m. Here's how it went for our panel from that point on:
9:15 a.m.: We got our first big batch of zinfandels, 22 of them, all from 2006, the same vintage we judged the day before.
10:03 a.m.: We complete our joint deliberation of the first flight. We all seemed surprised to find that we'd agreed to give two of the 22 wines double-gold medals. A double-gold medal is awarded when all the judges of a panel concur that the wine warrants gold. Yesterday, we didn't give a single double-gold medal.
10:12 a.m.: We begin our second flight, 21 zinfandels. We aren't far into the wines when head judge G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski interrupts all tasting to remind judges to specify the problem whenever a panel finds a wine thought to be so seriously flawed that a another round of pours should be requested from a new bottle. Such a problem almost always stems from a faulty cork, one contaminated with a chemical compound called TCA. One of two such "corked" wines from the previous day, says Pucilowski, came from a boxed wine, while another came from a bottle with a screwcap. Though his comment suggests that a corked wine can't come from a vessel without a cork, that's not so. A winery's timbers and barrels also can get contaminated with TCA, which then transfers to its wines, regardless of whether it is in a box, a bottle with a screwcap, or some other kind of container.
10:25 a.m.: Judges have been given an experimental solution for rinsing and reviving their palates between wines. Pucilowski isn't sure of the contents, but it tastes salty and citric. A similar solution was used this spring at the Lodi International Wine Competition, where I found it quite effective in washing away tannin and restoring some sort of equilibrium to my tastebuds. At Cal Expo, however, the solution seems watered down, not up to the job. I push it aside and return to nibbling on the unofficial olive of many wine competitions, a big, fleshy, sharp and sweet green variety put up by Graeber's. It's New World vs. Old World, and for the duration of the day I'm back to the Old World.
10:50 a.m.: Of the 21 zinfandels in our second flight, we give just one gold medal.
11:05 a.m. We start to taste our third flight, 21 zinfandels from 2005. One tastes exactly like the baby bok choy I grilled the other night; too bad there's no class for baby bok choy, grilled division. My notes from another asks: Will somebody please change this baby's diaper?
11:40 a.m.: We finish our deliberations of this class, giving just one gold medal
1:30 p.m.: After lunch, we taste and discuss another flight of 2005 zinfandels. This time, we don't award a single gold.
1:40 p.m. One distinguishing characteristic of the State Fair commercial wine competition is that it chooses a best overall chardonnay, zinfandel, pinot noir and so forth. This afternoon, those deliberations got under way. Our panel helped choose the best sauvignon blanc and the best riesling. Three sauvignon blancs were up for the honor, two rieslings. In both instances, every wine was worthy of being the best, I felt. It came down to deciding which style each judge individually preferred. Among the sauvignon blancs, for example, No. 7031 was made in the zesty, spirited style of New Zealand, No. 7038 was exquisitely balanced, and No. 7039 was unusually complex and elegant for the varietal. No. 7039 got my vote. We won't know the identities of the wines for another couple of weeks.
3:40 p.m.: After a lot of hanging around to see if we will be needed for any further deliberations - time for an oatmeal cookie and a cup of coffee - we're dismissed. We resume tomorrow morning, and by early afternoon should finish electing all the competition's top wines.