June 11, 2008
Looking for Kings at Cal Expo

G.M. "Pooch" Pucilowski, who has been running the annual California State Fair commercial wine competition for more than 20 years, summoned his 68 judges to take their places at 8:48 a.m. today for the 2008 edition of the event, which continues through Friday at Cal Expo. Here's my first-day report as one of four judges on panel No. 9:

8:59 a.m.: The first carts of wine roll in. Almost all the wines are white or pink. This is the custom, lighter wines coming before heavier at the start of a competition. Not ours. All our wines are red, dark red. I check our tasting schedule. We're judging nothing but zinfandel, all from the 2006 vintage, 80 of them. The first flight consists of 27 wines.

9:17 a.m.: All 27 zinfandels are grouped before me. I stand and start to sniff each one. This is known as the "Peterson Method" of wine evaluation, named after veteran California winemaker Richard Peterson, also a judge at Cal Expo. This approach involves smelling and arranging the wines by their potential for a gold, silver or bronze medal. Only after we first smell the wines are we to start tasting.

9:25 a.m.: I taste my first wine, No. 2477, one of five potential gold medals I've set aside. It tastes of raspberries, but the flavor isn't as impressive as the smell. I move it to the silver group.

9:31 a.m.: The first glass of the competition gets dropped and broken. I didn't do it.

10:02 a.m.: I finish the first flight. I'm let down. Of the 27 wines, I have just five candidates for gold medals. I try to remember what kind of year 2006 was to have left so many zinfandels tasting so vegetal. Fellow panelist Richard Matranga, an attorney/vintner from Sonora, revisits the breakfast buffet, returning with a cinnamon roll. "After that flight I needed a reward of some kind," he says. This could be a long day.

10:10 a.m.: All four judges of our panel have finished going through the wines and convene for a joint deliberation. The other panelists are Mike Kerrigan of Sutter Creek, a cellar rat for Story Vineyards in Amador County's Shenandoah Valley, and Claudius Fehr, a wine educator from Toronto.

10:35 a.m.: We finish our discussion, agreeing on what sort of medal each wine should get, or whether it should get any medal at all. Rarely have I sat on a panel whose members were so little in accord. Of the 27 wines, just three get gold medals, and none was unanimous or easy to agree upon.

10:46 a.m.: We begin to evaluate our second flight of 27 zinfandels. Why do so many smell of burned rubber and charred wood, I find myself asking myself.

10:50 a.m.: We get word that our third flight already has been poured, and that we will be expected to judge them before lunch.

11:08 a.m.: Richard Matranga, the fastest member of our panel, revisits the breakfast buffet, returning with a wedge of Brie. "The key is that it be some kind of reward," he says, brushing aside the small plate of roast beef, celery, olives and bread that each judge is given to help refresh his palate.

11:20 a.m.: We finish our second round of discussion. Some of it centers on whether wine No. 2681 has too many or just enough bacon bits. Of this flight, just one wine gets gold.

11:50 a.m.: We start to evaluate our third flight, this time 26 zinfandels. I'm still struggling to remember why the 2006 vintage yielded so many disappointing zinfandels. The vibrant raspberry and blackberry fruit expected of the varietal just isn't there in a surprisingly high percentage of the wines.

12:38 p.m.: We end our deliberation of the third flight by giving just one gold medal. The wines are basically solid, we concur, but largely unexciting. We break for lunch.

1:15 p.m.: We return from lunch expecting to be dimissed for the day, but find 19 more red wines arranged at each of our spots. Without explanation, we've been assigned another class, perhaps to reward us for being so efficient, perhaps to punish us for not giving more gold medals. All we're told is that these are "sweet red wines, all types, .61 residual sugar and above." With no benchmark other than that, I try to picture the context in which each would be most appropriate as I make my way through the lineup. Thoughts that come to mind as I swirl, sniff, sip and spit: Mardi Gras party where the masks are really elaborate. Cribbage match. "Macbeth" recital. Pillow fight.

2:25 p.m.: We finish for the day without giving any wine in the final group a gold medal. Me thinks we may have been a bit harsh. Granted, many were peculiar, but a few were solid enough to add to the pleasure of beach party or backyard barbecue soiree. So it goes.

We resume at 8:30 a.m. Thursday. Let's look at what's ahead of us: 90 zinfandels. Where's my toothbrush?

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