Wine judging in Lake County
I’ve been up in Lake County, doing a judging for the winery association. I haven’t done many big judgings like this (I mean, organized into teams, not by myself), and since I’ve expressed doubts over the years about big judgings, I wanted to get some thoughts down here. (Disclosure: I was paid for my participation.)
To start with, the county people said they were holding the tasting to try to figure out what are Lake County’s best varieties, and which AVAs do they grow best in? Of course, the tasting wouldn’t determine those things completely, but it would be a start.
So is it better to taste alone or with a group? When I taste alone, it’s just me, so when you read my review, you know you’re getting pure Steve — for better or for worse! No dilution, no compromise, no dialogue that results in a score going up or down.
My impressions of the group format were mixed. I suppose you could say it’s more “democratic” because it’s really a vote. (At several points I was reminded of the College of Cardinals selecting a new Pope.) Not that there’s politics involved; there aren’t, that I could see. But there are strong opinions. So, for example, if I really loved a wine and gave it a gold medal, and two people hated it, the wine might walk off with a bronze medal. So the result wasn’t pure “Steve” or pure “Dorothy” or pure anyone, but a group consensus. Is that better than a single-reviewer judgment? Is it more useful to the consumer? I leave it to you to decide.
Incidentally, the medal concept is interesting. At first glance it’s a four-point system: gold, silver, bronze and none. But since people add pluses and minuses (“gold-plus, bronze-minus”), it’s really a ten-point system. At first I found myself uncomfortable with that format, which was new to me, but I quickly adapted. Being used to the 100-point format, I figured it was sort of like gold plus = 97-100, gold = 93-96, gold minus = 89-92, or something like that. So it was all right.
The back and forths between judges during the conversational part were interesting. Sometimes I got people to change their scores; sometimes they got me to change mine. Sometimes we all hunkered down, so the Chair had to make a final call. That was okay with me. Every panel needs a Chair to avoid chaos.
Varietally, here were my observations for Lake County.
Sauvignon Blanc really does remain the county’s certified superstar. Racy, clean wines of enormous charm, usually priced well below $20.
Chardonnay: My group didn’t taste Chard, and none of them made it to the final sweepstakes. From tasting Lake County Chards at home, I can say they’ve largely failed to impress me.
Pinot Noir: Russian River Valley has nothing to worry about.
Zinfandel: Too fruity. (More on this later.)
Petite Sirah: Lake County’s best red winegrape. Big, jammy, tannic, and ageworthy in the best cases.
Cabernet Sauvignon: We didn’t taste these either in my group, but the other group passed only one into the final sweepstakes, out of 27 tasted! That confirms my experience over the years. Cabs from Lake County show potential, especially from Red Hills, but growers and vintners have a generation of work ahead, and I think they’ll do it.
Rhones, Syrah: Fruity, tending toward simplicity.
The U.V. factor: One of the winemakers explained to us how Lake County vineyards, being so high in elevation, receive a powerful does of ultraviolet radiation every day. Combine that with the cloudless skies (no fog this far inland) and hot temperatures, and the result is massive fruit. Fruit is good, of course, but everything in balance! Too much of a good thing is just that. The winemaker said how growers are going away from vertical shoot positioning to more of an old-fashioned California sprawl, to protect the grapes from the sun. That may help to reduce fruitiness, but one problem is that Lake is a very dry area, and there’s not much water. That prohibits vigor, which makes it harder to throw the kind of canopy you need for a California sprawl. So one thing leads to another, and these growers have their work cut out for them.
The Lake County people are very passionate. There are many Napans at work here from “just over the hill” who are bringing their expertise. The chilly nights, with their big diurnal swings, give a refreshing acidity to the wines, which provides important balance. The land itself is beautiful, with slopes just crying out for vineyards. So Lake County has lots going for it.
Oh, one final thing on group tasting. It’s fun! You get to meet nice people and hang out with them all day and night, eating lots of good food and drinking lots of wine. That may not mean very much to the consumer, but it makes these grueling tasting sessions a lot more pleasant. I think I’ll do it again.