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Wine judging in Lake County

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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.

  1. …then the smoke changed color… a new Sauvignon Blanc had been chosen by God!!! :)

  2. Rusty Eddy says:

    I’ve proctored Mendo County’s judging in the past, but this was the first year I judged. Over the years, it’s certainly become clear where Mendocino’s strengths lie, though I was pleasantly surprised by Cabernet this year. I agree, Steve, that the camaraderie is a big part of the fun, and many of the Mendo judges have been coming for years (indeed, some block out their calendars long in advance).

    So the question is: if we always (often) have the same judges, does that mean we have a group that has a cellar palate? A group that has come to expect a certain style or producer to always be great? After all, if you know it’s a Muscat Blanc, it’s a given that it’s Navarro…

    Your thoughts would be appreciated.

  3. Hi Rusty, yeah, that seems like a potential problem (group cellar palate). However, given that no one way of tasting is 100% ideal, that doesn’t seem like a huge issue to me. They (the organizers) did tell us what the wines were (e.g. #7 is Petite Sirah, and in some cases even the blend, e.g. #8 is 60% Grenache and 40% Syrah. I would have preferred not knowing but again, there are arguments for an against.

  4. And it’s name is Bennie!

  5. In judging amateur competitions, there is the added debate of whether a characteristic of a wine is a style choice or a flaw. As an amateur winemaker, I understand the choices that confront the winemaker throughout the process from ground to glass.
    Our kind of judging, even with medals, is more about constructive feedback to the entrants so they can make better wine. So we can taste better wine the next year. Very different from the commercial side but the group dynamic works well in our setting.

  6. Mike, good point. I don’t know if the organizers of this tasting offer “constructive feedback” to entrants. I hope they do. Certainly, I encourage vintners who submit wines to me for Wine Enthusiast to call and ask me about my scores/reviews.

  7. UV? According to the EPA, “UV at the surface increases about 6% per kilometer above sea level.” A kilometer is 3,273 feet. So the Lake County vineyards at 3,273 feet elevation (and I’m betting the vast majority are *below* that elevation) receive an additional 6% UV over vineyards at sea level (and few California vineyards vineyards are that low, reducing the UV gap even more). And that makes some kind of huge difference? Gotta love those vintners, spinnin’ their stories.

  8. Even though my perspective has become tiresome to many of you, I can’t let a topic on judging pass without commenting. Who knows, there may be a few readers who are surfing in for the first or second time. Plus you ask the question, was your panel experience useful to the consumer? What a concept!

    Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine holds shoot outs each year for Pinot, Chardonnay and Cab. She assembles the usual suspects for the judges who no doubt break up into smaller groups to get through all the wines with the entire roster gathering at the end to pick best of class/show. Then she invites (“core”) consumers who pay to attend a blind tasting some weeks later of the top wines emerging from the “masters” evaluations. Occasionally there is overlap, but for the most part those who purchase their wines arrive at a different ranking. I think both the producers and the users would want to know what the People’s Choices were.

    This weekend 25 members of my wine tasting society, who run from novice to enthusiast, meet to assess the just released 2006 vintage of ~Coro Mendocino~ crafted by 11 different winemakers using different grapes sourced from different parts of Mendocino County. [For those who might want to know: the blends are selected by a jury of peers--some don't make the cut--and are composed of a minimum of 40% and a maximum of 70% of Zinfandel. For the "2nd tier" varietals, the percentage of any ONE not to exceed Zinfandel as majority component and max of 5% out of vintage: Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, Primitivo. Free Play: Up to 10% of the total blend from any single or combination of vinifera source.]

    We will rate and rank, and generate notes, though we won’t publish the numerical results on our blog as we normally do. Greg Graziano will be joining us to discuss how different combinations lead to different tastes.

    In the past, our group tastings have sometimes produced a distinct consensus, but sometimes, like your example, the top wines emerge because they had high scores but also fewer low scores. These are the ‘sweet spot’ wines that resemble the favorite hotels that are listed on Trip Advisor and favorite restaurants in Zagats Guide.

    Maybe I’ll ask the Lake County association to have us conduct a parallel tasting to yours. I do know that we will be holding a Franzia vs. Napa Taste Off in the near future in response to Fred’s challenge (the Press Democrat version had too few wines and too few judges).

  9. Morton Leslie says:

    The good thing about these judgings or group scoring or score averaging is that it will deliver a winner that most all judges concur is an agreeable, middle of the road, decent wine.

    The problem with group scoring is that “out-standing” wines (meaning that, good or bad, the wines stand out) always get lower average scores than middle of the road, like able wines.

    One judge will love a wines strong aroma, another, who is an oak Nazi, will smell the Taransaud oak and blast it. The first judge gave it 94 points, the second judge 74, it averages 84 and is out of the running. But the wine that has no defects, is well balanced, and meets the basic standards in color, aroma and flavor wins the day.

  10. Morton,

    This hasn’t been my experience with our consumer Taste Offs. There is the occasional outlier or contrarian who disses wines that the majority finds more agreeable. But inevitably positive opinion coalesces around a few wines. They have the broadest appeal and therefore are the sweet spot wines for a range of palates. It doesn’t follow that they are middle of the road wines, i.e., least objectionable. Rather they garner more “excellent” scores and fewer “mediocre” ratings based on our 10 pt system (5 stars with half stars permitted).

  11. “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.”

    It depends on the palate. If I taste wines that “Steve” reviews highly and consistently like them then we are in agreement for taste. In that case it matters more to me what that one person has to say rather than a group consensus which could share very different tastes from my own. Of course, if you’re hit or miss with all the reviewers, a consensus may not be so bad.

  12. Hi Steve,

    I was sorry to see that you missed the well made Iberian varietals grown and produced in Lake County. Now, there is some gold medal wine, plus or minus! :)

  13. Heidi, if there are producers you think I should know about, feel free to pass my name along to them. I’d love to
    taste and review some of these varieties.

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