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Jul 9, 2007 11:16 PM

Wine competition sampling: should I go for the gold?

I have tickets to this year's California State Fair wine competition winners 'drinkathon'. I have the day off so I have plenty of time to peruse the list of winners and make my game plan for the evening. To give you an idea of the magnitude of the event there are usually about 200 wineries and about 100 restaurants in attendence. I was wondering how other CHs approach events like these (other than avoid these events like the plague because of the large crowds). Do you search out one varietal? Do you follow the pack and only go for golds and double golds? Do you have another approach? Or are competitions like these not a good venue for samplng wine? Thanks

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  1. Tips for you, Tracy, from a wine pro:
    1--Learn to spit with aplomb and expertise. Holding a wine glass in one hand and a paper cup for spitting in the other works best for me. Taste the wine and then spit it into the cup. Only swallow the very best wines. Spitting is the only way wine pros work their way through a huge number of wines. The paper cup helps keep the spit discreet.
    2--Eat some food before you begin tasting. You don't want to be hungry when you start. Don't rely on the food at the fair. It may be iffy and far off and there may not be much of it.
    3--If you can, have a designated driver. Best if you don't drive if you want to cover a lot of wines.
    4--Get a map/layout of the room, and mark the areas most important to you with a pen.
    5--Taste the gold medals and double-golds first. But bear in mind that the Big Winner
    this year was the Two Buck Chuck Chardonnay. Hmmm.
    6--How trained is your palate? I don't mean what flavor subtleties your palate can pick out, but how many wines can you taste at an event before you get palate fatigue? Wine pros develop something like an athlete's prowess in wine-tasting, and can taste 40 wines easily in a day, sometimes 60-80-100 per day. Your number of wines may be far lower than 40.
    7--Carry a bottle of water on your person at all times and drink frequently from it.
    8--Concentrate on your favorite varietals.
    9--A general rule: champagne before white before rose before red.
    10--Bring a pen and pad of paper to write down your favorites.
    11--Don't under any circumstances get drunk. Ease off beforehand.
    12--Read the fascinating truths on wines and medals on this CH thread:
    13--Don't plan to do anything afterwards for a few hours other than take a nap.
    14--If other tasters are lingering and talking at a tasting table and preventing you from getting a pour, assert yourself politely and say, "Excuse me, may I get through please?" This happens a lot -- tipsy folks lose track of time and what's going on around them.
    15--Don't carry a lot around with you. A big purse, pamphlets and books are difficult to manage while holding a glasss of wine and spit cup. Makes navigating through a crowd more difficult too.
    16--Don't rinse your wine glass with water. It diminishes the taste of the next wine by almost 50%. Use a separate glass or cup for water, or drink from a bottle of water.

    Nope, these competitions generally aren't the best venues to taste wines. Remember, the best wines are never entered. They don't need to be -- they have enough acclaim and sales.

    6 Replies
    1. re: maria lorraine

      you mean the 200 gold medals they award dont mean anything?!?!

      1. re: clayfu

        They actually mean a great deal, but not what you think. . . .

      2. re: maria lorraine

        Very well-stated, as usual. Though I have deviated from my plan - Champagne-white-Rosé - Reds in a few instances, that is what I always go back to and do not regret it. As you point out, the winners will have the biggest crowds, and are likely to sell out first. Often, I'll taste elsewhere in the circus and move over to those tables, when the throngs are full, drunk, or otherwise. If I missed a good one, I'll just pick up a bottle elsewhere and try it.

        Good point on tasting etiquette, with regards to "hogging" the table. I've attended events where a group of friends would park themselves in front of a major producer's table and spend the entire evening there. Get your pour, then move to the rear. If you want to converse with the wine maker, or representative, stand to the side of the table and know that they are there to expose as many folk, as is possible, to their wine, not become your friend - time for that, when you visit the winery.

        #16 is a good rule, as well.

        As always, thanks for the post,

        1. re: maria lorraine

          Maria, thanks, this information is great. I have been to this event about four times and each year it attacts more people. Your pointers will really help me navigate the crowds and make the experience more enjoyable. I am going with a group of red wine lovers but I often experience palate fatigue with reds so I have a feeling I will have to blaze my own trail to sample the varietals I prefer. In retrospect, I can only think of one wine from last years event that inspired me to purchase a bottle. Admittedly the food is more of a draw for me, it is usually good and there is a lot to choose from. Thanks again for the for the invaluable advice.

          1. re: maria lorraine

            Sorry I don't understand Maria lorraine's point 16) : ie. if I don't rinse my wine glass between each different pour ...surely I will get some leftover from the previous wine mixing with the following one?'

            How do I avoid that whithout a water rinse-out between each pour?



            1. re: Aosta

              The tiny residue of previous wine will affect the new wine LESS than will the water . . .

          2. Tracy,

            The only thing I can add to the excellent advice given to you by Maria is a suggestion: IF (and only if) you regularly go wine tasting at wineries, I would avoid the familar -- seek out wineries from areas you haven't visited and/or wineries generally not open to the public.

            In other words, if you visit tasting rooms in Fairplay once or twice a year, don't bother to stop and taste the wines at those wineries --- you can taste the wines from Perry Creek, Granite Springs, Latcham and the others the next time you're there.

            Time is shorter than you think at the Grape and Grain; use it wisely.

            1. I would definitely recommend sticking to the higher-award winners. It doesn't take alot to score a silver or single gold. Stick to double golds, best of category, best of varietal, etc. etc.

              Alternatively, if there's one or two varietals you're most interested in, then you can drill down deeper into the pack...

              Just looking at the winner's lists from past years it's obvious that every great wine from California doesn't make it into this competition. In fact, IMO part of this competition is to generate "gold medals" for pedestrian offerings from middle-grade wineries, another reason not to be too excited when you find you're sampling a silver or gold winner.

              3 Replies
              1. re: Chicago Mike

                This last paragraph from Mike is very well put and right on. Now you may understand Zin's and my comments more.

                1. re: Chicago Mike

                  yep his last paragraph is spot on.
                  Every small winery will have "oh we won a silver or a bronze at XXXX fair, XXX newspaper". Just ignore it.

                  1. re: Chicago Mike

                    I kind of thought that was the case. Last year I was relatively unimpressed. I know it is a simplistic analogy but it reminded me of when my neice attended her high school's science fair. The school was small so everyone who participated got an award. I am sure all those kids used their awards (understandably) to help them in their efforts to apply to college

                  2. Per Maria Lorraine's post: Please try to remember to taste the Chardonnays and report back on your opinion of the winning Two Buck Chuck vs. it's competitors. I've seen some very curious comments on other boards about this wine being a surprisingly good low-end drinker. It would be interetsing to know what it was up against in the competition.

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Midlife

                      OK, let me say this again . . .

                      As a frequent Judge at the California State Fair (though not in 2007) and elsewhere, it was up against every mediocre-to-very good Chardonnay in California (best guess: 300+ different wines). The excellent-to-outstanding Chardonnays of California are NEVER entered; they do not need to, as they sell out every year without the hype of Gold Medals. Although each and every wine competition and fair is set up just a little bit differently, they all taste through a significant number of wines per day (I've tasted as few as 90, and as many as 220). This means there is a significant potential for "palate fatigue."

                      Charles Shaw is but one label in the portfolio of the Bronco Wine Co., the 4th largest wine company* in the U.S., behind Gallo, Constellation, and The Wine Group. Sales exceed 20 million cases of wine per year. Most wines -- and specifically the Charles Shaw (aka "Two Buck Chuck," aka "2BC") are bottled in several different lots and at several different times throughout the year.

                      There is no guarantee whatsoever that you will be able to buy the same wine at Trader Joe's that was submitted to the CSF for consideration in the Commercial Wine Competition.


                      * Among their many labels are Black Mountain, CC Vineyards, Cedar Brook, Charles Shaw, Crane Lake, Estrella, ForestVille, FoxHollow, Grand Cru, Hacienda, JFJ, Montpellier, Napa Creek, Napa Ridge, Rutherford Vintners, Salmon Creek, Sea Ridge, and Silver Ridge, among others.

                      1. re: zin1953

                        I conclude that you are saying that it doesn't matter what specific wines TBC won against because each bottle of it may be very different from others and it wasn't up against anything of real quality. I understand that and I'm not trying to belabor the issue of whether or not this medal is of any real significance. I'm always underwhelmed by the names on State Fair competition lists. But there were, apparently, 169 other Chards in this competition (what I've read says there were 170 entered) and I'm curious as to what it won against. I have developed a respect for your wine knowledge here and on Squires and I'm not arguing here. I guess I find it intriguing that this wine could win against even the 170 'worst' that could have been entered. Not earth-shattering or mind-blowing, just intriguing.

                        1. re: Midlife

                          It's more than that. PM me @ Squires' site and I'll explain further.

                      2. re: Midlife

                        There have even been a few whisperings, that the wine submitted might have actually been a ringer - though I have no confirmation on this, and, apparently, neither did those, who were whispering...

                        I'd love to do a dbl. blind tasting of their Chard against the others in the lot. Maybe I'll go find the list of competitors and have someone set them up for me - single blind is better than none.


                        1. re: Midlife

                          Will do. I'll try to do a side by side comparison! I'll be interested in how many people will be swarming their table.

                          1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                            If nothing else, Bronco Wines seems to know how to work the media and get the greatest possible good mileage from it. When they signed on with TJ's, the local media in PHX must have spent 3 hours of coverage, showing the Sun City crowd moving out 10-15 cases of TBC and extolling its vitures.

                            Early on, I tasted their offerings and was not impressed, regardless of price. That was years ago, so things may have changed, and maybe for the better. What I tasted, was so poor, that one would have had to pay me, more than $2/btl. to drink it.

                            Please do some TNs, if you get to the Chard section. I find it difficult to believe that they are Gold Medal winners, but then I've had to eat, or drink, my words before.

                            Thanks, and remember that you are "taking one, for the team."


                            1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                              The results of my taste test (keep in mind while I am no newcomer to wine I am a complete newcomer to taking about what I tasted): I chose Wente 2005 Chardonnay which won a Double Gold. and another Chard that won a gold (I forgot the name as I chose it randomly) to compare to 2 buck chuck. There was no comparison between Wente and TJ's. Wente was oaky and buttery and had an almost unctuous feel. However, I didn't detect any oaky notes in TJs. In fact, TJ's tasted awful in comparison. OTOH, the other Chard I tried was a better comparison because it was unoaked. It was crisp and more acidic than Wente while TJ's just seemed sour in comparison.

                          2. Just in fairness, I thought I'd add another observation... occasionally you will find a "stupendous" California wine entered in these fairs which does not score highly... like, for example, a great "name" Napa Reserve Cab that only bags a silver medal... I've seen that happen on more than one occasion. And you end up with this "classic" wine listed "lower" than some more pedestrian offering which scores the gold, double-gold, etc.

                            If you're the winemaker from that estate, do you want to put your very best reserve bottlings up and risk that they only take bronzes, silvers, or perhaps nothing at all ??

                            .... and the Double Golds, best of category, best of varietal, etc. etc; can be very delightful finds. From memory, one year about 1997 or so a "Johanisberg riesling" from Fetzer was the "best of the Fair", I mean the very best wine at the entire fair (or perhaps it was best white), but it was sky-high in the rankings... and as luck would have it Sams Wine in Chicago had case after case of the stuff laying out in the riesling aisle for around 5 bucks. I served that wine at gourmet tastings and dinners alongside old Granges Hermitage, Montrachets, super-fine ports, Amarones, etc. and it always drew oo's and ahhs... it still ranks as "the best wine I've ever had under $15", and honestly as one of the best I've ever had at any price.... and yet it's truly one of the most common wines probably on earth...

                            So if you poke around those higher-ranked wines you're likely to find at least a few gems.

                            12 Replies
                            1. re: Chicago Mike

                              Once upon a time, the Orange Co. Fair, which then had (and perhaps still does) a "mandatory" entry policy -- meaning if the wine was sold within Orange County, California, the fair could buy it at retail and enter it into competition -- did exactly with Opus One. They put it into the "Red Table Wine Category," as there was no "Bordeaux-styled Blend" category at the time. It tool a Silver Medal, price $55. The Gold was Hop Kiln "Marty Griffin's Big Red," price $6.75.

                              1. re: zin1953

                                Exactly, and if you're promoting a 55 dollar wine, you don't want a 7 dollar wine "out-medalling" you, it's too big a risk and the 55 dollar wine already has a big fanbase (otherwise it wouldn't be selling for 55 bucks).

                                1. re: zin1953

                                  Jason, thanks for sparking my memory, just went and checked my rack and found a bottle of Marty's 2001 Big Red with the 7.99 sticker still on it. Looking fwd to seeing how it is.



                                2. re: Chicago Mike

                                  Overall it was fun despite the huge crowd. Lots of good food and people watching too. The highlights were a couple of wines that my friends and I really enjoyed. The first was Silkwood Wines 2004 Syrah. It had a deep fruity flavor, it was a mildly earthy medium bodied wine that had a long finish. The winemakers were there and they were extremely approachable. The experience at their table was not corporate just very personable. The other wine that we all liked was Ursa Vineyard Blend 2004 Petit Syrah. Again, the winemakers were in attendence and spent a lot of time answering questions. I also tried their 2004 Tannat. It was really good and very jammy. I could see it being my go to wine to bring to friend's houses for dinner parties. One friend really liked Campus Oaks Cum Laude, Reserve, Old Vine Zin. We found these wines in our effort to stay away from supermarket wines and only going for varietals we prefer.

                                  Drawbacks were that there was no program or map and they didn't group the wines into the usual tasting progression. It made tasting harder because one wine can easily overpower another. I printed out the competition results at about 3:00 which generated a lot of interest in other tasters. I heard a lot of complaints that the list was hard to find and came out too late.

                                  Lastly, DH and I were really flattered because as soon as we expressed a little more than the 'this is good thanks for the wine' we actually got the opportunity to get to know some of the winemakers. Their genoristy and approachablity took the edge off of the whole corporate dynamic that was going on.

                                  1. re: free sample addict aka Tracy L

                                    It sounds as though you had a very good time, got to taste some interesting wines, and also spend some time with nice winemakers.

                                    It is too bad that the organizers did not do a better job of providing a road map for the event. I always like to have a plan of attack with regard to the tables, especially as many wineries are likely to have much of their portfolio at their table. It just doesn't work for me to hit winery #2's SB, if I've just finished winery #1's big, jammy Zin, and it doesn't take too long before you forget which table you really wanted to come back to for the full-bodied Cab, etc. "Oh, it's at a table over that way, but I don't remember which one... " Been there - done that.

                                    Still seems like a great time was had by all and that is very important.


                                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                                      Sorry I don't understand Maria lorraine's point 16) from her post of july 10th 2007(see above) : ie. if I don't rinse my wine glass between each different pour ...surely I will get some leftover from the previous wine mixing with the following one?'

                                      How do I avoid that whithout a water rinse-out between each pour?



                                      1. re: Aosta

                                        Greetings, Marc,
                                        After you've tasted, empty your remaining wine into the "dump bucket."
                                        There will still be a small amount of residual wine in the glass so shake the glass a couple of times over the dump bucket to get that out. Even after doing that, there will still be a couple of drops left in the glass but those won't affect the flavor of the next wine.Adding water to a wine glass greatly reduces the ability of wine to volatilize, and thus inhibits flavor. I've evaluated that the wine in a water-rinsed glass tastes from one-third to one-half as flavorful as the same wine in a glass that has simply been emptied.

                                        1. re: maria lorraine

                                          Thanks Maria,

                                          ....I will follow your advice despite my misgivings about mixing old dregs with new wines....especially in tasting.


                                          1. re: Aosta

                                            Marc, what's the other option, though? You can't carry a case of glasses around with you, or rinse yor glass with water and wait for it to dry between tastes. The only real choice is to do what we all do- reuse the glass.

                                              1. re: zin1953

                                                I talaked to my Enologist friend (I think aka as winemaker in the US) an he confirmed all your statements.

                                                I am however curious that he attributes the loss of smell of the wine is due to the water diluting the wine sample rather than any more complex mechanism at play.

                                                What is the board's take take on this?

                                                1. re: Aosta

                                                  Again, simple to check. While YOU are OUT of the room, have someone take three identical wine glasses, and

                                                  -- In one glass, pour 50ml of a red wine (for example, a 2005 Nebbiolo del Langhe or 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) in a glass. Have them swirl the wine in the glass, as if at a tasting. Pour out the wine, rinse the glass with water, and pour 50 ml of __________ (say a 2005 Barbaresco or 2005 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) into the glass.

                                                  -- -- In a second glass, pour 50ml of a red wine (for example, a 2005 Nebbiolo del Langhe or 2005 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) in a glass. Have them swirl the wine in the glass, as if at a tasting. Pour out the wine, DO NOT rinse the glass with water, and pour 50 ml of __________ (say a 2005 Barbaresco or 2005 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) into the glass.

                                                  -- In the third glass, pour 50ml of __________ (say a 2005 Barbaresco or 2005 Sonoma Valley Cabernet Sauvignon) into the glass.

                                                  -- Have the individual either make a mark on the wine glasses with a dry-erase marker, or mark a paper napkin used as a coster under the glass -- one with a square, one with a circle, and one with a triangle. Have the individual place the three glasses on the napkins in a random order (or mark them randomly), so only he or she knows which glass is which.

                                                  Now, you enter the room -- smell and taste . . . .