Like the Swallows returning to Capistrano at a particular time
of the year, the Spitters return to San Francisco in June.
This year it was the 36th San Francisco International Wine Competition and it's
a gathering of old friends and wine colleagues from around the planet.
It's an honor to be invited to participate in such an amazing event. There
are nearly 5000 wines entered and we, as judges, are tasting "blind."
We know the category or classification of a wine, but
typically that's it.
Judges are presented 25-30 flights, or so, of various wines with categories such
as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bordeaux Blends above $25, Italian White Varietals,
Red Rhone Blends, Syrah, Pinot Grigio, Ice Wines, etc.
We have virtually no clue as to where the wines were made. Pricing
information is usually masked as well.
We might know the vintage date on the bottle, if there is one.
Other than that...it's a blind-tasting.
We began with the usual Orientation Meeting with instructions from the Executive
Director of the San Francisco International Wine Competition, Anthony Dias Blue.
While most of the judges participating in this event are "old hands,"
we always have a few first-timers. Andy explains the relative quality
levels for awarding a medal to any particular wine, saying "you're not
looking for the best wine you've ever tasted. You're looking for Gold,
Silver and Bronze."
Most of the panels are comprised of three judges, but there are a few four
member panels. The tasting flights typically proceed fairly quietly as
each person tastes and evaluates independently. Once everyone has finished
tasting, a panel coordinator tabulates the ratings.
If all the judges at a table award a wine a gold medal, this wine receives a
"Double Gold" Medal and the wine is eligible to be included in the
Sweepstakes tasting on Sunday once the preliminary judging has been completed.
The Managing Director, Nicolette Teo, provided a bit of helpful information
regarding the logistics of the judging and Tim McDonald, the Director of
Judging, also chimed in with a nice pep talk.
With that the judges got up and headed to pick up a "lab
coat" and a name tag.
You may wonder how the judges can possibly taste 120-140 wines
Well, a palate cleanser is helpful.
In addition to some sweet Semifreddi bakery baguettes, we are offered celery and
These olives are most restorative and help mitigate tannin, acid and alcohol.
The first flight of wines awaits the judges to start the ball
Every panel is obliged to taste Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as those categories
have large numbers of entries.
Jerry Cooper, the Swirl-Meister, captained Panel A.
Jerry is the owner of a cool little shop in San Francisco, Swirl
He's learned to hide from customers, sequestering himself in his office much of
the time when he's not handling the janitorial chores at his store.
Mr. Cooper, by the way, is The Mayor of the Castro and you'll find his likeness
on shirts and jackets worn by the locals.
As he's musically-inclined, so it's normal to see him tasting
Out in front of the Hotel Nikko, there was a sketch artist working on some
Joe's 1WineDude web site also brings wine-tasting to the street.
Sarah Blau is the Beverage Director at New York's Aquavit
This was her first year participating in the San Francisco International Wine
Competition and she kept both her panel mates on their toes.
She's a famous person in New York and increasingly so here in San Francisco.
Anthony Dias Blue, our Fearless Leader...
He's a James Beard award winner and has been heard on KNX radio in Los Angeles and
WCBS in New York.
Since that's not sufficient to keep Andy fully occupied, he's the publisher of
the SOMM Journal, The Tasting Panel and The Clever Root magazines.
A portrait of a younger A-D-B hangs in some New York museum,
Bob Paulinski, who is a Master of Wine, is a VP in the world of Bevmo.
That store is famous for its Five-Cent sale and Bob was more than happy to give
Andy his two-cents' worth.
Bob has made the cover of Life magazine, by the way.
You can give Ziggy Eschliman a listen on the radio (or internet) as she's on KRSH
95.9-FM every Wednesday morning at 7:30, California time.
Pavlevska not only has a bunch of initials following her name (CS,
CSW, FWS, IWS), she's a Certified International Etiquette and Business
I don't think any other SF Intl wine judges hold this
She lives in Southern California and works as a Sommelier.
Nadia, it turns out, is the Queen of Spades.
If she played her cards right, we'll see her again in 2017!
Nick Ponomareff's day job is with BAE Systems where he deals with Defense and
Space issues. He moonlights as a wine critic, organizing blind tastings
and publishing The
California Grapevine, a monthly journal with the results of his
Here's a nice snapshot of Nick on his last vacation.
"The flight was okay, but they don't serve great food and there was no wine
list. I'm not planning to go back."
Shelley Lindgren is the engine for the two A-16
restaurants, as well as SPQR.
She finally won a James Beard Award last year for "Best Wine Program"
at A-16, having come within a whisker of snagging this prize in previous years.
Signora Lindgren is fluent in Italian and Gold Medals, comprehending both with
You wouldn't expect such a young lady to be a 27+ year restaurant industry
veteran, but when you start in 8th Grade, this is possible.
Who knew that artist Andy Warhol not only silk-screened Marilyn Monroe, but it
was recently discovered he did a 4-Color work of Shelley!!??
Another Italophile on Panel C is Mike Tadich (also known as Michele Tadi-chianti).
Mike is well-known throughout the world of wine and he's often
visiting cantine in Italia. We were surprised to see his
photo posted on the Kodak message board outside the New York Marriott," but
shouldn't have been since he's got so much juice.
Charles Mara-velous is a New Yorkuh who's in the process of relocating to
He owns The
Mara Wine Group and makes some Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Nwah
and a red blend.
Most judges and volunteers view him as some sort of member of The Sopranos and
they treat him with utmost respect.
We learned this year that Mara has a large collection of Elvis Presley
recordings, in vinyl, cassette, CD and, amazingly, eight-track cartridge!
His tasting panel colleague Drake McCarthy said "Charles ain't nothing but
a hound dog."
We heard Charles telling his associates as they were about to award some medals:
"It's now or never! Don't be cruel!," while he told one of the
volunteers, after tasting a particularly poor performer "Return to
Drake McCarthy is another "old timer" at the San Francisco
International Wine Competition. He's a big-wig with the Golden
State Wine Company.
Drake, who's a musician too, has been known to rub elbows with numerous
celebrities. In fact, they tell us they know Drake McCarthy!
One such fellow is actor Brad Pitt.
It seems Mr. Pitt owns a set of Drake McCarthy Coffee Cups.
Adding a measure of elegance and dignity to this panel is the
elegant and dignified Dana Farner.
Dana was once characterized as "the indie-rock goddess
sommelier." After leaving Wolfgang Puck's "Cut Steakhouse"
restaurant, she racked herself a job with a company called Soutirage.
These days she's the Western Regional Director for a company called Sevenfifty.com.
And as far as her wine picks, most folks will tell you she's
The mildly shy and soon-to-be-retiring President of the New York Wine and Grape
Foundation, Jim "Mister Riesling" Trezise.
Jim chaired Panel D and had two out-of-towners for tasting colleagues.
This is a panel of All Stars.
Jim is thought to be a jewel-of-a-taster, so it's not surprising Cartier would
use him to promote their treasures.
Cartier's CEO, by the way, is a guy named Vigneron, so it's fitting that a
prominent wine-taster be in their window!
Jim Harré comes to this judging from New Zealand.
Jim and his lovely wife Wendy operate a little "Bed & Breakfast"
Gates Country Lodge in Waiau in North Canterbury.
Being that Jim is a hotelier of sorts, it's not a surprise someone else whose
family is in the hotel business would find this Harré T-Shirt to be appealing.
Yes, that's Paris Hilton wearing an official Jim Harré T-Shirt which she bought
for $59.99 at the Smith & Caughey's department store on Queen Street
The other member of this All Star team is Dr. Rowald Hepp from
Herr Hepp is the manager and winemaker at the esteemed Schloss
Vollrads in Oestrich-Winkel.
Despite the fact he makes only Riesling, Rowald was familiar with the fact that
some wines are red.
Knowing that Jim Harré has a t-shirt, Rowald's winery sells Hepp T-Shirts in
their tasting room. Look who recently purchased one of those!
The Material Girl said she liked the material and the designs on this spiffy
"Yeah, I kinda like Rowald's wines...especially the Schpaet-Lazy."
Mark Bowery comes from Mendocino where he's affiliated with the Albion
River Inn. He also is the president and the entire staff of
Mark Bowery Consulting Services.
He was a frequent award winner at the California Wine-Tasting Championships, so
the man has got a nose (and palate) for wine.
Mark made the cover of a recent TV Guide, too.
Clarice Turner spearheaded "Starbucks Evenings" as she's a Senior (she
doesn't look that old, though) Vice President. She's fluent in Mandarin
and Cabernet Sauvignon.
And Ms. Turner is capable of tasting coffee with "Crystal Clarity."
Many of the judges at the SF International have initials after their name.
Clarice is an S-C-M (Starbucks Coffee Master)!
This may explain her visage in the window of a crystal specialist.
Robert Whitley lives and breathes wine.
He organizes four wine
competitions, writes a syndicated column about wine and
is a globe-trotter, visiting vineyards hither and yon.
From his home base in San Diego, hither might be Dallas or San Francisco and yon
could be Brussels or vineyards and wineries in Europe.
We understand a few hotels now have The Robert Whitley Suite and these rooms are
adorned, typically, with a portrait of Sir Whitley.
The One and Only George Skorka.
He's The Man at Skorka Consulting and also is affiliated with Kimberly Jones
George is a Bon Vivant and one of the real characters at the judging.
Coming from Los Angeles, we understand his likeness is displayed in the Getty
Museum and it's one of the more popular pieces being shown there.
Michael Feil, a former Bay Area resident, these days is the General Manager at
Florida's posh Jupiter Island Club. Since changing residency, some San
Franciscans refer to him as "The X-Feil."
You can see he wears long sleeve shirts since he routinely rubs elbows with the
famous members of the J-I-C. Its membership features numerous politicians,
well-known athletes and other celebrities (who all know Feil by his first name,
Not many people know, in addition to being a Tiddlywinks Champion, Michael Feil
routinely competes in Motocross competitions.
Feil is a bit old-fashioned, though, and his bike requires him to pedal as it
doesn't have a "moto."
He still manages to finish his races on the same day he starts them, however.
Traci Dutton is a Sommelier at Napa Valley's Culinary Institute of
She takes care of "Public Wine & Beverage Studies" at the CIA.
Traci also has a Black Belt in Mixology, along with being a sought-after taster
on the wine-judging circuit.
Being a C-I-A "operative," Ms. Dutton is well known around the world.
She was recently seen on billboards in Zurich!
Ian Blackburn is a wine-taster and Apiarist
He's also a LAW School Founder (Learn About Wine School in Los Angeles)...
This LAW business has morphed into WineLA
(Classes and Wine-Tastings).
He's busy as a bee, near as we can tell.
Barack Obama recently signed a Presidential Proclamation dealing with Grape
Expectorations and Ian was the poster boy for this.
"Mister Blackburn is a proficient spitter and I have great respect for
anybody who's the best in their field," proclaimed the President.
"So we are awarding him a Purple Palate Medal of Honor."
Rounding out this esteemed quartet is Michael Franz.
Dr. Michael Franz.
Yes, he's a doctor and the chairman of the Loyola University Maryland Political
On top of that he is a wine consultant for Clyde's Restaurant Group, a company
that has more than 15 dining spots in the Washington, DC area.
Add to the mix his work for Wine Review Online with frequent visits to wine
regions around the world and you have one peripatetic Wine Geek.
Regarding things of a political and historic nature, Michael's photo tasting
wine at the San Francisco International Wine Competition was recently posted at
Federal Hall in New York!
(George Washington was inaugurated on this site and it's where the Bill of
Rights was introduced to the first Congress!)
The One & Only Wilfred Wong!
It's always great to see Wilfred at tastings and he's a fixture at the San
Francisco International Wine Competition.
Mr. Wong, you see, is a Living Legend.
When he's not managing the San Francisco Giants (he's a ventriloquist and Bruce
Bochy is his puppet), Wilfred is gallivanting around the world, visiting
wineries on all continents. Wilfred said he was hoping to visit Antarctica
as he wanted to see how the latest vintage of Ice Wines was coming along.
We found this curious image of Wilfred and are not quite sure what to make of
He's the official "storyteller" for Wine.Com
and we don't know yet what the story is!
Joe Petraglia has long been affiliated with Young's Market
He was a Sales Manager for "On Sale" Accounts at one point
before being promoted to Sales Manager of The Estates Group, the "fine
wine" division of Young's Market.
These days "Joe-P" (as they call him) is the San
Francisco Branch Manager for YMCO.
We were surprised to see he had a seat belt fastened on the
chair he was using for the wine judging, but he routinely runs on a pretty fast
track as you can see below which he why he typically buckles up.
Kristina Kessler is the Senior Wine Buyer for Cost Plus World
She's got an impressive educational history and we understand she's either
capable of B-S-ing about Industrial Psychology or she's got a degree in that
Joe P isn't the only one on Panel H who drives a fast car!
Kristina's Bugatti can accelerate impressively and she's known to have a heavy
She recently showed off her driving skills at the Sonoma Raceway where she left
some serious rubber on the track.
The Cute-iful Dr. Valery Uhl chaired Panel I.
When she's not judging wine, Valery is busy assisting patients in her medical
clinic where she's a highly-regarded Oncologist.
She's fluent in English, German and Pinot Noir, having not only a degree in
Medicine, but one from UC Davis
Dr. Uhl is often mistaken for a movie star and this is not surprising.
Sir Michael Cervin.
Michael is not only well-versed in wine, but he's a water expert, too (Senior
editor of Bottledwaterweb.com!).
He's written travel books, restaurant reviews and penned a few columns for The
And he kept an eye out for gold medals at this year's judging.
President Obama apparently appointed Michael to the newly-created Water
Commission where he'll be the Water Czar.
We understand his governmental office is being stocked with bottled water from
Tim Teichgraeber is the SF International's own wine "advocate."
He studied law in Minnesota and says he was first admitted to the bar in 1995.
He promptly ordered a pint of Grain Belt Golden (that's a beer in case you don't
And Holy Buckets!, he can taste wine! Timmy
Skyscraper, as he's known, divides his time between lawyering and the
world of wines and spirits.
We understand Tim's passion for the law has taken him to
possibly wearing a badge.
He says his experience as a Dog Catcher probably over-qualifies him for this
Tim's tasting panel colleague Valery Uhl said "Deputy Tim is a straight
shooter and always on target."
Le Grand Dame...
The legendary Fred Dame, Master Sommelier.
The Duke, as he's known, is a Vice President with RNDC
Leon gave out so many gold medals, his colleagues started
calling him "Santa."
Steve Izzo is the Beverage Director and Sommelier at San Francisco's landmark Waterbar
If you want to have a cheap thrill, click on the video and
watch our man Izzo taste wine!
Ron Washam's Alter-Ego is The
Hosemaster of Wine.
His parody and satire routinely shine a light on some of the blowhards in the
Ron chaired Panel K which means they were able to taste the wines while
seated. Sometimes Ron likes to judge wines while riding a unicycle and
other times he prefers a balancing beam, saying it's easier to determine if the
wines being judged are, in fact, balanced.
In the photo above we see Ron counting the number of gold medals his panel had
awarded. He had removed his shoes and socks in an effort to tally up the
The Hosemaster is much sought-after, sometimes more than $1000 bottles of Cult
Cabernets from Lodi.
This past year the Reidel Glass company designed as "Hosemaster"
These are rather durable and not likely to cause damage should they topple over.
Reidel (I know how to correctly spell Riedel) said they don't want to be sued.
Michael Ploetz is achieving fame and notoriety for being the Somm or General
Manager at Finn
Town, a place which is scheduled to open in three or four
He had been affiliated with The Peninsula Beverly Hills and prior to that, he
worked for Chef Michael Voltaggio's "Ink."
We saw his likeness posted on a wall in San Francisco next to a movie billboard,
so he's got his eyes on city traffic!
Please!" Sbrocco was the third person on this panel.
In her early days, she was a "hand model" and routinely poked the
For this weekend, she was poking both Ron and Michael.
Leslie is hugely busy and you'll find her not only on TV, but in print, the
internet and Wherefore L'Amour!
For the San Francisco International Wine Competition, it's "Wine Spitten
Tim's wife Lisa tells us "Mister Fedorable, Old McDonald,
likes hanging around dark places, like wine cellars, you know."
And he, apparently, can be seen in other dark rooms, too.
He offered all this year's new judges these 9-by-12 photos, saying he'd gladly
That was a short line of takers.
Also on Panel L was Kevin Vogt.
The Vogt-ster (Kevin Vogt) recently hung up his Sommelier's Tastevin, which he'd
employed at Emeril Lagasse's Delmonico Steakhouse for two decades in Las Vegas.
Kevin and his family will be taking up residence in California's Napa Valley
where he intends to open up a brick & mortar wine emporium, Wine
He'll feature his Mastery wines, a brand he and Mrs. Vogt have been producing
since the 2005 vintage.
Azeroth or Napa Valley?
Horde, Alliance or SF Intl wine judges?
The elegant and effervescent Tonya Pitts who is the Sommelier and Wine
Director at San Francisco's "One
She's a fan of good wine and good food.
Tonya is probably the only SFIWC judge who has even the vaguest idea of what a
Andy told her he had a ten dollar billiken and a twenty dollar billiken in his
wallet. Guess Again, Monsieur Bleu!
She's one of the more colorful judges, by the way, as evidenced by this
Warholistic work of art.
You never know what you might find at the Museum of Modern Art!
San Francisco's Wendy Stanford is such a scholar, they've named a famous college
Robert Silverstein is a gifted wine judge...he can taste in "stereo"
and gives new meaning to the term "multi-tasking."
For a guy named Silverstein, it's ironic to find his likeness
on gold coins, but apparently he's so adept at finding Gold Medal-worthy
The illustrious Dan Berger from Sonoma is a long-time wine business "watch
Don't let his youthful appearance fool you...he's an old-timer and he's got a
million stories to tell.
Dan is affiliated with numerous wine judgings and he even has his own! DAN
BERGER'S INTERNATIONAL WINE COMPETITION
Dan was a back-up singer with John Lennon and Yoko Ono, a little-known factoid.
He helped write Lennon's "Instant Karma," penning a few lines for
That's Our Dan!
Kimberly Charles was the Voice of Reason for Panel M.
She owns Charles
Communications Associates, a San Francisco Public Relations firm
that's a leader in its field (how could it not be an elite organization?
Look who's the captain of that ship!).
K-C has simple tastes along the lines of Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill (go
look it up!), making her a good judge of wine.
As she has traveled around the world, Kimberly is a veteran of the shopping
She's a Gold Medalist herself, as you can see at this particular mall in Europe.
The Legendary Sean Ludford
Sean comes to San Francisco from Milwaukee, but hails from Cork, Ireland.
This explains why Sean is often described as "Corked."
We don't know if he attended the University College Cork, but we thought we
heard someone yelling at him "Cork U!," so we suspect he did
He's got an adoring Fan Club, too, we understand.
He's got a lot of buying power, so he's also known as "Phil The Market."
"It's a hair-raising experience to judge with the likes of Sean
Ludford." Markert noted.
Not many people know that Phil is a bit of a Clothes Horse and has such a good
sense of fashion, he's been tabbed by Ferragamo as a "poster child"
for their wares.
Old Man Ferragamo actually had a Shoe Business in a town famed for Show
Phil's Von's and Pavilions are located near the old Ferragamo "Hollywood Boot
He is such a legend in Southern California grocery lore, they even changed the
famed Hollywood sign in his honor for a week earlier this year!
Lulu McAllister is the Wine Director at NOPA,
and the Liholiho
Yacht Club and all her wine lists are certainly a "lulu."
Though she's "just a kid," Lulu has an impressive history and her work
in educating wait staffers at the three restaurants is as remarkable as the
eclectic, high quality selections.
Yes, she's a lioness in the jungle of Bay Area somms/wine directors.
It's is, after all, Lulu Country!
The Class Clown lead Panel O.
This panel was also known as "O No!"
Gerald Weisl, wine geek and the wine guru at Weimax Wines & Spirits in
The shop has an eclectic selection, with a demanding eye towards quality,
soulful, palate-pleasing wines.
The London tabloids...this is an "international" wine judging, as you
Australia's Jim McMahon has been a fixture at the San Francisco International
Wine Competition for a decade. He judges regularly at various Australian
competitions, but has also been invited to taste in Japan, Bordeaux, Alsace,
Switzerland, Canada and Singapore.
He's based in Sydney, but Man, oh, McMahon, does he get around!
The globe-trotting wine expert has a web
site featuring some of his Enological Escapades.
And we did say "globe-trotting."
He was recently participating in a European wine judging and they had his mug
plastered all over the train station in town!
Eduardo Dingler is the Corporate Beverage Director for Iron Chef Morimoto's
He's an astute judge of wine, sake and makgeolli, making him the perfect
individual for Morimoto-san's restaurants. We found you need an Iron
Palate to appreciate some of those beverages!!!
Mr. Dingler is viewed by some as a real work of art.
He's a colorful museum piece in San Francisco's MOMA, apparently.
Chris Sawyer is a Savvy
Somm and he chaired Panel P. Sawyer lives in California Wine Country and he gallivants around the state
participating in wine judging events and hosting educational seminars.
It's been said that an event doesn't officially commence until
there's been a Chris Sawyer Selfie posted on some Social (or Anti-Social) Media
With so many candidates running for office this year, there was a demonstration
of support for Sawyer outside the tasting venue (Hotel Nikko in San Francisco).
The crowd was adamant that Sawyer "Go for The Gold!"
Jeffery is quite well-known in Los Angeles as a result and was featured on some
billboards and video displays one late afternoon recently.
One of the SF International judges saw this photo and asked if there was an
Amber Alert taking place.
Panel Q as in Que-nin, John Cunin.
While some of the other judges have the initials "MS," for example,
after their name, John is an MSSA. That's a Managed Services Solutions
He's affiliated these days with a company called Agilysys
and they make software for the hospitality industry. John is a long-time
veteran of the food & beverage wars.
Some young servers were taping up posters of John outside their restaurant as
they needed to alert their colleagues that Mr. Cunin was paying them a visit...
One of them said "John's a bigwig and a real VIP. We want to make
sure we don't spill a glass of wine or a coffee on him."
Needless to say he's a BIG fan of good wines, especially those
from the Pacific Northwest.
Andy, Monsieur Perdoux, was featured in a recent campaign for Northwest
Wines in the Paris Metro. It was not immediately known if sales of
Bordeaux and Burgundy took a nosedive in France.
Brown. Ron Brown.
He's of Swiss heritage but he's hardly neutral.
Mr. Brown calls Japan and Australia his home.
Ron has been involved with wine judgings around the world and is a bit of a
heavyweight at the Japan
Everyone soon was walking like an Egyptian, as they made their way to the dinner
We began with Loch Duart Salmon Tartare.
Some bottles from the "cellar bag" made their way to the table.
Ermes Pavese's Blanc de Morgex was a crisp, stony, minerally dry white and a
good pairing with the Salmon.
Jim McMahon shows off a bottle of Rapaura Springs Reserve Sauvignon Blanc from
New Zealand, a wine ferried over by Jim Harré from the "source."
Rowald Hepp brought a bottle of his 2014 Qualitätswein, a lovely, fresh, crisp,
This disappeared quite rapidly.
Wendy Harré remained "in the spotlight" during the early part of the
The main plate this year was very fine: A New York
"Pavé" with Sea Scallops and some little side accompaniments.
By this time we had enjoyed a Castello di Verduno Pelaverga, a berryish red with
notes of pepper. And an unusually fine Pinot Noir from the estate of Dr.
Thanisch in the Mosel...a smooth, supple Pinot with a touch of oak. Served
blind, many people guessed it to be either a French Burgundy or a Russian River
We also opened a Chassagne-Montrachet Rouge from Ramonet, an Eccomi Spanish red
made primarily of a grape called Marselan and a Ciù Ciù 2014 Pecorino.
Soon people were taking Selfies and this is a signal that it's
time to wrap up the proceedings.
Those young whippersnappers like Dana are so modern!
Older folks try taking selfies using old-fashioned technology...
So we made our way home, got a quick snooze and headed back to The City for