HOW TO TASTE 300 WINES OVER THE WEEKEND AND
LIVE TO TELL ABOUT IT
Back in 1896 the organizers of the Olympics came
up with the idea of a long distance foot race. The idea was transplanted
by some Bostonians and they've been holding the Boston Marathon since
1897. San Francisco has its Bay to Breakers.
The City also hosts an amazing annual wine tasting competition organized under
the auspices of Anthony Dias Blue, wine editor of Bon Appétit magazine.
"Andy" runs a terrific event. Well, he thinks he
runs it, but it's really coordinated by a delightful woman named Carol Seibert
and a cast of about a thousand volunteers.
These people manage to organize, and I mean organize, approximately 35-40 wine
judges from around the country and the pouring of something like 3,800 wines for
evaluation by the various panels. Then they manage to tabulate the
results, an even more Herculean task!
The judges are invited to a dinner on Friday night
and it's a good opportunity to renew old acquaintances and make new ones.
We're "treated" to wines from a winery who entered a bunch of wines
the previous year and whose wines fared well.
I cheated and brought some bottles in my "traveling cellar" bag, much
to the delight of some of people sitting at my table. The food is nice,
but it's really the people that make this a memorable event.
The judges are organized into panels of three or four. Some panels have
been tasting together for many years. Others are thrown together for the
first time. Some people are invited year after year. Others are, as
Andy said about someone last year, "voted off the island."
The volunteers are amazing, devoting, essentially, a wasted weekend to
schlepping carriages full of wine glasses, each coded to a particular
wine. Keeping track of the results is a monumental task. So is
washing thousands of wine glasses! Somehow these people manage to smile
through the whole event.
The judges are presented a list of what their particular panel's
"marathon" entails. This year my panel is tasting:
43 Chardonnays of the 2000 vintage
31 Viogniers of 2000 & 2001
31 Pinot Gris wines of 1998-2000
87 Cabernet Sauvignon wines of 2000
58 Zinfandels of 2000
19 Rosé wines of various vintages
8 Fruit wines and Fruit-Flavored Wines
We don't know who made the wines, where they come from or how many arms &
legs the winery is asking for these. Sometimes we'll hazard a guess about
the origins of a wine. The volunteers were impressed that I correctly
nailed the origin of a Chardonnay we taste. I said it was from Long
Island. Keep in mind a broken clock is correct twice during the course of
You'd think that if a winery is sending a five bottles of a particular wine,
plus $60 for the privilege of having their vinous nectar sipped and spit, they'd
be sending something of reasonably good quality.
We taste quietly and independently, each judge deciding if a wine is worthy of
some sort of citation such as a gold medal, silver medal, bronze medal or a
"better luck next time, thanks for playing."
I have another level of quality called "STW."
That means "Shoot The Winemaker." Some people must be drinking
too much of their own stuff to realize the swill they've entered has all the
perfume of a horse stable that hasn't been cleaned out in a month, not to
mention a flavor that could send less hardy tasters into a raging fit.
When you're tasting 159 in a day as we did, you have to pace yourself. The
spit bucket becomes your best friend.
Gold medals are hard to come by. Getting several panel members to agree to
award a particular wine is difficult. On those rare occasions when
everyone at the table judges a wine to be worthy of a gold medal, the wine is
distinguished as a "Double Gold Medal" winner and is tossed into the
"Best of Show" Sweepstakes award.
One nice feature of this competition is that the judges are not required to
award medals, nor are they required to by-pass worthy wines. We tasted
flights of 15 wines, for example, and awarded 7 or 8 medals in a few of
them. Of course, in some flights we were quite disappointed by the quality
and did not award any medals. So, in fact, we are not looking to select
the best wine in a flight. If a bunch of wines are worthy, they get
citations. If the judges feel the wines are not good, they don't have to
make an award.
Keep in mind that a wine's showing depends upon a variety of factors. Its
placement in a "flight" of 10-15 wines can even influence how it
appears to the judges.
Here you can see the famous Greg Tresner of May Elaine's in Scottsdale, Arizona.
He must have a good palate and a good temperament! He handles a staff of
five sommeliers (these sort of people always have an opinion, maybe two) and
holds the title of Master Sommelier. That designation is akin to having a
"black belt" in karate, but less messy (generally).
You can take notes, if you like, on the score-sheets provided. You
accumulate a bunch of these papers over the course of the day. And you
don't know the identity of the wines you've tasted until the results are
tabulated a month after the event!
At the end of the first day we'd tasted some 159 wines!
Our panel had the dubious "honor" of tasting some fruit and grape
"flavored" wines. I wondered whether or not Greg or Claudia (or
myself) had offended one of the organizers to have this, ahem,
honor. We tasted a wine made of "Choke-cherries," along with a
concoction that was "90% white wine & 10% Nectarine." I can
tell you, the white wine must have been awful and the nectarines weren't much
better. A White Zin which was supposedly "enhanced" with
something must have been inadvertently blended with chlorine. Either that,
or they washed the fruit with bleach! Anyway, too bad we had only
Semifreddi French Bread as a palate cleanser. We'd have been better off
with a plate of Starburst Fruit Chew candies!
After tasting this curious flight of wines, I wondered if some inmates at San
Quentin hadn't pooled their resources and sent in the entry fee and five bottles
of their finest creations for inclusion in this round of tasting.
bright and early, we return for the second half of our mission.
TO THE 2005 COMPETITION
TO THE 2004 COMPETITION