Sunday, June 16, 2013

Judge & Jury: What It’s Like to Judge at a Wine Competition

Lucky me, I judge at wine competitions. But I routinely get comments that run the gamut from, “I’m jealous,” to, “Michael, do you actually work for a living?” So to quash the misinformation about wine judging, I’m putting a cork in several myths. Within the State Fair system I have judged at the California State Fair, the El Dorado County Fair (known as the Mountain Democrat Wine Competition), and the Central Coast Wine Competition (part of the California Mid-State Fair) which is a competition of wines from several counties including Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo and Monterey, and several other fairs. So, here’s what you need to know.

Myth #1: Wine competitions are just a chance to drink lots of wine.
Actually, no one drinks wine at wine competitions. Judges evaluate between 60 to 90 wines a day, giving full attention to each wine - a time consuming and focused endeavor. We smell them, swirl them, then spit them into dump buckets. What develops is palate fatigue, whereby you’ve had so many wines that your taste buds need a break. Each panel has a plate of celery, olives, bread, cheese and sliced beef available to help cleanse the palate. And a day’s work can mean tasting through 15 Cabernet Sauvignons, then 30 Chardonnays, 20 Pinot Noirs, 18 white Rhone blends, 4 dessert wines and then 7 sparkling wines. Yes, it’s taxing physically, but also mentally as we try and be fair to each wine, from the first few to # 89.
The back room - where judges aren't allowed
 Myth # 2: Wine judging is rigged.
All wines are tasted blind and a dedicated volunteer staff catalogs, opens, pours, numbers and delivers wine in glass to judges so we have little information about the wine – we don’t want to prejudice the outcome. We usually know the variety, perhaps the vintage date, but most other information is left with the volunteers behind closed doors. And this is exactly how a wine should be evaluated. I can attest that some wines win awards and when we find out the producer, we’re surprised, and yes, sometimes embarrassed because we think it’s a wine we would never have purchased on our own. But that’s what is so cool. Most competitions allow us to give a wine a gold medal, silver, bronze, or the dreaded “no award.”

Myth #3: Wine “judges” are a bunch of people who know little about wine.

Doug Frost (foreground)  doing his thing
Wine competition judges are comprised of professionals in the wine industry, like; winemakers, wine retailers (specialty wine shops and wine buyers for mega-stores and restaurants); wine media (seasoned wine writers for newspapers, magazines, websites, radio, and blogs) and folks in the culinary world. For example this year (2013), the Central Coast Wine Competition had judges like Doug Frost from Kansas City, one of the most respected sommeliers and wine educators in the U.S, and one of only four people in the entire world to hold the duel titles Master of Wine, and Master Sommelier. And William Bloxom-Carter, the executive Chef and food and beverage director of the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles, a position he’s held for nearly 30 years (and if you think his job is cutting celery sticks for Playboy models, you’re dead wrong. Chef Carter plans and executes tons of dinners often time for over 1,000 people). At the California State Fair the pros included Joe Roberts (from Philadelphia) and Robert Jennings, two of the biggest wine bloggers, to winemakers like Leslie Renaud (from Santa Barbara), and Jackson Starr (from Grass Valley). In Placerville this year there were judges like Mike Dunne, the former wine and food writer for the Sacramento Bee for 30 years, to Charlie Tsegeletos, the longtime winemaker at Cline Cellars in Sonoma. So it’s a safe bet we know wine.

The Judges of the Central Coast Wine Competition

Myth #4: No one cares about awards and scores.
Think what you like, but a gold medal at a competition translates to sales, bragging rights and marketing potential. Judging is made up of multiple panels and each individual panel consists, usually, of three judges. It’s important to know that gold, silver and even bronze medal winning wines receive their medals by these panels, not an individual. Double Gold awards (meaning every judge on a panel gave it a gold medal) and Best of Class wines are voted on by an even larger panel, ranging from 20 to 70 people. Of course not all judges agree and I’ve sat on panels where wines I’ve loved have not been loved by my peers, and vice versa. But beyond that, for people like me as a wine writer, even for judges who work in the retail environment, we get to discover new wines, new wineries and promote them.
Wine Judging Ain't All Glamerous
County fair wine competitions are held in unglamorous settings, usually a big warehouse-type building. Sure, other wine competitions are at nice restaurants or places like Fort Mason overlooking the San Francisco Bay but the state fair system is pretty much nuts and bolts and nothing fancy. Another thing to know is that each competition has a chief judge who oversees all the other judges, makes decisions and solves problems. And there are the volunteers, all those folks who go unheralded and work the backroom to help everything run efficiently. For example at the California State Fair in Sacramento, we had 75 judges, 100 volunteers and 2,600 wines. Do the math. At the El Dorado County Fair Wine Competition they have a special award known as the Backroom Award, whereby the volunteers give out an award for their favorite wine, which is a pretty cool thing to do. So the next time someone you know is off to a wine competition, you’ll have a better understanding of what we do and when you see a medal winning wine, you’ll know that a lot of work has gone into it, so give that wine a try. And stop by your local county fair, or one of these.

Me, Having Fun

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Santa Barbara Beer Dinner

I am a beer advocate. I am not, however, an insatiable beer lover, a hop-head, a fanatic. I’m more of a wine guy so when a beer pairing dinner, one of Santa Barbara’s first, was announced with Firestone Walker Brewing Company, and Chef Budi Kazali of The Ballard Inn, well, that was a no-brainer. I had never been to a beer pairing dinner before, but have certainly been to my share of winemaker dinners over the years.

Wine pairing dinners are so common these days that here on the Central Coast you can find one everywhere you go, be that Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Pismo Beach, Paso Robles and Cambria. But surprisingly beer paired dinners are less common, though if you’re in micro-brew hot spots like San Diego or Seattle you can find a number of them. But they are starting to catch on in Santa Barbara. 
With over a dozen microbreweries in the region there should be several to choose from every year, but sadly, that hasn’t happened yet. More often beer dinners tend to be paired with pub and tavern food and that’s not a bad thing, but this beer dinner helmed by Budi Kazali meant that the food, and therefore the beers were elevated to fine dining – though still rambunctious what with a total of six beers.

The dinner was not created from a vacuum, actually the idea was prompted by American Craft Beer Week, a nationwide event celebrating the 2,800 small craft breweries who participated in events across the U.S. Budi choose the beers he wanted to work with, choosing less hoppy brew since bitter overly hopped beers don't pair well with most foods.

A brief run down of the menu is as follows:
1st Course: Tempura shrimp in a green papaya sauce, seared scallop in a saffron sauce, and seared tuna in a yuzu vinaigrette, served with a glass of Firestone Pivo Hoppy Pilsner, a classic Czech pilsner with only 40 IBU, so it’s actually not over hoppy. What was surprising was to see this beer work across such diverse flavors as these three bites that Budi created.
2nd: Crispy skin sea bass with the Firestone Lil Opal Barrel Fermented Saison which uses wild yeast aged in Opus One (a high-end Napa winery) barrels which has a light sour finish paralleling the crispy sea bass and the lemony tart sauce Budi crafted for the fish.
David Walker discusses his beers with guests
3rd: Kalua Duck, jicama salad with a Chinese black bean sauce with Firestone Unfiltered DBA, an English pale ale just slight hoppy which registered most obviously to me with the earthy mushrooms in the crisp jicama salad.
4th: Kobe beef short ribs (and stunningly tender) with a coconut sauce with the Firestone Rufus Wild Ale, a brew aged in 23 year old bourbon barrels. And here the almost sweet sense of the bourbon coaxed out the richness of the ribs.
Chef Budi Kazali
5th: Coffee pot de crème with bourbon whipped cream paired with one of Firestone’s best brews, the Parabola Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Stout. Long ago the Russian royal family seemed to love stouts but they wanted a kind of turbocharged version as David Walker put it. So, more hops, more alcohol and the Imperial was born. The Parabol was aged 9 to 13 months in barrel and it that kind of deep, rich earthy beer that completely stands on its own. Having been at this dinner it begins to ignite thoughts about experimenting at home. Beer and wine are food products and therefore should be an integral part of mealtimes (sure, breakfast works too) and what is exciting is realizing the endless possibilities to find flavors, textures and viscosities what work together to make a meal memorable.
So if you live in Santa Barbara or are planning a visit check out the brews of Firestone Walker – they have taprooms in Buellton in Santa Barbara, and one in Paso Robles – and make reservations for dinner at the Ballard Inn for some of the best food in the county – you can stay here too for a wine country, er, beer country getaway.