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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Problem with Wine Judging

Judging at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair
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Critics and judges make a living from attempting to tell us what's worth our time and money. They can even rank the products, such as the top ten movies of 2015, the best vehicle for a growing family, or the best wines under $20.

What makes these critics experts on a given subject? Well, they most likely know a lot more about it than you, but does having in-depth knowledge make you a better judge? Possibly not, especially when it comes to more subjective fields like art, music, or wine. Within these subjective areas there probably is a certain level of judging for basic competence in that field. But once past this basic competence how do you pick a top choice for others?

Tell Me What NOT to Buy
It gets pretty easy to know a really bad wine when you taste it and I'd be happy if somebody being paid to taste wines would tell me about these to save me from making a mistake. Interestingly, you don't really ever see a wine critic saying, "Stay away from these wines" like you might see a movie critic listing the worst movies of the year.

The Problem with Judging

So what about the various top ten wines lists, gold medal wines, 95 point wines, etc? Would you want someone to pick out a piece or artwork to hang in your home with no input from you? I'm guessing not though there are some people that would do this because they don't trust their own judgement. Folks do that with wine, too. They'll pretty much blindly follow some critic and buy what they say is the best wine. And these people will even develop a "Parker palate."  (Robert Parker was the main U.S. wine critic for many years). That is, they start to believe this is what all fine wine is supposed to taste like because Parker says so. You can see the problem.

This doesn't mean you should trust a wine judge's or wine critic's opinion. It means you have to understand the limitations.

An Example, the Sonoma County Harvest Fair

A panel of professional judges recently handed out the annual hundreds of medals to Sonoma County wines including golds, double golds, best in class, and overall sweepstakes winners.  Whew!

Any single judging won't include all available wines as that's obviously impossible. Our local Sonoma County Harvest Fair is only for grapes grown in Sonoma County (that makes sense), but a winery owner has to choose to enter their wine. Many wineries don't enter at all, some enter what they consider their best (this makes sense, too), some enter wines they think need a push in the retail market, and some enter everything (for some wineries that might be dozens of wines).

Of particular interest to me is the Zinfandel category. There is a style of Zin that's been popular for many years now of big red fruit, big alcohol, with little in the way of tannins or acids. These wine are known as "fruit bombs." There's a particular family that owns several small-to-medium sized wineries in the county and they all adhere to this style. All of their wineries enter lots of wines and win many medals.

That's great for them, but doesn't do me much good because that's not the style of Zinfandel I like. What I want to know is what are the best Zins in what I call the more restrained, food friendly style? These judges aren't going to tell me because for whatever reason they award medals to those fruit bombs.

Why Some Wines Win

So why do these fruit bomb Zinfandels win so many medals? I don't know what goes on at this judging or what they may be looking for in a wine, but I do have a theory explained in an earlier blog post. Basically, these wines please the palate with sweetness on that first sip. This doesn't make them bad wines, just not my favorite style. You've probably figured out by now that there's no right or wrong answer -- only opinions. That's all a judging is -- one person or small group of people's opinion.

Premium Wine Regions

The majority of wines coming out of a premium wine-producing region, such as Sonoma County, are good wines and were skillfully produced. Why? It's a great place to grow grapes and so the area draws the best talent. As most honest winemakers will tell you great wines are generally grown in the vineyard, not produced in the cellar.

I've found you usually don't get a bad bottle if you are buying from a region known for producing great wines. There's a reason Napa Valley Cabernet is so well known. In Sonoma I can generally assume a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, a Dry Creek Zinfandel, or an Alexander Valley Cabernet are going to be pretty good.

How to Buy

So a particular wine judging can be one data point. Recognizing that a wine comes from a region known for growing those wines can be another. This is information to help you make a good decision on a bottle of wine.