Eighty-one glasses of wine at my seat pressed against each other on a white tablecloth. Whites, pinks, and reds spread out in front of me, cupped in glasses like colors in a paint-by-number tray. Each one was best in its class, according to a panel of judges. Around me, a few dozen other judges from throughout the wine industry sat down to identical arrays: the sweepstakes round of the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Behind the tables, approximately 200 people sat silently watching us, their backs to the curtains that divided us from the rest of the hall in the Cloverdale Citrus Fair. In about an hour, I needed to pick my favorite sparkler, white wine, rosé, red wine, and dessert wine.
By that point in the week, I figured it would be easy.
Two months earlier, Bob Fraser, the main organizer of the competition, wrote to ask if I'd like to judge at it. Jon Bonne, my editor at the Chronicle, had suggested me.
I replied almost before I finished reading the email. I've judged events and gone to comparative tastings before, but the Chronicle Wine Competition is the largest competition in the country for American wines. It spans 4 days and almost 5,000 wines. Who would say no?
The morning of the first day was a reunion for past judges. Wine makers, retailers, and writers made their way around the close-packed tables in the plain dining area, catching up and swapping industry gossip. Newbies like me squeezed into conversations as best we could until Bob stood up and announced each panelist — and his or her 3- or 5-person panel — to a round of applause.
My panel of five made its way to our area in the auditorium, the tall burgundy- and ivory-colored curtains that walled off each area swishing around us as we scooted through the narrow passageways. This would be our home for the next three days. Each area had one panel of judges, two tables, a chalkboard divided with masking tape into a grid, and a small army of volunteers: a coordinator, a clerk, and runners. To ensure double-blind tastings, a mostly invisible staff poured the wine in glasses in the back area before handing them off to our area's runners, who brought them to us. The competition relies on about 185 volunteers to manage the complex logistics of moving 5,000 wines to the judges, tabulating the results of our judging, and double-checking everything.
We introduced ourselves, and the coordinator assigned to our panel, Frances, announced our first category: semi-sweet sparkling wines. No matter how many wines we would taste for any given category (a mere 16 for the off-dry sparkling wines), we'd never have more than 12 in front of us at any given time.
We picked up our glasses and started evaluating. A sniff, a spit-out sip, and some scribbles later, we each assigned an individual score to the wine: no award, bronze, silver, or gold. I revisited wines I was on the fence about. I revisited the first wine in each flight, since the first wine in a tasting almost always scores well. I revisited any wines that were hurt by their placement: a dry wine on the heels of an off-dry one will taste tart and off-balance.
How do you evaluate a wine in about 30 seconds? I look for fruit in a young wine, but not too much. I look for acidity — even a dessert wine requires acidity to carry the flavor and balance the sugar. I look for complexity. I look for balance. Is the finish harsh? Or too hot?
But everything has to be in the context of the wine and the stated goal of the competition: helping consumers find good wines. You don't knock a Grenache for being fruity. You don't complain that a dessert wine isn't dry. I gave high marks to an oaky Chardonnay because it was well-made and balanced: I might not drink it, but lots of the drinking public would. And they'd love it.
We finished the round and the coordinator wrote our individual scores on the chalkboard. From there, she figured out the group's medal by simple majority vote.
For most of our categories, about 70 percent of the group's medals were obvious: four bronzes and a silver is a bronze; three golds, a silver, and a bronze is a gold; four silvers and a bronze is a silver. A double gold happens when every judge awards a gold, which obviously happens less with a five-person panel than a three-person one. But in a majority rules situation, what if you end up with one gold, two silvers, and two bronzes?
You negotiate. Judges who liked the wine talk it up. Sometimes, they educate the other panelists. Jessica Yadegaran from the Contra Costa Times and I, the two first-time judges on our panel, had given a bronze to a one-dimensional bubblegum-y sparkler. The other judges, however, all familiar with Midwestern and East Coast wines, argued that it was a pitch-perfect Concord grape sparkler and gave it a gold.
But mostly one or two judges want to make the case for the wine. One or more of the other judges gets convinced, he or she decides to up the individual score, and the wine gets a medal. The crew takes away the glasses and swaps in new ones. When the category is finished, the volunteers bring back glasses of the golds so that the judges can choose a best of class. This is harder than assigning a bronze, silver, or gold: It's picking your favorite from a single bank of well-made wines. Separately, judges decide if the best of class should go to the sweepstakes.
In the middle of our first two categories, my co-panelist Ellen Landis, co-owner of Half Moon Bay's Landis Shores Oceanfront Inn, noticed a problem. We weren't giving out enough golds.
A medal is like a score: a marketing tool a winery can use to convince a customer to buy the bottle. Facing a wall of $20 Zinfandels at the store, the average drinker looks for some way to know what to buy. A high score or a gold medal — judges seem to equate a gold medal with a 90-point score — suggests that someone somewhere liked it at least once before.
The Chronicle competition doesn't hand out golds like candy — across 45 dry rosés, our panel awarded just two golds — but the organizers urge panels not to be too stingy. Too few golds, and your high silvers might come back for another round. If you're a wine geek, you can find issues with just about any bottle of wine. But if average wine drinkers would love that bottle, a gold medal will help them find it.
There's a financial aspect as well. Entry fees from wineries, ticket sales from the public tasting, and sponsorships fund the competition and help fund enology and wine studies programs at Santa Rosa Junior College and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, among others. Too miserly a set of judges, and fewer wineries would enter. And imagine a $60 public tasting featuring just 12 gold medal winners.
On it went for my panel, for three days, across a range of wines: 16 semi-dry sparklers, 10 sweet sparklers, 76 white blends, eight red wines made from native grapes, 11 red wines from hybrid grapes, 48 Brut sparklers, 69 Chardonnays in the $25-$30 range, 19 white wines made from hybrid grapes, 45 dry rosés, 42 Tempranillos, and nine fruit wines.
We were lucky. Around us, panels struggled with 60+ Syrahs in one price range or 50+ Cabernet Sauvignons in another. Despite our miserable round of rosés, we avoided a talking-to about our overall medal ratio. Our Tempranillos had a high ratio; the rest were the high side of average, from what I gathered when comparing notes with other panels.
Then came the last day: the sweepstakes round. Virtually all the best-of-class wines were sitting on the table. Only 12 had not been sent to the sweepstakes by the judges, though I wondered why some panel had sent the under-$10 Chardonnay and the under-$10 Merlot to the sweepstakes. Best of class simply means better than other wines in the same price point.
I picked up the wines in front of me and started tasting. To get through that many wines in that hour or so, I gave a plus or minus to each wine in the category. I revisited the plusses and looked for anything that would let me knock it out of the running for best among all the ones in front of me. It wasn't easy at all. Three days of practice still hadn't prepared me for the effort of comparing tens of best-of-class wines to one another to find the top three.
Glasses clinked as judges removed wine after wine from the thicket in front of us. I voted on the three sparklers and held up my ballot. A runner took it from me and brought it to the tabulation table. A new ballot in hand, I started on the whites: sip, spit, evaluate. Again and again. Within about 15 minutes I held up that ballot. The rosé ballot was easy: There were only two wines. I started in on the reds. I stopped every dozen wines to swish water through my mouth: The tannins were increasing, and my tongue was drying out. I voted a few minutes before the clock ticked down on the reds. I moved to dessert: just 5 wines. I cast my votes and sat back. Other judges were turning in their ballots. We began to talk about the sweepstakes: At my section of the table, the conversation centered around the two fruit wines, both excellent.
The last ballots went in, and Bob got up to thank everyone involved in the event. As round of applause followed round of applause — the judges almost gave the runners and panel coordinators a standing ovation — the two people at the tabulation table worked and double-checked each other's results. Volunteers handed us the results binder. Only one page was empty: the one listing the sweepstakes winners.
Finally, Bob heard that the tabulation was done. He announced each winner to the room. Best Sparkling Wine: J Vineyards and Winery Brut Rosé. Best White Wine: 2008 Keuka Spring Vineyards Gewurztraminer from New York's Finger Lakes. Best Rosé: 2008 Bray Vineyards Barbera Rosato from California's Shenandoah Valley. Best Red: 2007 Graton Ridge Cellars Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. Best Dessert: 2008 Watermill Winery Late Harvest Gewurztraminer from Washington's Walla Walla Valley.
The judges stood up. Old friends and new friends shook hands, traded hugs, and talked about the results. Judges and volunteers began to filter out of the hall, heading to home via cars or planes. "See you next year," was the common refrain.