L.A. Country Fair Wine Competition

L.A. Country Fair Wine Competition – Special Advertising Section

Bob Blumer

SOME MEN ARE RULED BY THEIR LIBIDO; FOR ME IT’S MY PLATE. AS I GAZE DOWN at the dozen glasses of stellar Italian Barbera fanned out in front of me, my palate is uncharacteristically commanding me to retreat. But I can’t. There are another 122 wines to be tasted before my day is done, and it’s only eight o’clock in the morning.

Such is the lot of a judge at the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition. While “county fair” conjures up folksy images of local farmers displaying blue-ribbon pigs, prize watermelons, and homemade pickles, the rarefied world of wine isn’t as out of place as it may seem. Wine is just fermented grape juice, and an agricultural product like any other. The fair’s wine competition is one of the largest and oldest wine competitions in the country. So intent are the organizers on assuring it a world-class rep that they fly in 85 of the most respected and discriminating palates from around the globe to officiate the three-day-long event. Included in the handpicked group of 52 men and 25 women are Heidi Barrett, wine maker for Screaming Eagle, California’s most highly prized cult wine; James Healy, enologist for New Zealand’s world-renowned Cloudy Bay; and an impressive assemblage of master sommeliers, wine consultants, and critics.

Six years ago, my dalliance with the grape turned into a full-blown affair. I started writing about wine to justify my obsessive behavior, and my stories earned me a coveted spot on the jury. This is my third year judging, and though with each year I feel a little more confident, tasting with such esteemed professionals is a truly humbling experience.

For the next three days the 85 of us will be sequestered at the fairgrounds in Pomona, 35 miles east of Los Angeles. Collectively, we will taste 3,832 wines from more than 20 countries. In the end, friendships will be forged, egos will be bruised, palates will be numbed, and one wine will emerge as “Best of Competition.”

While being a wine judge may seem like a cush job that’s right up there with being Cameron Diaz’s personal masseuse, deconstructing 150 wines in a day requires the focus of a surgeon, the endurance of a long-distance runner, and the constitution of a sumo wrestler.

Our Spartan judging quarters are divided into a warren of private cubicles by portable, office-style partitions. Each sanctum is furnished with a round plastic-covered table and six chairs: one for each of the five judges per panel and one for the scribe who records the score. In front of me is a 2B pencil, bottles of water, and some paper plates piled with cheese cubes, water crackers, and grapes. At my feet is a bucket haft-filled with sawdust. We are supported by a small army of volunteers, including a brigade of 15 dishwashers who wash and polish more than 25,000 glasses over the course of the competition.

Before the event, entries are categorized according to varietal, year, and price range. The categories are then subdivided into manageable tasting lots (you know, 20 at a time), so as to prevent “palate fatigue.” Because the competition prides itself on guaranteed impartiality, we never catch even a fleeting glimpse of a wine bottle until the competition is over. All that we see is an endless sea of glasses being ferried on trolleys in and out of the judging area.

My panel is starting the day with 43 Italian varietals. We begin with the wine identified by a round paper label fitted around the stem of the glass as C-398. Each judge lifts the glass to the light to examine its appearance, then sticks his or her nose deep into the vessel to assess its aromas, and finally, draws an aerated mouthful to contemplate its taste, viscosity, vitality, and virility. After sucking every iota of life out of the specimen, we unceremoniously send the juice spewing in a two-foot stream into the sawdust slag heap, scribble a few shorthand notations on our score sheets, and move on to the next glass.

Wines are rated according to a simple fourtier system of no-award, Bronze, Silver, and the highly coveted Gold. After each flight, the scribe notes our scores, and a roundtable discussion ensues as we attempt to come to a consensus. Usually we are close from the get-go, but on some occasions we start with shockingly different impressions of the same wine. One judge’s “grassy and herbal” is another’s “petrol.”

By noon we have sailed through the Italian varietals and made a sizable dent in our 81 $13 to $25 cabernets. I am desperate for lunch and a break from all the wine. Clearly I am still a novice at this game, because among the seasoned judges, beer is the beverage of choice.

Our afternoon is dedicated to the remaining cabernets and a small flight of sweet muscats. As we round the 100-wine mark, some of the entries start to blur together, but the exceptional examples still stand out, their alluring qualities instantly recognizable by all five judges. At the end of the afternoon, exhausted and slightly buzzed from the trickle-down factor, we file out with two hours to collect ourselves and our e-mail and get ready for dinner.

Back in my room, I close my eyes for a second and wake up 90 minutes later, just in time to catch the bus to dinner. Following the dinner of meltingly tender osso buco on a bed of soft polenta, many of the judges head for the hotel bar to network and swap wine gossip over margaritas and Guinness.

At eight-thirty the next morning I am probably still not legal to drive as I head back to our cubicle. The carnage continues with 50 Sangioveses. By this point, alliances have formed and we have become intimately familiar with each other’s idiosyncrasies of taste and preference. The barbs fly with the speed and accuracy of an Eric Gagne fastball.

The third day of the competition is the sweepstakes: The “Best of Class” wines from each category face off in a smackdown until the one of the 52 left standing is crowned “Best of Competition.” All 85 judges sniff, swirl, and slurp in symphonic unison, then cast their votes with a show of hands.

One wine after another is eliminated. In the end we are given the unenviable task of picking the “Best of Show” from an assemblage of radically different wines: a chardonnay, a Grenache, a blanc de noir sparkling wine, a late-harvest dessert wine, a sake, and a port. I have a sudden sympathy for judges at dog shows who are forced to compare a basset hound with a Samoyya and a Pomeranian. When the votes are tallied, the Grenache (later revealed to be the 2001 Burnstein-Remark Grenache from Monterey, California) emerges victorious.

Within minutes, all of the “Best of Class” winners are set out on a table, and the judges swarm around to match the bodes with their code numbers. There are several shocking surprises (who knew they even made wine in Missouri?) as well as a host of familiar labels. Some wine buyers jump on their cell phones, while the rest of us say our good-byes and prepare to return to the real world, where one bottle of wine can last a whole evening.

More than 200 gold medal winners from this year’s competition can be sampled for $1.50 an ounce at the forthcoming Los Angeles County Fair, Sept. 12 to 28 in Pomona. For more information, call (909) 8654231. A complete list of the winning wines can be found at www.fairplex.com.

RESOURCE GUIDE

BRONZE MEDAL Cabernet Sauvignon &

Merlot Blends/ Limestone Coast, Australia 2000

Greg Norman Winery/Beringer Blass Estates Limited

600 Airpark Road, State 110, Napa, CA 94558

(707) 2594500

BEST OF CLASS, GOLD MEDAL

Bordeaux Blends 1999+/Alluvium, Knights

Valley, 1999

Beringer Vineyards

2000 Main Street, Staint Helena, CA 94574

(707) 9634812

GOLD MEDAL Chardonnay 2000/ Napa

Valley, 2000

Grgich Hills Cellar

1829 Saint Helena Highway, Rutherford, CA 94573

(800) 532-3057, www.grgich.com

GOLD MEDAL, BEST OF CLASS AND BEST SPARKLING WINE

Blanc De Noir/ Napa Valley

Mumm Cuvee Napa Winery

8445 Silverato Trail., P.O. Box 500, Rutherford, CA 94573

(800) MUM-NAPA, (707) 967-7700

www.mummnapa.com

BEST OF CLASS, GOLD MEDAL, BEST CHARDONNAY, BEST WHITE WINE OF COMPETITION

Chardonnay 2001 or Later/California, 2001

Stone Cellars by Beringer

P.O. Box 111, St. Helena, CA 94578

(707) 963-7115, www.stonecellars.com

COPYRIGHT 2003 Los Angeles Magazine, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group