Several weeks ago, as part of my trip back to Dry Creek Valley, my friend Donald Goodkin, who is on the Board of the Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley (WDCV), asked if I would be interested in being a judge, of sorts, at a blind tasting in Dry Creek.
Since starting my blog, I have many great opportunities, met scores of great people, and tasted countless wines, but I had never been asked to be a judge. I instantly thought of several questions: What is the format? Are there any other judges? Who is entered? Are there awards for the winners? Why me?
So in face of all these questions racing through my head I said:
That was it.
Actually, I said one more thing:
“Let me ask my wife.”
We were, after all, visiting her family and I was already going to be gone for more than half the time we out there. I think I even felt a bit guilty (for a brief period) asking for some more time away. After pondering a bit, she acquiesced and I waited for details.
It turned out that the blind tasting was part of the annual Dry Creek Valley Scholarship Picnic, an event organized by the WDCV and the Dry Creek Valley Association (DCVA). The picnic and auction raises money to support the Dry Creek Valley Scholarship Fund, which “was established as a cooperative effort by the DCVA and WDCV to provide financial aid to graduating high school seniors for the purpose of continuing their education in college.”
[This year, the picnic and auction ended up raising close to $25,000 for the scholarship fund, the highest total in the history of the event.]
As the day approached, I became increasingly more nervous, since details from Donald were rather scarce (in hindsight, I think Donald simply wanted to make me sweat a bit). On the morning of the event, Donald indicated that he wanted me taste through all the wines (53!), make an honest assessment, and pick the top three wines in each variety.
All the attendees to the picnic would also be tasting, but they were only assigned one of the four varieties, and they were to vote for their top three wines in their assigned variety. Those votes would be tabulated and “People’s Choice” winners would be announced at the end of the evening.
As I approached the first table it really hit me: I was in for a rather long haul. Not only were there a ton of wines to go through, but there were also tons of people milling about—and I like it when there are people milling about, particularly when the milling includes consuming wine. The problem? The more I milled the less I would swirl and taste, and it was clear time was going to be an issue. I did some rough math: 2 hours and 53 wines meant about two minutes on each wine.
Moments after I started, the tables became crowded, and my job got a bit more difficult. I was going to have to curb my desire to talk to people and bob and weave through the masses.
I made my way through the sixteen Sauvignon Blancs, talking to a few people along the way (both Doug Nalle and Barry Collier were there). After tasting #16, I glanced at my watch, an hour and fifteen minutes had passed—45 minutes to taste through the remaining 38 wines.
Over the next 45 minutes, I was in a zone—slosh, swirl, sniff, sip, spit, scribble some scores. Repeat.
At the end, I gave my choices to Donald and that was it. As far as I know, until now, my results were not known to anyone else, so in the end it was a very low-key, low pressure event, but at the time I was certainly sweating it out and trying to carefully evaluate each wine.
|People’s Choice||Dry Creek Vineyard||Pedroncelli||Preston|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Dry Creek Vineyard||Pech Merle||Cornstock|
|People’s Choice||Wilson||Mazzocco||Ferrari Carano|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Ferrari Carano||Road House||Pedroncelli|
|People’s Choice||Collier Falls||Mounts||Wilson|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Gustafson||Fritz||Mounts|
|The Drunken Cyclist||Wilson||Mounts||Copain Sally Weed|
While there was some overlap between my thoughts and the popular vote, it is clear that wine assessment is personal—are my results any more legitimate than the “popular vote”? Hardly. Perhaps Donald, when announcing the winners of the People’s Choice vote put it best:
“Congratulations to the winners! You are the ‘Peoples Choice’ for Dry Creek Valley. Do not underestimate the importance of this award. The ‘People’ may not be internationally recognized wine tasting experts, but they know what they like. And they like your wines best.”
So, what did I learn?
Above all else, blind judging is tough—sure, there were a few obstacles: I was not supposed to re-visit any wines (although I did a couple of times), it was not the “normal” way I evaluate wines (I prefer to taste wines in the context of a meal), and the event itself was designed to be social and it was very hard for me to switch that aspect “off”. But in the end, I actually enjoyed the entire process immensely.
I also found that I have a newfound respect/skepticism for the “professional” tasters and judges. It requires a keen focus and substantial stamina to make it through and be just as fresh and focused on the last as you were on the first. Therein lies the skepticism: I had two hours to taste 53 wines and I was struggling. Some professional tasters do twice that (or more), usually in less time. Even if the rate was one a minute, that barely gives you time to scribble a few notes.
As a result of the process, I formulated several new questions:
- Do “experts” really know all that much more than anyone else? Does it even matter?
- Can you accurately make a sound judgment on a wine in two minutes (or less)?
- Can you eliminate context from evaluating wine?
Before this event, I was pretty certain that it was pure folly to taste wines this way. After the tasting? I might be coming around just a bit—the juxtaposition of wines quickly, one after another, certainly enabled comparison.
After the tasting, there was a fantastic potluck picnic, where I got to meet a slew of wonderful people over some fantastic food. There was also wine, of course, and after tasting through all those wines, I really did not feel like drinking anymore.
Yeah, that didn’t last.