Not much more than four years ago, the family and I moved to Texas. As a lifelong Eastern Time Zone resident, it was a big move: changing time zones, living below the Mason-Dixon Line, deciding whether to adopt the “y’all” lifestyle? It was all rather heady.
The transition to life in Houston was made easier, however, by several factors. While I might certainly get some disagreement from my mates in Philly, the weather in Houston (outside of the three summer months and the occasional hurricane) is decidedly better. As a cyclist, being able to ride outside twelve months a year is a huge plus (yes, one can even ride during the summer if you get out early enough).
The second redeeming quality of Houston is that it is a fantastic food town. There is no doubt that many cities (including Philadelphia) can and do make that claim, but within five miles of where I am writing this, there are well over a dozen cuisines available at various restaurants (and not mere American interpretations of the original).
While I present this third on this list, it certainly ranks first in importance: Houston is a fantastic wine town. There are several large retailers, dozens of smaller, more focused boutique-type shops, and grocery store chains that carry impressive wine inventories (my local H.E.B. is impressive, and Kroger’s location in the Heights is phenomenal).
Even more impressive than the retail scene, perhaps, is the impressive cadre of wine writers located in Houston. Within weeks of moving to the Bayou City, I connected with a dozen or so writers who live here and was attending the weekly tastings at the Houston Wine School, partaking in a Franciacorta tasting downtown, or hitting one of the seemingly countless wine bars here in town.
(Given the state of the pandemic here in Texas, all of those practices have come to a screeching halt and seem like the distant past.)
Perhaps the most monumental encounter, though, was the most subtle. Within just a few weeks of moving here, one of the aforementioned writers asked if I would like to become a judge for the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo’s International Wine Competition. Having never heard of the competition, I did what anyone in my position would do. I agreed.
This past weekend, I partook in my third (and the Rodeo’s 18th) wine competition, tasting over 200 wines over the course of two days with approximately 50 other judges. This year, due to the pandemic, both the number of wines and judges were reduced, we followed a fairly strict protocol of physical distancing, masks were mandatory (when not tasting), and any unnecessary interaction was severely limited.
On Sunday, I was invited back to be a part of a Super Panel, along with six other judges, to determine the best value wines (from the top 32), the best Texas wines (from 12) and the best wines from Sonoma, this year’s focus region (another 18 wines).
While judging 250+ wines over three days might sound like “fun” to some, I can assure you that it is work and it is tiring. “Judging” wine is different than “tasting” or “evaluating” wines in a few key ways. The first is that you have no idea what the wines are as they are tasted “double blind.” This means that beyond perhaps the region, variety, and price range, there is no way to know what exactly is in the glass. Those three are not always included either–this week, I tasted 40 wines that were described as “Other Red Blends $15-30.” That’s it, that was all the information provided.
The other factor that makes judging different, difficult, and tiring is that you have to be relatively fast. My panel consisted of five judges and we all tasted the same wines, usually 12 at a time, and we needed to come to some sort of consensus on each wine. That meant we roughly had 10-15 minutes to taste and judge the wines before awarding the medals. Do the math: 12-15 wines in 10 minutes. Yeah. You have to be quick.
Last, you have absolutely no say in what you get to taste. My first year, I had 40 Pinot Noirs between $5 and $9. That was rough. This year, in addition to “Other Red Blends” my panel had “Dry Riesling $18-23” (good), “Piedmonte Varieties $33-50” (excellent), and “Sweet Reds” (um…). Then there was this one:
The highlight for me, perhaps, was being included on the Super Panel, which was both harder and easier than the “regular” judging. The seven of us were tasked with finding the top five wines out of the finalists. It was more difficult since all of the wines had already “won” their respective class so in theory at least, they were all excellent wines. The wines were also from all categories, which meant we had to compare sparkling wines against Pinot Grigio against Cabernet Sauvignon. And we had to identify the five “best” from the lot.
It was easier, I guess, since there was no discussion, no consensus. Each judge was to choose a top five and that was it. Someone else would tabulate the scores and identify the overall winner(s).
Yesterday evening, the results of all our hard work were posted and looking through the winners, I definitely took a little pride in knowing that I was a part of the process. If you are so inclined, you can check out all the winners HERE.