Over the weekend, I attended the relatively new Toast of the Coast Wine Festival and Competition based in Del Mar, California. I was one of nearly two dozen judges recruited from around the nation.
Earlier this year, I also supervised the annual Winemaker Challenge International Wine Competition that uses professional winemakers exclusively to evaluate its wine entries. Prior to that, the San Francisco Chronicle staged its annual wine competition extravaganza to kick off the 2018 wine competition "season." And, coming up, we have wine competitions in Los Angeles, Orange County, New York and Sacramento.
Between January and November, there are one or more wine competitions somewhere in the U.S. every month. In San Diego alone, I operate four major international wine competitions. And the rest of the world is hardly immune. Over my 27 years as a wine journalist, I have judged wines at competitions in Italy, Portugal, New Zealand, Belgium, The Netherlands and Slovakia. I've also judged wines in the U.S. cities of Dallas, San Francisco, Riverside, Temecula, Mendocino, Paso Robles, Oakland, San Diego, Los Angeles and likely a few places I've long ago forgotten.
Making sense of it all can be a dizzying experience for the average consumer, the very people who are the ultimate end users of wine competition results. Here's what you need to know:
Wines are tasted blind at virtually every credible wine competition. That ensures the wines are awarded medals on the merits rather than the reputation of the producer. In the coming weeks and months, retail shelves and winery wine-club email bulletins will tout medal-winning wines.
A gold medal or best-of-class award is the ultimate compliment for any wine. It means a strong consensus of wine professionals -- people who taste and evaluate wine nearly every day in the course of doing their jobs -- were dazzled. Wine evaluation is highly subjective and fraught with personal bias, so when everyone comes together on one wine, it usually means that wine is special.
Wines that earn a silver are also a good bet because they are invariably solid and enjoyed support from most, if not all, of the judges on a given tasting panel.
And, finally, beware of bronze. While many of them turn out to be very nice wines, a bronze generally means there was lukewarm support from one or more of the judges and few, if any, were excited about the wine. That's OK if the wine costs $15 or less. And, more than that, and it's better to taste before buying in any significant quantity.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Colab and Bloom 2017 Pinot Gris, Adelaide Hills, Australia ($20) -- New World pinot gris typically trends toward lightness, making for easy drinking and immediate gratification. Colab and Bloom, however, seems to have taken a page from its brethren in the Hunter Valley, where semillon is released in an austere phase that gives way over time to voluptuousness. I don't know that this pinot gris will get there, but it's sure thinking about it. Underneath the appealing minerality that strikes at first, there is plenty of fruit lurking. While enjoyable now, this wine will show more richness and complexity in the next couple of years. At this price, a person could buy a case, and drink half now and half in a couple of years. I have no doubt it would be a rewarding experience. Rating: 94.
Chateau Souverain 2014 Chardonnay, California ($15) -- Winemaker Ed Killian is a master of restraint, crafting chardonnay with richness and depth without killing the fruit. This vintage from Souverain shows a wonderful note of lemon creme with a slightly oily texture that contributes to its easy-drinking nature, and all without sacrificing the freshness and structure that lifts chardonnay when it's done right. Well-done, Mr. Killian. Rating: 93.
Barefoot Cellars Zinfandel, Lodi ($7) -- Jen Wall's winemaking team at Barefoot Cellars does a remarkable job combining high quality with high volume, and the multivintage zinfandel is consistently one of its biggest winners. It shows a nice pepper note, spice and plenty of rich red-berry fruit. If you're thinking about a summer barbecue and you want a fab red at a budget price, you won't go wrong here. Rating: 92.
V. Sattui 2015 Zinfandel, Gilsson Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($38) -- The beauty of Russian River Valley zinfandel is its structure. The cool nights instill excellent acid balance and acidity, and the warm days ensure ripeness and flavor. The 2015 Gilsson Vineyard zin from V. Sattui is a gem, a bit of a spice bomb with complex layers of red and black fruits. It shows impressive depth and length, and a sensationally long finish. Rating: 95.