Thursday, July 27, 2023

Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

Wine competition -- Two words that can draw both praise and criticism.  Praise for competitions was common once, but today, the need for and value of wine competitions is drawing mounting criticism. 

In recent weeks, there has been chatter in the blogosphere about the need for wine competitions, so I thought I would add my personal comments and observations.  I started judging at organized wine competitions in 1978 and have since served as a wine judge at competitions in California, Texas, New York, Washington, Belgium, Italy, Chile, Australia and China.

What follows then are my personal observations, based on my experience as a judge, of the state and value of wine competitions to both the wine consumer and wine trade.

Wine Competitions: Then and Now

The history of wine competitions is hard to pin down.  Some records show that the concept originated in Europe. Europeans vintners, however, did not see the need to pit one wine against another in an organized contest, and only started holding  wine competitions after noticing the popularity of them in California and Australia. 

A flight of wines waiting to be tasted

There are two exceptions that happened not far from each other. Billing itself as the "oldest international wine competition in the world," the Ljubljana International Wine Competition was first held in 1926 in Ljubljana, Slovenia; not exactly a major wine hub, then or now. The LIWC's reputation suffered when it was rumored that all entered wines won a medal. The best I can tell, the last LIWC was in 2018.

Banco di Assagio dei Vini d'Italia, founded by the Lungarotti wine family in  Torgiano, Italy, opened in 1981, with Italian judges. Later, Banco di Assagio brought in international judges. I judged there for a few years and remember it being a good look for a writer at a lot of Italian wines in one place. Since Italian sommeliers and members of the Italian wine trade made up the bulk of the judges, there was the feeling among international judges (never verified) that the Italians were swaying voting in favor of certain Italian wines.

Wine competitions in the United States likely started long ago with the California State Fair wine competition in 1854, in Sacramento. The competition stopped for a few years but was resurrected as the Los Angeles County Fair Wine Competition (LACFWC), under the late Nathan Chroman, an LA attorney who also wrote about wine for the Los Angeles Times.  The state fair organization restarted its wine competition and is now one of the largest in California. CHECK THIS

The popularity of California wine encouraged the organization of two other wine competitions, including one sponsored by the San Jose Mercury News and a select competition in Orange County.  LACFWC operated as a standard wine competition judged by qualified judges from the wine industry, sommeliers, consumers and wine writers.  Orange County used only wine makers and wine industry members as judges, while the Mercury News competition judged the same wines twice, once by "professional" judges and then by consumers.

At about the same time, a string of U.S. competitions were held, or started up,  including San Francisco International, Northwest Enological Society Wine Competition (Seattle), Eastern Wine Competition (New York), San Diego Wine Competition and competitions that looked only at rose wines, were judged only by women, only by sommeliers and more.  


In recent years, many new wine competitions popped up, most aiming to be different from the original reason for having a competition -- to "improve the breed," by looking at a group of like wines in a controlled "blind" setting.

Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

Critics of wine competitions say that they are simply money makers, ways to make money from wine and to bring attention to the person or entity that runs the competition. Some U.S. competitions are owned and run by individuals, usually not directly connected to the wine industry. 

Other competitions are properties of a government entity such as the Los Angeles County Fair or the State of California. The latest addition is the famous Calgary Stampede in Alberta, Canada has announced it is adding a wine competition to the events, to promote Canadian agribusiness.

That's the nuts and bolts of wine competitions.  And that doesn't answer the question: Do wine competitions really improve the breed?  That is, do winemakers look at the results of wine competitions and how well their Chardonnay did against hundreds of other Chardonnays, then have their own comparative tasting to see why the judges gave a gold medal to a competitor's Chardonnay while giving a bronze medal to their own Chardonnay?  Probably not. 

Successful marketing means successful sales.  Being able to boast that your wine won an award often trumps the results of a practical tasting in the winery. Winemakers are fierce individuals who often work in isolation toward a personal idea of how a wine should taste. 

Quiet!  Judge at work

It is important to remember that a wine competition is a single test at one point in time, judged by a select group of people under unique circumstances, thus the same wine entered in different competitions, as is often done, will likely get different results. 

Knowing such things as judge qualifications, their relationship with the wine industry and the percentage of wines awarded medals versus the number of wines entered, are all indications of how well the competition is organized and run. The awards from some competitions I observed in recent months in print and online, do not list the judges names, but simply show the top winners. 

It's also helpful to know that some wine competitions are metal mills and do not take pains in recruiting qualified judges, while others are selective about judges and conduct the competition as a true consensus judging.

Still, if the competition is careful with its rules and procedures (as the Calgary Stampede claims its competition will), then wine competitions will continue to have value to both the wine industry and the wine consumer. 

Next blog: California Wine Adventures 3

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Thursday, July 20, 2023

The Pleasures of Riesling

Riesling is one of the world's great white wines. Some say that Riesling even surpasses Chardonnay in greatness.  So, why is Riesling such a hard sell, lagging so far behind Chardonnay in sales? 


According to Drizly's sales data for the last 12 months, two California Chardonnays made the Top-10 white wines: Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve (8th) and Josh Cellars (10th).  Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio dominate Drizly's Top 10 list. There are no German Rieslings or other varietal Rieslings in the Top-10, but Drizly's does mention that Black Girl Magic California Riesling is one of the fastest growing white wines. 

An aside. The Black Girl Collection of wines is from the McBride Sisters Wine Company in Oakland, California.  McBride Sisters is a Black-owned wine company, started by half-sisters, one born and raised in Monterey, the other in New Zealand. They met in New York and soon realized they shared a love of wine, which led to forming the company.  

Drizly is an online marketplace for beer, wine, liquor and any beverage with alcohol. Drizly offers home delivery service.

There are numerous reasons why Riesling sales are slow. Despite the thousands of written (and spoken) words, practically guaranteeing Riesling's versatility from dry to sweet, consumers still consider Riesling only a sweet wine. 

The reason may be that too many American wine drinkers still talk dry but drink sweet. Or, perhaps it's because the U.S. market is still suffering from a hangover from when California and New York wineries cranked out oceans of white wine labeled "Riesling" that were likely made from anything but Riesling? 

Also obvious (at least to me) is the German wine industry has not marketed Riesling strong enough in the face of surging Chardonnay sales. Some sources claim that Riesling and German wine sales are on the rise and the German wine industry claims to be making more dry Rieslings with every new vintage.

So, perhaps a fresh look at Riesling, the grape and the wine, may encourage some readers to pass on Chardonnay long enough to enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Riesling: The Grape

Germany has the distinction of being the northern-most wine region in the Northern Hemisphere.  Riesling (Reece-ling), a cold weather variety benefits from this northern exposure and over time, Riesling vines have developed harder stems than other white varieties and that means a stronger chance of surviving a harsh winter.

Riesling is a low-alcohol grape that produces a high level of acidity and residual sugar. This combination allows winemakers to make a wide range of wines, from dry to sweet. When the world wine community was promoting dry while wines, and consumers were turning to Alsace for drier Rieslings, German Rieslings were off-dry or noticeably sweet.  

Concentrated sweetness

Wine marketers and consumers complained about the sweetness levels of German Rieslings, prompting German producers to counter with trocken (dry) Rieslings. This proved problematic for the American wine drinker as they rejected trocken Rieslings as unpleasant to drink, especially as an aperitif, which often did not include food.

At last count, there are 60 Riesling clones, all different from each other, although the differences are small. Mainly the clones vary in aromatics, from very subtle to a few clones so aromatic that they could easily be mistaken for a different grape, like Muscat. 

Riesling is an early ripening variety and when it is cultivated in warmer climates, like some parts of California and Australia, the grape loses much of its unique mineral and floral aroma and flavor characteristics, and the wines lose acidity and taste flat.  Where the climate is more temperate, like California's Anderson Valley, Riesling retains its crisp acidity and fruit salad flavors. 

Riesling: The Wine

Riesling does not take to oak, especially new oak and when it is aged in oak uprights, Riesling loses a lot of its charm.  Thus, stainless steel and Riesling is an ideal pairing.  Fermenting Riesling in stainless, brings out the grape's ample and attractive aromatics and flavors.  

Characteristic flavors of drier Rieslings are mineral, earthy, smoky, floral, green apple, even spice.  Riper wines lean more to stone fruits like peaches, apricots and pineapple, sometimes with a lime/citrus note. 

German Rieslings usually finish with alcohols between 10% to 12%, while those from warmer areas can register about 12%.  Rieslings have mouth-watering acidity, but when total acidity is low, the wine tastes a little flat and syrupy. 


The German system of quality for white wines, based on grape ripeness, is precise and worth knowing. At one end are Qba wines (quality wine from a specific region). The alcohol of Qba wines can be increased by the addition of sugar, known as chaptilization, named for the Frenchman who devised the procedure.  Chaptilization in German is susssreserve or "reserved sweetness." 

Above Qba are wines made from riper grapes known as pradikat (The steps, from driest to sweetest are: Kabinet, Spatlese, Beerenauslese, Trockenbeerenauslese, Eiswein (Ice Wine). The driest German wines are labeled trocken. The majority of pradikat wines are Kabinet and Spatlese.

Elsewhere, notably California and Australia, Rieslings are sold as varietal wines and may have a sweetness notation on the front or back label. However, despite efforts by some California wineries and wine writers to provide more information about residual sweetness, many wineries continue to bottle without it. 

Dry or sweet, German or Californian, select a style and enjoy the many pleasures of Riesling.

Next Blog: Are Wine Competitions Still Relevant?

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Thursday, July 13, 2023

California Wine Adventures 2

In the first "California Wine Adventure," my introduction to wine covered a lot of ground, from France to South Carolina, Colorado and California.  Chapter 2 delves more deeply into my experiences as a Colorado-based wine writer looking for my first California wine adventure.


Here's the scenario: In the early 1970s, as the country was about to embrace wine in a big, unprecedented way, and I am in Colorado trying to launch a career as a wine writer, when all of the exciting things about wine were happening in California.

Wine writing in the United States then was in its infancy, with only a handful of people like Robert Misch, Alexis Lichine, Ruth Ellen Church and Robert Balzer contributing wine columns to large metropolitan newspapers in cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.  My plan was to join them as a wine writer, although I soon realized that it would be an uphill climb.

U.S. markets for wine writing in the early 1970s included newspapers, in-flight magazines, city magazines and what were then known as "buff" magazines, including those for wine buffs. 

The Denver print market was promising, with two newspapers, a city magazine and a small listener's guide that featured articles about music, food, art and wine, put out by the local classical music radio station.

KVOD Guide was edited by a good friend of mine who asked me to write a lifestyle piece for the guide that would somehow connect classical music with wine. It just so happens that Denver's leading wine shop, Harry Hoffman Liquor, was selling a German import with a likeness of Ludwig van Beethoven on the label. I did a little research on the wine, made a few connections and submitted my story, complete with a copy of the wine label that I had successfully soaked off the bottle...after I drank the wine.


Classical music is a major part of my life, and the wine and classical music concept was fun to write about, but I had set my sights on a wider wine audience, so I contacted Wine World, a wine magazine out of California with national distribution. 

My goal was to improve my wine writing creds, so I looked around for a Colorado wine story and found Gerald Ivancie, an eccentric Austrian-born dentist, who had opened Ivancie Winery in 1968 in downtown Denver. 

In the beginning, the fulfillment of Ivancie's dream depended on using California grapes shipped across two mountain ranges in refrigerated trucks.  And he hired Warren Winiarski as his wine making consultant.  Winiarski was then a grape grower in the Napa Valley, who would later open Stag's Leap Wine Cellars. 

California grapes were a high-ticket expense for Ivancie, so he only used them for two years, then switched to grapes from maturing vineyards around Grand Junction. Today, Colorado boasts over 100 wineries, drawing from vineyards mainly on the Western Slope.  

What made Ivancie wines unique in Denver was the market was beginning to build interest in California wines and Ivancie was the only commercial Colorado winery to use California grapes.  It was a good story, but Ivancie wines, including a rare (for the early 1970s) Pinot Noir, were too expensive and they languished on the shelves of Denver wine shops.

Nevertheless, the Ivancie story in Wine World was good for me as it opened the door for more assignments, so my friend and former Air Force colleague, Jack Whidden, who was the photographer for the Ivancie story, planned a trip to northern California. 


But before heading to California, I made a pitch to the editors of the Rocky Mountain News, since the Denver Post had a weekly wine column.  Sensing that wine interest was on the rise, the editors agreed and I was on my way to being a wine columnist.  The "Rocky," as it was known, stopped publishing in 2009, a fate too many newspapers experience today.

At the time I started writing for the Rocky Mountain News, a major overhaul of Larimer Square, the historic part of Denver, was just taking shape and Colorado businessman, Ray Duncan, owner of Napa Valley's Franciscan Vineyards, thought  that a Franciscan tasting room would fit in nicely.  And I though that it would be a good story for the Rocky.

Colorado's nascent wine industry was yet to take off, so the addition of a wine tasting room in downtown Denver would add variety to the attractions for bigger things to come.  In the early 1970s, Ivancie Winery, Colorado Mountain Vineyards and Plum Creek Winery, spearheaded the proposed expansion.

With the interest in wine exploding in the early 1970s, California winery owners and winemakers were eager to tell their story. So I managed invitations to visit John Parducci, Parducci Wine Cellars in Mendocino, Joe Heitz, Heitz Wine Cellars, Napa Valley and Richard Graff, Chalone Vineyard in the Gavilan Mountains of Monterey County.

In Chapter 3 of "California Wine Adventures," to be posted August 4, 2023, I recall joining a Colorado wine tasting group with the same name as a breakfast cereal, fondly remember my first taste of a memorable Sauternes, and pay a visit to a musical winemaker on a California mountain.


Next blog: The Pleasures of Riesling

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Thursday, July 6, 2023



By most estimates, there are about a half dozen top Italian red wines: Taurasi, Brunello di Montalchino, Chianti Classico, Barbaresco, Amarone. And last, but not certainly not least, say a legion of fans, is Barolo

There are a number of reasons why wine fans consider Barolo special. Maybe it's because Barolo the wine comes from a place named Barolo.  Perhaps it's because the name rolls off your tongue so easily. Or, it could be that Barolo is from Italy, practically everybody's favorite vacation spot.  

All good reasons, but they miss the most important point: the wine itself.  Here are four tributes from wine people on why they think Barolo is special. 

The late British wine writer Cyril Ray wrote sparingly in 1967 about Barolo, in his award-winning book "The Wines of Italy," but he clearly described the differences between Barolo and Barbaresco. "Considered rather superior to its close relative Barbaresco, because of its greater capacity for aging in bottle, (Barolo) is usually very slightly the fuller and heavier." 

Bill Traverso, a Californian who has sold many a bottle of Barolo, echoed Ray with these words: "Barolo is one of Italy's great wines due to its sense of place, structure, age-worthiness and complex flavors."

"...the first Barolo I tried overwhelmed me; as I recall, it took four or five experiences before I saw the light," wrote Burton Anderson in his seminal 1980 book,"Vino."  Anderson described Barolo as an "extraordinary" wine.

And in his book "Italian Wine," here's Victor Hazan on Barolo: "...Barolo has always been the one red wine to turn to in Italy when one looked for grandeur, for a wine able to temper force with refinement." 

The Heart of Barolo 

Across the top of the boot, from Liguria to Friuli, Italy is a complex land of broad green plains, deep lakes and soaring mountains. The fertile expanse contains no fewer then seven wine regions.  Barolo is in land-locked Piedmont, hemmed in by Liguria, Valle d'Aosta, Lombardy, Trentino Alto-Adige, Veneto and Friuli.


Barolo and Barbaresco are varietal wines, made 100% from Nebbiolo, Italy's top red wine grape. Other Piemontese red wines that use Nebbiolo as a base, such as  Gattinara and Ghemme are required by law to blend Nebbiolo with an "ABC" trio of grapes: Arneis, Bonardo and Croatina, and a few others.

The character of Barolo varies by vineyard location. The heart of Barolo, where Nebbiolo grows at its finest, are the communes of Barolo and Castiglione Falletto, plus La Morra, Monforte d'Alba and Serralunga d'Alba.  These five communes produce 87% of all Barolo.

La Morra and Barolo wines are softer, fruitier and tend to age sooner.  Monforte and Serralunga Barolos are more intense, structured and age slowly. Castiglione wines split the difference.

Additions to the list were made in 1966, but today the five original districts are considered the true Barolo. In the same year, Barolo was granted DOC status and in 1980, it was elevated to DOCG.

Italian regulations for DOCG require a three year minimum aging, of which 18 months must be in "wooden barrels."  Barolo Riserva requires five years of aging, 18 months of which must be in wood. 

"Wooden barrels" is a non-specific requirement that allows for winemaker discretion about the type of wood to be used.  French oak is the preferred choice today, but Barolo wineries have a history of using chestnut for barrels or large upright casks. However, chestnut vessels are often coated on the inside to temper  the wood's strong tannins.                                


The color of Barolo is never opaque, but like Pinot Noir, is medium ruby, with an early tendency to evolve to brick-red. Barolo smells of ripe black cherries and roses.  And with age, Barolo takes on scents of anise and tar.  Barolo is a powerful concentrated wine with ample tannin and bracing acidity.

There are hundreds of different Barolos in the market today. That means, of course, popularity has pushed prices into the stratosphere and that's not an exaggeration!  Most Barolos are in the $40 to $60 price range, but many are priced in the hundreds...a 1.5 liter of 1967 Mascarello is going for $1,000.

Here are eight reliable Barolo producers that more or less fit into the $40-$60 range: Vietti, Giuseppe Rinaldi, Giuseppe Mascarello, Paolo Scavino, Giacomo Conterno, Giacomo Borgogno, Vajiri, Elio Grasso. 


Next blog: California Wine Adventures 2

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