Above: Organizer of the San Diego International Wine Competition Robert Whitley (right) is a “larger than life” kinda guy. The best part of the event was his telling the story of almost getting his lights punched out by Joe Namath in 1969 at Broadway Joe’s NYC bar Bachelor III in 1969. Duncan Williams (left) is the senior winemaker at Fallbrook Winery in northeastern San Diego. He makes an awesome Sangiovese Rosé (no kidding, I tasted it with him a few years ago), writes a column for the San Diego Union-Tribune, and I was stoked to be on the same panel as he.
What does a guy like me feel like at the San Diego International Wine Competition? Like an Italian werewolf.
As flattered as I was to be asked to sit as a judge and as curious as I was to taste such a far-reaching sampling of American wines, I was probably the most unlikely candidate for the job. But I tried to embrace my duties with an open mind and heart: as I judged the wines with my tasting group — Duncan Williams (above) and Ron Rawilson of Ortman Wines (super cool dude) — I tried to evaluate them for the intention of the winemaker and the category for which they were created.
Above: I was psyched to catch up with fellow judges GlobalPatriot (left, author of an awesome geopolitical food and wine blog) and SF publicist extraordinaire Kimberly Charles whom I’ve known since my earliest days of food and wine writing back in NYC more than a decade ago. Nice folks…
Of the 191 Chardonnays submitted to the competition (the largest category), I was faced with the onerous task of tasting 32 of them — all of them barriqued. In the wake of the tasting, I needed a toothpick to extract the oak chips from my tongue.
I regret to report that Chardonnay and Merlot represented the two top categories submitted by the mostly American winemakers. Are we stuck in the 80s? Oops, I forgot to take down the Nagel from my living room.
Above: Linda McKee is a winemaker in Pennsylvania and very simpatica lady. It was really cool to hear her talk about Elmer Swenson, a legendary grape breeder who developed hybrids for American viticulture.
The pleasant-surprise wine for me was a Seyval Blanc (yeah, you’ve never heard of it either) grown in New York and vinified in Wisconsin: Prairie Fumé (ha!) from the Wollersheim winery in Prairie du Sac, WI.
The wine, which happened to land in one of our flights, tied for “best in show white.” It was delicious, with bright (clean, not acidified) acidity, good fruit, and balanced alcohol (11%, yes!, according to the fact sheet on the wine). I was thoroughly impressed and I am evermore convinced that hybrid grapes (Blanc du Bois in Texas, for example) are the key to making good, honest wine (that doesn’t need to be “corrected” in the cellar) in our country.
Above: Was it a sort of contrapasso that I had to taste 32 barriqued Chardonnays and 19 barriqued Merlots? And don’t forget the 17%+ Zinfandels. I think I’ve paid my dues at this point!
All in all it was a great experience — if only for the schmooze factor — and I was geeked to finally get to meet and taste with Robert, whose palate and schtick I greatly admire.
The moment that sticks out the most in my mind was when Duncan asked rhetorically, why do winemakers still make Chardonnay like this? It’s really such a neutral grape that doesn’t perform well in this style.
It led me to coin a neologism: ChardonNO!