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Notes From The Back Room
San Francisco Chronicle’s 2009 Wine Competition

By: Michael Haran

“Toasty nose,” “Grassy notes,” Fruit forward,” “Buttery oak,” “Hint of citrus,” “Floral finish,” “Wet dog!” Sounds like it must be the start of the wine competition season. And it is with the completion of the 9th annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale, California.

The competition began the previous week with the classification and palleting of this year’s entries. Although California still accounts for 90% of the U.S. wine production some of the nation’s other grape growing states such as Michigan, North Carolina, Kentucky, Iowa and New Mexico are beginning to produce some quality wines.

Inside the Cloverdale Citrus Fair’s pavilion, eight foot tables, which will hold the thousands of bottles of wine over the four day competition, were set up in into horseshoe shaped bays. These bays became the working area for each of the competition’s thirteen panels. Known as the “Back Room” this area, which is off-limits to the judges, is where the event’s wines were poured.

On Monday, the day before the competition, the approximately 100 volunteers and staff met in the Citrus Fair’s dinning room to share a continental breakfast and an event briefing. Some of the volunteers have been working the wine competition for years. A lot are local retired folks, some are wine buffs and some are wine studies students like me. Doing research for a novel I began taking viticulture class at Santa Rosa Junior College and have since moved on to enology. My interest has since gone way past research as I now have become hooked on all things wine.

Anne Vercelli, who has worked the competition for some 22 years and comes from an old time Healdsburg wine family, talked to us first. She thanked us all and said that about two-thirds of this year’s volunteers were first timers. When asked why the big turnover she replied that the increase wasn’t because of turn over it was because of event growth. She then informed us of our basic duties and explained how the week would unfold. Anne also teaches culinary classes at Santa Rosa Junior College which is the beneficiary of this non-profit competition. Since I knew Anne I had request to work with her if I was accepted as a volunteer. Little did I know that everybody works for Anne.

Bob Fraser, the competition’s Executive Director, spoke to us next. Bob, who is also Chair of Santa Rosa Junior College’s Agriculture and Natural Resources Department, told us of the history of the competition. Bob has run the competition since the second year of its inception and has since seen it grow to the largest competition of American wine in the world. It’s really the most prestigious wine competition in the country. Well, Bob warned us that it was dangerous to put a lecturer in front of a group of people but he promised to keep it short.

The first competition was held in 1983 and consisted of 45 wines from 15 wineries. Five judges tasted the wines poured from brown paper bags. The wineries could not be located more than a twenty mile radius of the Cloverdale Citrus Fairgrounds, “as the crow flies.” This year the competition consists of 4,736 wines from over 1,500 wineries which is an increase of over 10% from the previous year. He thanked us all and promised us first timers that the competition would be a rewarding experience.

After breakfast Anne gave us our assignments, thanked us and we reported to our panel area (we were panel number12 out of 13). I met my co-volunteer team; Deanne Edwards, who works as a lab tech at Hanna Winery; Angelia Avilla, who took time off from her job at Macys; and Bob Benjamin, who is a retired plumber. Angela, Bob and I were first timers and it was our team leader Deanne’s second year. Our panel’s wines included Zinfandel from $25.00 to $34.00; Sauvignon Blanc; Viognier; and Port. Three wooden glass racks were on a table in the center of our work area.

For the rest of the day we arranged our cases of wine in the order they would be tasted over the next three days. Each entry had three bottles although it was rare that we would open a second bottle let alone the third. The second and third bottles are insurance for breakage and corkage. Out of the 13,000 plus bottles handled I think there was only two broken bottles (not our panel) and we had one corked bottle so there might have been others. Diana and Angela double checked the varietal and bottle codes against a computer printout as Bob and I “foiled” the bottles that would be first tasted the next morning. In between all this we were fed a catered lunch. The caterers were good cooks and became part of our group. Feed a volunteer well and they’ll work all day.

On Tuesday we started again with a continental breakfast. Anne gathered us around, gave us some instructions and thanked us all again (Anne’s a serial “thank-you-er”). At our station Deanne already had her white apron and latex gloves on and was again double checking the codes on the wines that would be tasted first. She seemed a little nervous. I really didn’t blame her seeing that she became a team leader in only her second year. She really wanted everything to go smoothly. This is far too much pressure for me so I think I’ll just stay a worker bee.

The judging was delayed while the judges got their instructions and had a group picture taken. We took this opportunity to check out the judging “room” that our panel would be using. The rooms were created by curtain partitions in the fair’s auditorium. In each room were two eight foot, white cloth covered tables that were placed at a 45 degree angle to one another. This was so the judges could look at and talk to each other. On the tables were the judge’s name plates, water bottles, plastic spittoons, napkins and small plates of olives and bread. The olives and bread reminded me of the legendary Ridge winemaker Paul Draper who never tastes wine without food.

The five folding chairs behind the tables faced a large blackboard under which was a tin bucket. Our panel’s two coordinators Kim Philips and Cynthia Newcomb were going over their entry lists. Kim had drawn a grid on the blackboard with the judge’s names down the left side and numbers across the top. Deanne’s instincts kicked in and she shooed us all back to our station in the back room.

We first poured the Viognier. Since we had five judges a flight consisted of 10 wines times five glasses. Using a felt-tipped pen on each glass we numbered the glasses one through five along with the number of the entrant. We used latex gloves for sanitation and to keep finger prints off the glasses. The one ounce pourers really sped up the process. Bob and I placed the first rack on the cart and, as Deanne and Angela brought this initial flight to the judges, we began opening the reds to breath.

Bob and I took the next round into the judges with Deanne supervising and helping. We took the glasses from the next flight off the table and put them in wash racks. We then put the new fight in a semicircle in front of each judge. I placed the glasses for Pooch Pucilowski (Chief wine judge for the California State Fair) and Ben Pearson (General manager of Bottle Barn) while Bob placed the glasses for Christopher Sawyer (Sommelier) and Miro Teholakov (Winemaker at Tentadue Winery). We both placed glasses for Carol Shelton (Winemaker at Carol Shelton Wines). There were over 60 judges in this year’s competition that came from all over the country. They represented media, restaurant and hospitality, wine retail, wine educators, winemakers and wine industry people.

After delivering our flight we wheeled our dirty glass laden cart to the dish room where a whole crew did nothing but wash and dry glasses. One guy just flipped glasses over because if you put them upside down before the racks were on the kitchen’s sideboards the floors of the entire pavilion would have been awash in wine. If each wine was tasted five times they must have washed over 25,000 glasses. On the second day, the “flipper” didn’t show up and I was honored to be asked by Anne to serve as a replacement “flipper” on a two hour shift. Joking aside, it was hard work but a lot of fun as I got to know and work with the kitchen staff.

On the next flight that I brought to the judges I hung around to listen to them. From behind the curtain I watched Kim write a “G,” “S,” “B,” or a straight line on the blackboard. The straight line was not a good thing. And guess what? The judges really talk like that. I heard “Fruit forward,” “Crisp,” Chocolate,” and “Finish.” I also heard “Yuck!” as Pooch poured a wine into his spit cup and shook his head “no.” There is a lot of “negotiating” between the judges.

This goes on for three solid days and I don’t know how the judges do it. They taste and spit literally hundreds of wines. They do drink a lot of water and eat French bread but still that’s a lot of wine. As Bob Fraser once told me these judges have spent years developing their sensory perceptions of what today’s wine varietals should taste like. They have extraordinary palates and can detect the subtlest of flavors.

Once all the grades had been posted, the coordinators tabulated the scores. If all the judges give a wine a Gold the wine was awarded a Double Gold and got to go to the Best of Class round. This is serious business as many wineries rely on these awards to sell their wines and in this economy it’s as important as ever.

Meanwhile, back in the back room, Bob and I worked on the next flight numbering the glasses and pulling corks. The corked bottle had been discovered so Deanne and Angela were doing a re-pour. Sometimes the judges wanted a re-pour when they were trying to agree on a wine. Re-pours were also done for the Best of Class round. At the end of the day I marveled at how well our crew complemented each other. We would switch tasks seamlessly, no “accidents,” and all flights were delivered on time. Now multiply that by 13 panels and one can imagine how amazing it is to see cart after cart of wine glasses coming and going like clock work.

As our first day wound down I asked one of the “old timers” what happens to all the opened bottles of wine that were used in the tasting. He said that I would find out at the end of the day. As we were preparing for the next day’s tasting a couple of guys came by with a hand truck and collected all of the opened and unopened bottle from that day’s tasting. At quitting time we lined up by panel and were given a case of opened wine (half red & half write) to take home.

Some of the volunteers share their wine with fiends; and some, like five year veteran Stephanie Mayo, have a pot luck and invite their friends over for their own tasting competition. One old timer makes vinegar out of his share. We never knew what wines we are going to get. They could be Gold or they could be “flat liners” and if the amount in the bottle is low that means it was a good wine. All in all it’s a fun perk and it’s better than pouring some great wines down the drain.

On Wednesday, one of our panel’s judges couldn’t be there. Bob Fraser, who acts as Chief Judge as well as Executive Director, had a replacement judge lined up. Unfortunately, the replacement judge had a family emergency and couldn’t make it. Another replacement judge called and said she had gotten a cold which makes it impossible to taste wine. Because any “ties” need to be broken you can’t have an even amount of judges on any one panel. Bob moved one of our judges to another panel which worked just fine and, since it reduced our crew’s work load, it allowed me the time to go “flip.”

As the tasting results were passed on to Ray Johnson, the competition’s Assistant Executive Director, he would disappear into a room behind the kitchen. There, with several assistants, they would enter the results into a database. Since the awards are announced immediately after the “Sweepstakes” round Ray had to stay on top of the 4,736 entries approximately half of which receive awards. All of us are “sworn” to secrecy until the competition is over at 2:00 p.m. on Friday. Being the blabber mouth that I am it was driving me crazy when Amphora won Best of Class for their $25 to $34 zinfandel. I know the owner, Rick Hutchinson, who runs the small boutique winery in Dry Creek and I was dying to tell him. Not wanting to be drummed out of the corps I held my tongue. After the competition on Friday I stopped by to tell Rick the good news and to give him the empty bottle of his award winning wine as a souvenir. He was thrilled!

Our panel’s first Best of Class winner was Concannon’s 2007 Viognier. I went over to look at the bottle but it, along with the other two were gone. I asked Deanne where it had gone and she pointed to a door which led to a room in back of the hall. There stood Brad Horrall with his arms folded like he was guarding the crown jewels and, it turned out, he was. I was informed that Brad, who was also in charge of the initial classification and coding of the wines, keeps watch over the BOC winners which will be used in the tasting Sweepstakes round. Because the integrity of this event is so important the BOCs are kept separated from the other wines until after the competition is over.

Thursday was uneventful as we all got into a pretty good grove. At the end of the day Anne thanked us and said that anyone who wants to help with the Sweepstakes round had to come an hour earlier on Friday to help set up. She said that a first class breakfast would be served and you know about volunteers and food.

Friday morning everyone showed up. We set up hundreds of glasses in semicircles in front of about thirty judging stations. From above, the tables look like they were set with giant glass doilies and when the wines were poured the different colors sparkled in the glasses. During the Sweepstakes tasting, some of us removed glasses as some picked up the cards when the judges finished their scoring. As Ray took the cards to tabulate the Sweepstake winners Bob thanked everyone (including Anne) for their help in making this year’s event a big success and passed out wall plaques and t-shirts to the judges and key personnel.

Bob was right. It was really an amazing and rewarding event and I hope I’m invited back. The competition showed the future of the winemaking in America. Although most of the Sweepstakes winners came from California only one winner was from Sonoma/Napa. The sparkling wine winner was from Long Island; the white wine winner was from Monterey; the pink winner was from Temecula; one red winner was from Paso Robles and the other was from New Mexico; the dessert wine winner was from Geyser Peak in Sonoma County. Go to winejudging.com to see all ’09 winners many of which can be tasted at San Francisco’s Fort Mason on February 28. The left over wines go to SRJC’s wine and culinary programs (nothing like being taught with some of the world’s finest wines).

During a lull in one of our hectic days I remarked to our group leader Deanne that I could be a wine taster. I mean what’s to it? You smell; you taste; you spit; and then you say, in wine tasting nomenclature of course, whether you like the wine or not and how you liked it or not. She looked at me and said that she couldn’t be a wine judge. I thought that was a strange thing to say coming from a wine lab technician. When I asked her why she turned it around on me by asking me if I knew what a Cabernet Sauvignon is suppose to taste like. It then hit me. I have drunk plenty of Cabernet in my life but did I really know what a perfectly blended Cab is supposed to taste like? I had to admit that I didn’t. I think I’ll take that spring SRJC wine course 110 – Professional Wine Tasting.

(Photos Courtesy Wilfred Wong)
Click to enlarge photos.

 

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