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Notes from the Back Room
San Francisco Chronicle's 2010 Wine Competition

By: Michael Haran

The 27th annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in Cloverdale, California had some new features this year. Not only were there 4,913 entries this year (a 4% increase over '09) but another panel of judges was added and several new categories of wine were also added including Red Varietals and the Judge's Choice Awards.

Interns Jingyuan Yang and Darbie Tarantino
Interns Jingyuan Yang and Darbie Tarantino

Monday morning came early the week of the competition. I'd like to say that all the volunteers drag themselves into the first morning breakfast but that wasn't it. The truth was that everyone was excited to back working the competition. Some of the volunteers have been working the competition for years like Kay and Rae Swanson who have been there for 16 years and Mike Linstrom who was Bob Fraser's college roommate and got “recruited” early on. Last year's caterers were here again and again the breakfast and lunches for all participants was excellent. Old acquaintances were renewed and new friendships were starting.

After breakfast Annie Vercelli, the Wine Competition Coordinator and volunteer supervisor, addressed the volunteers which numbered just under a hundred this year. We all had to stand up and say who were, where we lived and how long we had been working the competition. This being my second year I wasn't so “wide-eyed” as last year. That was left for the new volunteers, of which there were about six, and the interns of which there were ten. One of the interns, Yuan Yang, is from Beijing and is in the wine studies program at Santa Rosa Junior College.

Annie started by thanking everyone for volunteering. She informed us that an extra panel had been added this year so we now had fourteen panels. She introduced “The Facilitators.” This is a group of about eight men and women who, all inclusive, have done every job in the backroom. A sick panel member; a panel getting behind; a bottle of “corked” wine are just some of the problems that can disrupt the flow of the competition. If a panel problem arises the facilitators step in and resolve the problem. They are Annie's safety-net.

Interns Andrea Gonzalez and Ryan Hofmann
Interns Andrea Gonzalez and Ryan Hofmann

Next up was the Executive Director himself, Bob Fraser. Bob told us about this year's judges and that he was excited about having more women judges this year. A lot has been written about the female palate and he has felt for several years that the judging panels needed more women. One of the main reasons this competition has been a big success is that Bob is such a people person. At the end of his talk he reminded everyone that we are all equals in this endeavor and that everyone, including himself, is approachable. That created a positive attitude which made our hard work a lot easier.

Annie then took us out into one of the Citrus Fair's backrooms, gave us some final instructions and we all headed to our panels. It was so cool that Deanne Edwards, my panel leader from last year, was again my panel leader this year. My fellow panel member was Steve Brown. I soon learned that Steve, who teaches an introductory computer course at SRJC, was not only smart he was also strong. That was a good thing since we would handle almost 200 cases of wine over the next three days.

We were given an intern to help us set up. His name is Ryan Hofmann and he's in his senior year at Sonoma State. His major is Business with an emphasis in the wine industry. He's from Fresno and pitched on the University's championship baseball teams. The interns are primarily enology or wine students from SRJC but the event certification is provided by SFCWC. SRJC is still the main beneficiary of this non-profit event. Bob informed us that this year Fresno State and Cal Poly San Lois Obispo will also be receiving wine from the competition for their wine studies programs.


Interns Darbie Tarantino, Elisa Hewson, Marisa Marritt and Mark Elcombe

The interns rotated through the event. During the three days of judging they were either working the judging panels or working administration with Ray Johnson, the competition's Assistant Director, doing data entry to track the entrants, their wines, the winners and their awards. Andrea Gonzalez told me that while she was working admin with Ray she, and couple of other interns, got an impromptu lecture on the history and making of Champaign. Nothing like having a wine educator as your boss.

Deanne and Steve worked one side of our horseshoe-shaped panel while Ryan and I worked the other. We had to double check all wines against the data lists and report any discrepancies. I think the wines get checked and double checked at least a half dozen times because the competition has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to entrant accuracy. The tediousness of the job was made easier because we got to look at all of the wine labels. In our panel alone we had over 300 entrants thus labels. By the end of Monday's set-up we had all of the bottles out for the next morning's first group. The glasses were numbered and we were ready to go.

Later in the day I was checking on our panel judge's cubical. In the next cubical were four of the interns (Darbie Tarantino, Elisa Hewson, Marisa Marritt and Mark Elcombe) getting instructions on how the judging works. They were busy taking notes.

The next morning, the first day of judging, we ate a nice breakfast, had an info talk from Annie and got to work. Steve and I pulled corks on the 98 $15.00 and under Cabernet Sauvignon that would be poured throughout the day. Deanne made sure everything in our panel was ready to go. We thought we would have it easy with only three judges in our panel but little did we know with only three judges the pace is a lot faster. In addition, we were lucky to get three experienced, actually four, judges which also made for a faster pace since they all knew what they were doing.


All the 2010 SFCWC interns

In our judge's cubical our panel coordinator, George Stan, a math teach at SRJC and one of the competitions original volunteers, and our panel administrator Lee Linstrom, Mike's wife, listed the judges down the left side of the blackboard and then the numbers of the first 10 wines across the top. Our judges were Christopher O'Gorman, Public Relations Merrydale Vineyards, St. Helena, CA; Dan McCoog, Director of Wine, Sommelier, Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort, Tucson, AZ; and Larry Van Aalst, Sommelier, Equus Restaurant and host of the Sonoma Report, CRN Digital Talk Radio, Santa Rosa, CA. It's so interesting watching the judges interact with each other and the panel coordinator as they debate the merits of the wines.

On Thursday, our last day of judging Laurie Daniels, journalist for 30 years and San Jose Mercury News weekly wine columnist replaced Larry Van Aalst (it's not unusual for Bob Fraser, who also serves as the head wine judge, to move judges to different panels as the need arises). Laurie seemed a little more critical than the male judges plus she was a whole lot neater when it came to the “spit bucket.”

On Friday we all got the competition early to help set up for the competition's grand finale, the Sweepstake judging. At the end of the judging Bob announced the winners. The red wine, a 2007 Pinot Noir, and the Sparkling Wine, a Brut Rose were both from the Russian River Valley. The white wine was a Gewürztraminer from Finger Lakes in New York; the pink wine was a 2008 Rosato from Amador County in California's Gold Country; with the dessert wine, which was a 2008 late harvest Gewurztraminer, from Walla Walla Valley in Washington State. Bob gave the judges' the event results in a nice binder, introduced this year's interns and thanked everyone involved (it's nice to see Annie get thanked as it's usually she that's doing the thanking).

In conclusion, toward the end of the competition I was talking to Scott Fraser, Bob's son and co-owner of www.winejudging.com. I was commenting on one particular intriguing label. He said that he had seen a label that had been drawn using a purple ink that was made from the wine that was in that very bottle. Amazing! I think I have my subject for next year's article.


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