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Three arbiters forecast trends and reveal secrets of a killer Cab

By Lisa Crovo Dion

The judges hail from different industries, backgrounds and locations, but at the largest competition of American wines in the world, everyone brings something to the party.

For Deborah Parker Wong it’s a career in media, writing for Tasting Panel Magazine, Sommelier Journal and Cheers. Professor Barry Gump teaches beverage management at Florida International University and William Bloxsom-Carter is the food and beverage director and executive chef at the Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

Judging Snapshots
Deborah Parker Wong
Judging Snapshots
Dr. Barry Gump
Judging Snapshots
William Bloxsom-Carter

All three were professional judges this year at the annual San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.

From as near as Napa and as far as Florida, the judges invited to this competition brought knowledge and passion along with their trained palates to assist in determining the fates of the more than 5,000 entrants.

Between tasting the seemingly endless flights of wine at last month’s competition, these judges shared their thoughts about wine trending for 2011, consumer education and what it takes to claim the coveted status of a double-gold award.

Quality, economics, alt wines drive trends

“Wines are getting better all the time,” says Gump, “The industry is expanding across the entire country, academic programs are springing up to assist new winemakers and winery owners and as a result, the quality is constantly improving.”

Gump also notes that quality is going up as price points have gone down in many cases. “People are buying more in the $15 to $20 range rather than $35 to $40 and in this tier we are seeing some exceptional wines.” Good news for value-seeking enthusiasts.

Bloxsom-Carter observes wine drinkers seeking alternatives to Chardonnay and wine makers crafting more easygoing wines. “Winemakers are making wines more accessible to consumers,” he says. “Wines are less austere and lighter with more residual sugar and blending to make them more comfortable on the palate,” he says.

Parker Wong notices a movement toward single varietal wines that have not previously been considered international or global, citing some obscure varieties like old-vine Carignan; Glera used to make Prosecco in the Veneto; the signature variety of Fronsac called Negrette in the Southwest region of France and Assyrtiko, a refreshing white from Greece as examples.

“I think we’re going to see a lot more of these lesser varietals shining, being written about and reaching consumers,” she says.

All three pointed to Virginia and Missouri among emerging wine-producing regions on the national landscape. Gump added that Austrian glassmaker Riedel introduced stemware specifically designed for Norton, the official grape of Missouri.

Many paths to knowledge

When it comes to consumer education, the judges’ advice ranges from joining wine clubs and buying direct from the source to fostering relationships with local wine merchants to attending tasting events like the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting or Pebble Beach Food & Wine. And there is always research — ferreting out information from print and digital media sources.

Bloxsom-Carter favors tasting events. “Go around and taste whites that interest you first, then do a loop around the room tasting one specific varietal of red at a time,” he suggests. “Don’t mix different types or you’ll blow your palate out.”

Demographics play a huge role in the way consumers are educating themselves about wine, according to Parker Wong. She sees millennials, gen-xers and boomers all gathering information in different ways and from various sources.

“I might send boomers and gen-xers to Wine Spectator but I wouldn’t send millennials. They don’t give a fig about scores. They’re reading tasting notes online at Snooth (snooth.com) and Wine-Searcher.com and in places like Sommelier Journal. They also rely on peer consensus and digital and social media to make decisions.”

Gump leans toward a personal approach, advising enthusiasts to avail themselves of the wealth of knowledge in their own front yards. “Don’t disregard commercial vendors who know a lot about wine and trends. The better places offer samples and will get to know you and offer suggestions to help you discover new wines.”

What makes a winner

So, when it comes to a double-gold or a sweepstakes winning wine, what is a professional taster looking for? Our judges each sum up what defines perfection for them in a well-known varietal — Cabernet Sauvignon.

“A beautiful entry — cassis, black cherry, mild underlying herb in the nose,” says Bloxsom-Carter of his perfect Cab. “Flavor in the mid palate — not black pepper or heat — mild spice like nutmeg or cinnamon with some complexity and body or density. It shouldn’t feel watery.”

And the finish? “Long with hint of vanilla and toastiness from the oak barrels but not overpowering enough to kill the fruit in your mouth.”

Gump is after rich fruit and toast intensity in a Cabernet, “A big wine, a lot of mouthfeel and a finish that goes on forever,” he says.

Balance between acidic tannins and fruit is first and foremost in Parker Wong’s ultimate Cab. “It’s not a shy grape, it could have cassis, a touch of pyrazines in the form of mint, tannin structure and complexity and enough grip. And of course minerality (the soil, stone and shale types of mineral composition that influence a finished wine). Minerality is the holy grail of New World winemakers — a quality we prize in Old World wines and search for in New World wine.”

“Cabernet, like any other wine, is a beverage that performs best in a social environment,” says Parker Wong. “Wine is food.”

Sustenance aside, wine brings people together. And this time you can be the judge — head to the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition Public Tasting to sniff, swirl, taste — and judge — for yourself.
 

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