import: January 2006 Archives

This is the Year

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I’ve never done one of those “bold prediction” columns before. I’ve also never had a blog before at the beginning of a new year, where I could just call it like I see it. So here goes.

I predict that 2006 will be the beginning of end of the dominance of the 100-point scale for rating wine.

One of the surest signs is the long-awaited appearance of the new, improved “American Gold Medal Wines” for 2006. The first edition was interesting, but it felt like an amateur fan-zine for wanna-be wine geeks. The new edition is what the concept deserves: a well-designed guide that pretty much guarantees you will never buy another dud wine.

Here’s how it works. The editors of the guide get the published results from the top 20 wine competitions in the country. Then they organize them by grape variety, price level, and the kind of medal(s) they got. Let’s say you’ve got a party coming up and want a couple of cases of good Merlot that costs ten bucks or less. Go to the Merlot chapter, and there are almost two pages of them.

I’d surprise my party guests with the Huntington Wine Cellars 2002, which won a gold medal and best-of-class distinction from the Los Angeles County Fair in 2005. But you could also pick from plenty of reliable, big-name wineries.

The beauty of this concept is that you can trust it.

In contrast, all the 100-point rating schemes are black boxes, meaning you don’t really know how the scores got awarded. Was Robert Parker sitting at the winery, tasting with the winemaker? Was Stephen Tanzer tasting 20 wines in his office in New York or 50 wines in a tasting room in Walla Walla? Was Jim Laube really tasting blind or did he know whose wines were in the bottle? I’m not saying they are manipulating us, I’m saying we don’t know which conditions applied to which wines. There are too many variables, too much subjectivity, too few checks and balances.

It's exactly the opposite with medals.

The wine competitions are blind, the conditions don’t change, and every wine goes through the same process. There are three to five people on every panel that conducts initial scans of the wines that are entered, and then the whole group of judges at the competition votes on which wines get the top awards. Often the people who run a competition in one part of the country judge for other competitions in another part, to keep current with best practices. Some of the judges are the same, too, ensuring some consistency on a national basis.

At my first competition, for the Dallas Morning News, my panel captain was Dr. Robert Small, who runs the LA County Fair competition. I did not know this at the time, so I had no preconceptions. He turned out to be a thoughtful, careful judge, good at communicating his point of view and also at making sure our panel did not just pump out a bland consensus. I must not have embarrassed myself too badly, because he subsequently invited me to judge at his event.

Last year, my panel at LA County Fair included Debbie Zachareas of Bacar restaurant in San Francisco, Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe winery and vineyard in Santa Barbara County, and Mark Gardner, who heads the Lodi Woodbridge Grape Commission. I pride myself on being able to concentrate for long periods without losing my edge. These people were razors for three days. In the lunch line I spotted dozens of people who command similar respect.

A couple years back, I was on a panel that had a lot of Italian wines. At one point I had a quick exchange in Italian with the judge next to me, Antonio Paolini, from the newspaper Il Messaggiero in Rome. Just wanted to make him feel welcome. To my amazement, everyone at the table joined in – in Italian. Did they know their Italian wine? Oh yes they did.

The point is, the competitions are legit. You can quibble about which ones are the best, but the medals are meaningful across the board: not one man’s opinion, but the results of a grueling competition involving winemakers, winegrowers, wine buyers, wine writers, and wine collectors. With the new “American Gold Medal Wines,” you can turn those results into better buying decisions with every bottle.

So feel free to ditch the numbers and go with the medals this year. Heck, according to this man’s opinion, everyone will be doing it.

- Thom Elkjer
Check out my regular wine coverage at www.winecountry.com.

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