Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Wining...well...Judging Wine in Camarillo...

A couple of months ago, the Goddess of Wine and JD were having a quiet glass of wine at the madport wine lounge (yes, all lower case), and found ourselves in conversation with winemaker Dave Lustig and his wife Nancy. One thing led to another, we exchanged cards and promises to stay in touch. Dave is a prime mover in the Cellarmasters of Los Angeles, a group of passionate home winemakers founded in 1973, who are are dedicated to promoting the culture and hobby of amateur winemaking along with the safe enjoyment of wine [from their website].

Some weeks later, I received an email asking if I would be interested in judging at the 40th Annual US Amateur Wine Competition to be held on November 23rd. If so, would I attend the free clinics on Sensory Evaluation and Wine Judging prior to the event? Of course! The classes proved to be interesting and helpful, and a great introduction to Cellarmasters. Slight disclaimer: I was already familiar with the group, as JD had been a member and purchases most of his winemaking supplies at the Home Wine, Beer and Cheesemaking Shop in Woodland Hills. The shop is owned by John Daume, who also operates Camarillo Custom Crush, where the competition was to take place.

November 23rd dawned crisp and clear, and I headed up the 101 to get there in time for a hearty breakfast prior to the event. Yes, they feed the judges. Very civilized. I found my table assignment: Native and Hybrids and Miscellaneous. I would be judging with the aforementioned Dave Lustig and wine aficionado Christopher Donnan.

The list of wines to judge was eclectic, including such native American varieties as Marechal Foch, Chambourcin, Steuben, Baco Noir, Norton, Niagara, Muscadine, and scariest of all, Concord and Catawba.

Cellarmasters uses a judging system based on the UC Davis 20-point scale. Our instructions: Determine if there are noticeable faults or flaws and grade on Appearance, Aroma/Bouquet, Balance (of acid, tannins, sugar), Body/Texture, Taste/Flavor, Finish, and Overall Quality. Each element has a specified point value. Summing the points provides the individual judge's medal recommendation, at which point the judges must come to a consensus for each wine, the result of which may turn out to be higher or lower than your individual rating. The judges are encouraged to add comments for each element in order to provide guidance to the winemakers, many of whom submit their wines in order to learn how to improve their craft. Oh, and we sign our names to the judging sheets, so there is accountability.

Tasting through these wines was educational for me as well. I was familiar with some of the grapes, but the goal was to make a judgment based on the quality of the wine in front of us - whether we liked it or not. What I found myself doing was writing questions in the comments section; was this supposed to have this color, flavor, aroma? Most wines were well-made, and some were excellent - and delicious! We awarded a few gold medals, more silvers, and a couple of bronzes, I think. As always, the discussion about the wines proved the difference in our palates, as well as personal preferences, influenced our ratings.

Over 300 wines!
We broke for a delicious and hearty lunch, after I was invited to participate in the Best of Show judging, specifically for the red wines that had been awarded gold medals. Determining Best of Show is not about the grape variety, but about the best-made wine in its class. And it's kind of like speed dating, where you taste, discuss and decide quickly which wines will make the semi-final and final cuts. Our team of Dee Dee, Andy, Suzy, and me jammed through 4 flights of 6 wines each, eliminating 3 at a time. Then we did the same for the semi-finalists, finally agreeing on one final wine. Believe me when I say that choosing one wine from the final 5 was truly difficult. There are some very talented amateurs out there making wines of such high quality that commercial wineries should take note.

The listings of the medals will be up on the Cellarmasters site shortly, and I'll provide a link to that later.

In the meantime, I want to thank Dave and the Cellarmasters for a truly educational and entertaining day.

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